vol 8, issue 4

50 years after Beeching: the UK railway network today

12 April 2013
By Christian Wolmar
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Alton railway station in Alton, Staffordshire

Alton railway station is now owned by the Landmark Trust after being shut down following the Beeching Report

Richard Beeching

The ‘bogeyman’ of trainspotters, Richard Beeching

Two maps showing a large reduction in the railway network from 1963 to 1984

British Railway Network coverage of the UK, before and after Beeching

A ticket machine

Staffing numbers in stations have been reduced with the introduction of self-service technology

Docklands light railway

The public would need convincing of the safety of driverless trains

Shanghai airport shuttle

The Shanghai airport shuttle runs on magnetic levitation known as Maglev

Fifty years have passed since Beeching's condemning report led to the closure of a third of Britain's railways. How has our railway network fared and evolved?

Richard Beeching is the bogeyman of the trainspotters: a pantomime villain who is blamed for the desecration of Britain's railways. 'The Reshaping of British Railways', his 50-year-old plan to restructure the railways, is probably the most famous government report of the 20th century other than possibly Beveridge, which resulted in the creation of the welfare state. Today, Beeching is viewed with almost universal contempt and his name has entered the language as a metaphor for cuts, even being used as an adjective – 'Beeching-type cuts'.

The anniversary of the publication of this epoch-making report, which incidentally does not even bear his name, is a good time to reassess its contents and implications. The report, succinct and hard hitting, was bald and bold in its conclusions and the result was devastating, with a third of Britain's railway lines and more than half its stations being closed in the subsequent decade.

The railways were victims of their history. The network had been overused and underinvested in during the war and nationalised in its aftermath, with expensive legacy payments having to be made to their former owners. As part of the huge British Transport Commission, the railways continued to suffer from a lack of investment in the first post-war decade. Then came the Modernisation Programme where more than £1bn (in 1955 money) was poured into the railways in a last ditch effort to make them pay for themselves. It failed, partly because the money was spent on the wrong things such as marshalling yards, and partly because the expensive cost base of the industry was not addressed.

Road before rail

Beeching's attempt to reduce spending on the railway through cutbacks has to be viewed in this context. He was the product of the growing roads lobby, which was becoming more powerful and saw diverting money from rail to road as essential to providing funds to create modern road systems.

Beeching was appointed by a very pro-roads minister, Ernest Marples, to the chairmanship of British Railways as an outsider. His brief was to reduce the funding required from the exchequer to make up the ever growing deficit, the source of much handwringing among ministers.

There was, at the time, no concept that the railways were a social service which deserved support. That idea was adopted later by Barbara Castle and enshrined in her Transport Act 1968, the most enlightened piece of postwar railway legislation. Instead, the railways were perceived as a business which had to pay their way and this is how Beeching approached his task.

The findings in his report were stark and, it appeared, unarguable. The railway at the time consisted of 19,000 route miles with 7,000 stations. There had only been some trimming at the edges in the previous three decades, despite the inroads that were being made by other forms of transport, notably the car and the lorry.

Diesels had begun to appear but for the most part it was a steam hauled railway, and intensively staffed. There were still station masters at even remote stations, porters, ticket collectors as well as guards on trains. Despite the fact that most freight trains were now individually braked, there were still 7,000 people employed as freight guards, a completely unnecessary role that harked back to when there was a need for brake vans.

Assessing the railways

The key paragraphs in Beeching's analysis portrayed a railway where huge swathes seemed to perform no purpose: "One-third of the route mileage carries only 1 per cent of the total passenger miles. Similarly, one-third of the mileage carries only 1 per cent of the freight ton miles of British Railways." He reckoned that these lines absorbed £20m in costs for revenue of barely a fifth of that amount.

This was devastating stuff and paved the way for the cuts. These were the sections of the report which were highlighted in the media at the time and have been constantly repeated since then. But they did not tell the whole story.

Beeching's report was far too narrow in its focus and relied on evidence that seemed to have been deliberately selected to paint the worst picture. The most egregious error was to assess the usage of the railway on the basis of a single week in April 1962. That ignored major seasonal flows, particular holiday traffic. Places like Skegness and Llandudno were chock full of trains in the main summer months, enough to justify their existence in the more fallow winter months. And while many of these stations were little used, many were unstaffed halts that did not use up many resources, either.

A second major failing of the report was the assumption that people were oblivious to what mode they used and that, in particular, they would be quite happy to take buses rather than trains. This was patently wrong and many promised bus replacement services on closed lines were phased out for lack of use. A bus map included in the report made it look like there was a very comprehensive network when, in fact, services were often patchy and infrequent already then.

Cost failings

Nor did Beeching look at the wider context of the implications of pushing more people onto the roads. The annual death toll on the roads was far higher than today, nearly 8,000 for less than half the current traffic levels compared with under 2,000 today. The cost of these extra accidents was not taken into account.

There was, in fact, no cost benefit analysis, a methodology that had not yet been developed, or business plan to assess the alternatives. Consequently, even relatively busy suburban services were slated for cuts with no consideration of the impact on the roads merely because, in stark economic terms, they did not pay their way.

