Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Dr Beeching

Today is 50 years since the publication of Reshaping of Britain's Railways - the Beeching Report. You can download a copy and the maps if you follow the link. Notorious amongst railway fans, he became the bad guy in the story of the closure of thousands of miles of railways routes around the country.

As someone who is quite a rail fan, it is a sad period. In the 60s, lines were closed, and there was something quite poignant about the site of old lines gathering weeds, the track being taken up, and eventually bridges over roads disappearing. I remember as a kid going with my dad to a sale of railway surplus near Derby station. We came home with several bits and pieces, including a clock from Rockingham station.

Beeching is always quoted as the baddie, and reluctant as I am to clear his name, he probably needs his case put. He was given a brief to make the railways pay, and some of what he proposed was necessary. There were sleepy branch-lines with hardly any traffic, and the 'modernisation' plans that BR put in place hadn't kept up with the upgrades on the continent. They were still making steam locos at the end of the 50s. Merger of rail companies had meant lines were duplicated, so some simplification made sense under one operator. In fact a lower level of closures had been steadily underway for years prior to Beeching.

Of course Beeching couldn't just close lines on his own authority and whim. This was a report, and it needed government support for implementation. At the time of his appointment, Marples was Minister of Transport - a man with a history of links to the road industry, and this aroused suspicion. However, many closures happened during the Wilson Labour government, although not all the proposed closures were implemented.

However, the stories abound. railwaymen have told me about people with clipboards recording passenger numbers at very quiet times of the day to ensure the statistics favoured closure. Another one told me of the internal rivalries between people who had been employed by different companies. For example the ex-LNER Nottingham Victoria to Marylebone route was better engineered than the older ex-LMS route from Nottingham Midland. Once it came under Midland region, the Victoria route was doomed.

The success or failure of Beeching is still debatable. The financial savings were not as great as expected, partly due to unforseen increases in costs, and partly due to passenger revenue dropping on main lines due them no longer being fed so well by branch lines. Some lines were closed for being in deficit, but the deficit was so small, it made hardly any difference to the overall total.

Perhaps the biggest problem was the failure to put measures in place to protect the right-of-way in case circumstances changed in the future. Property was sold off - probably very cheaply - without regard to possible future use for transport. Building developments have closed off many routes, either frustrating preservation enthusiasts on heritage lines, or preventing a rail solution being implemented for traffic and travel congestion. The high price of HS2 shows what it costs if you have to start from scratch.

However, some Beeching closures have been reversed. He proposed closing Nottingham-Worksop, and some of that route only survived in order to serve collieries. Now it is a passenger line again, having had the gaps reinstated. In Scotland, a substantial section of the Edinburgh-Hawick route is being reconstructed, and other re-openings may yet be seen 50 years on.

Beeching probably doesn't deserve the wholehearted condemnation he receives from railway enthusiasts, but with the 20:20 vision of hindsight, a lot of infrastructure removed as a result of his report would be very helpful to have today.

1 comment:

Mark Bratton said...

Beeching lived in Berkswell in the 60's in the 'Tower House' now owned and occupied by one of my churchwardens. Unsurprisingly, Berkswell station survived. Apparently, Beeching often flagged down the Glasgow-London train for a 'scheduled' unscheduled stop.