In 1963, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office published The Reshaping of British Railways. This document, densely worded and packed with lists, tables and maps, is better known as the Beeching Report, and led to the closure of thousands of miles of railways and stations. It brought Dr Richard Beeching into public prominence, a man previously little known outside the worlds of science and business.
The report, and the events that followed its publication, turned its writer into a kind of public hate figure, synonymous with the destruction of not just a railway network, but also a way of life. Sixty years on, little has changed. Few public figures in modern Britain have endured such continuous opprobrium over so long a period.
At its peak, in around 1910, Britain’s railway network included about 20,000 miles of active lines, all built by private companies during an 80-year period of competitive, and sometimes chaotic growth. In this classic example of rampant Victorian capitalism, money was the goal, and there were winners and losers.
Among the former were bankers, investors, manufacturers, industry and the national economy. The British public was also a winner. For the first time in history, people were able to travel long distances overland at reasonable cost, and at speeds hitherto inconceivable. It is said that the railways hugely improved the national gene pool by breaking the centuries-old habit of intermarrying within small rural communities.
Reshaping the landscape
The main loser was the British countryside, devastated by decades of railway construction. Most railways were built by hand by huge gangs of itinerant navvies, who moved from one project to another, and so the impact on the countryside was considerable.
The landscape was torn apart to create embankments, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts and other railway-related structures. The navvies, hard-working, hard-living and badly paid, were often like an invading army, living off the land they occupied.
Though all railways had to have parliamentary approval, there were no planning laws and environmental concerns simply did not exist. But all this chaos had a silver lining. By the end of the Victorian era, practically every town, and many villages, were connected to the railway network. Indeed, competition by rival companies had ensured that some places were served by two, or even three stations on separate lines. Remote and formally inaccessible places were opened up, and the local economies thrived.
The railways were crucial developers of tourism; their growth paralleled by new attitudes towards leisure and holidays. Most resorts in Britain were either created by, or dependent upon, the railways, which also made areas of scenic beauty accessible.
The countryside quickly recovered from the ravages of railway construction and by the end of the century, the lines and their routes were seen by many to have made a positive contribution.
Successful railways were huge generators of wealth, particularly freight traffic. Indeed, the decline of the railways from the 1950s can be linked directly to the gradual erosion of freight business by road transport. Until that point, Britain’s Big Four railway companies – Southern Railway (SR), Great Western Railway (GWR), London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMSR) – had continued the success story of the Victorian era.
The 1920s and 1930s were a golden era when railways were well-run, fast, efficient, modern, stylish and profitable. All this came to an end in 1939. During the Second World War the railways, privately owned yet under government control, were essential to the successful management and operation of the war. Yet by the end of the war, the network was in a terrible state, caused by overuse, lack of maintenance and enemy action.
For the Labour government, state ownership of key national assets was an article of faith, so on 1 January 1948, the nationalised British Railways took over the network. At first, it was a success. More people than ever were travelling by train and British Railways was able to maintain profitability until about 1954.
By 1960, the operating loss was more than £60m. The new Conservative government was not prepared to tolerate such losses and so on 15 March 1961, Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport, announced the appointment of Dr Beeching as chairman of the British Railways Board.
The brief was simple: to make the railways pay. The former scientist set to work at once on the preparation of his report. Strict cost analysis methods were applied in an arbitrary manner to every line, station, yard and works, and by 1963 Beeching knew that the only way to achieve the unachievable was to radically reduce the size of the network. His report recommended the closure of more than 2,000 stations, along with thousands of miles of the network.
The publication of the report was controversial. It was attacked by the Labour party, the trade unions and the public, but supported by a government committed to profit-making and under pressure from the road lobby.
Breaking up the network
Line by line, station by station, the closures were announced and, although there were many battles both inside and outside parliament, most of them went through.
Soon, demolition gangs were at work all over the country, tearing the network apart. Destruction was widespread, with major structures being removed to make sure closure was permanent. The main closure period was the 1960s, which saw the loss of branches, rural routes and many main lines. It carried on through the early 1970s but at a much slower rate and, although the last Beeching-inspired closures happened in the 1980s, by then the tide had begun to turn.
The Beeching Axe became the symbol of the era, though Beeching himself described it as “surgery, not mad chopping”. There is no doubt he believed in the railways, and his vision for the future was a network stripped down but rebuilt to modern high speed standards, offering fast inter-city routes for passengers and freight. This was in his second report, published in 1965, but the government put that at the back of a deep shelf, and Beeching returned to science. In other circumstances, Britain could have had its own high-speed network by the early 1970s.
The legacy today
Any assessment of the Beeching era today, 60 years on, has to look beyond the simple economics that inspired the report and its aftermath. At the time, closing a line losing £10,000 a month or a year seemed an obvious and easy way to save money. Social implications, the effects of line or station closures on local communities, or the impact on families or businesses dependent upon the railway were rarely considered. Then, the tentacles of the car-owning democracy did not reach into west Wales, north Norfolk or the Highlands of Scotland, and the bus services supposed to replace the trains were always inadequate and often disappeared quickly.
As a result, large areas of rural Britain were plunged into isolation, with the roots of the local economy torn out, and ending up miles from any railway station. Shops and businesses suffered, along with local employment. People were forced to find jobs away from their communities, resulting in longer and often more difficult journeys. Cars, hitherto regarded as local transport, were, from necessity, used for longer journeys.
More importantly, the railway network, deprived of branches and rural routes that had acted as mainline feeders, saw passenger numbers drop steadily and freight and parcel services cut back. Many large country towns and holiday resorts, deprived of their railway, faced long-term decline. Whole regions were virtually abandoned, with all the attendant social issues still unresolved.
With hindsight, Dr Beeching did his best with an impossible brief. There was far too much route duplication and many lines were underused. However, his response, driven by politics, was too extreme. Now, the real costs are apparent. Britain, reluctantly approaching a post-car economy, needs many of the lines that Beeching took away, but cannot afford to rebuild them. The real costs of the closure programme, particularly in rural areas, are now infinitely greater than the savings achieved at the time.
However, there have been gains. Thanks to sustainable transport charity Sustrans, Britain has more than 10,000 mile of cycleways, many along former railways, and many local councils have opened footpaths along other railway routes. Elsewhere in the landscape are the uncharted remains of forgotten railways, sometimes complete with bridges, viaducts, station platforms and other relics, offering to explorers a picturesque vision of a lost railway world. On a more practical note, heritage and preserved railways are a vibrant and valuable part of the local economy all over Britain. Without Beeching, they could not have existed.
Walking old railway lines
All over Britain the trackbeds of closed railways have been turned into footpaths and cycleways. Organisations such as Sustrans have worked with local councils and regional authorities to create a nationwide network, using former railway routes whenever possible. Funding has ensured that surfaces are prepared and maintained, structures made safe and missing bridges replaced.
Many former branch lines are part of this network. A good example is the Tees Valley Path in Yorkshire, which follows much of the route of the former branch line from Barnard Castle to Middleton-in-Teesdale. Opened in 1868, the railway made a remote and spectacular landscape accessible. The six-mile route is enlivened by surviving stations, handsome stone bridges and a fine five-arched viaduct, making it a classic railway walk.
One of the major long-distance routes closed during the Beeching era was the Somerset and Dorset Line from Bath to Bournemouth. For decades this dramatic main line across the Mendips lay abandoned. Now, long stretches southwards from Bath, including tunnels, viaducts and bridges old and new, are coming back to life as a multi-use trail. Further south, other sections have already been opened, making it an exciting way to explore what had been one of the most memorable railway journeys in the south of England.
Reopening lost lines
Since the 1990s, a number of lines closed by Beeching, or reduced to freight-only status, have been reopened to passengers, and in each case usage has exceeded expectations. New stations have also been built, and more routes and stations are under construction or being planned. Some routes are quite short, designed to fulfil changed local needs, while others are major undertakings, such as the reopening of the Waverley route southwards from Edinburgh into the Borders.
Indeed, Scottish and Welsh governments have been much more proactive about railways. Official and industry reports have indicated that every town in Britain with more than 15,000 inhabitants should have a railway, but the cost of fulfilling such a programme is massive, and inconceivable in present circumstances. However, it indicates both an awareness of the future importance of railways and an acceptance that the country, and country towns, matter. Most of the places on the list once had a railway, and so the plan is simply to put it back, using the former route wherever possible. It is an irony that the money spent on the privatisation process could have paid for all of the planned reopenings.