There was another cost of pushing people away from rail. Many roads had to be improved to accommodate the extra traffic, a fact that Beeching recognised but did not consider when recommending closures.

Given his obsession with profitability, Beeching's major failing was to not properly consider how the way that the railways were operated could change the economics of a particular line. Reducing staff numbers was the most obvious in an era where station masters and porters were still a feature of even very small stations. Moreover, the introduction of diesel cars to replace steam engines on such lines improved the economics radically but British Railways were slow to introduce them.

As a result, Beeching did not consider what would happen if services were improved upon and invested in rather than thinned out. He proposed the closure of the North London line, for example, which at the time ran from Richmond to Broad Street, next to Liverpool Street station. The service had been allowed to deteriorate for years and the half-hourly trains were dirty and frequently cancelled as a result of line closures. The line was eventually saved and numbers using it increased, so that trains became every 20 minutes and then every 15. Now with investment from Transport for London, there are up to eight trains per hour and usage is so heavy that extra carriages are being added to the four-car trains.

Line closures

In his defence, we must remember that Beeching always defended himself against these charges on the basis that the decisions over closures of lines were not made by him. That is true. Two sets of politicians were involved. Marples set the process of closure in motion but actually more lines were closed under the Labour government, which was in power from 1964 to 1970, despite the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, promising to stop the cuts in his election manifesto.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. There were more than 1,000 miles shut down in each of the first two full years of Labour administration, twice as much as in 1963, the Tories' last full year.

However, to a great extent Beeching had only himself to blame for the fact that he has been so closely associated with the closures. His report, despite being produced in great haste, listed every single station and line that was proposed to be axed. He was in a strange position. Supposedly he was the chairman of British Railways whose job was to bat for the railways, but rather than defend them and fight against potential closures, he had developed the instrument by which they were being closed.

Beeching showed no shame in what he did. In an interview for the book 'A Walk Along the Tracks' by Hunter Davies 20 years later, he was not at all apologetic. He told Davies: "It is never kindness to perpetuate a state of decay. You are only prolonging the agony."

At the time Beeching wrote his report, there were too many miles of railway in this country and many of the closures were justified. Services of one- or two-carriage trains that meandered through swathes of sparsely populated countryside stopping at every station were doomed. Small, little used stations on busy trunk routes slowed down the running of expresses and had to go.

However, there is no doubt that the cuts implemented by the politicians in the wake of the report went too far. Many lines that could have been retained as a useful service were cut but precisely how many remains a matter for debate. David Henshaw, author of the best analysis of the Beeching report and its aftermath, 'The Great Railway Conspiracy', reckons that "a third of these lines should never even have been contemplated for closure".

Indeed, around 1,000 miles have been reinstated in the intervening half century although that does not necessarily include most of Henshaw's list. Most notably, keeping the Great Central, the last main line to be built in Britain, could, today, have obviated the need for HS2, which is to be built at such a high price.

The McNulty report

It is instructive to consider what a similar report might say today, although that is somewhat difficult as the railways are booming rather than declining. There is, though, a key similarity. The railways are still losing money, though nowadays this subsidy is built into the system, rather than a British Railways Board having to go cap in hand to the government every year as happened in the 1960s.

Indeed, there was a potential Beeching moment when the McNulty report into the financial situation of the railways was published two years ago. However, we live in different times and there were no proposals to cut back lines except, perhaps, for a hint that the railway could become unaffordable unless savings were made. McNulty made a series of recommendations about reorganising the railways to 'align incentives' and simplifying the franchising process, but there was no suggestion of major cutbacks in the system.

A Beeching risen from the grave would take the same approach. No longer would he simply focus on the costs of running the railway and the need to make ends meet. He would have to take a more integrated approach and look at the implications for local communities of any closures.

There would be far greater public scrutiny of his methodology and his rather dishonest suggestion that people could transfer easily from train to bus when actually bus services were far from adequate even then.

His conclusions would, too, be radically different. He might consider that some of the lines he slated for closure the first time round, such as the mid-Wales line and some rural services, should be axed but it would be very small beer in relation to the whole network.

The more holistic view using modern techniques would encourage wider assessment of the value of the railways that would entail not only retaining them but investing in the long term. Beeching would probably support investment like HS2 as he did promote the idea of efficient intercity trains. This new, revived Beeching would not be the figure of hate which the original, partly unfairly, has become. 

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New railway technologies

Technology is the key to ensuring the railways maintain their edge, both in terms of the advantages they have in comfort and facilities, but also environmentally and economically. Here are a few technologies that the railway will have to harness to stay ahead of the game.

Smart trains

Cars are increasingly becoming wired to the Internet and the railways need to ensure they keep up. Already, many operators do provide Wi-Fi but it is often slow and, ridiculously, many charge for the service, partly to damp down demand. The shortage of capacity of masts is currently a limiting factor but new technologies need to be developed, possibly using the rails themselves to deliver the service.

In-cab signalling

This is already in use on high-speed lines but there is a Europe-wide initiative to adopt it more widely. The hope is that it will boost the capacity of lines by making it possible for trains to run more closely together, as they will no longer be dependent on the vagaries of where signals happen to be sited. However, the ERTMS project, which is the attempt to create a European standard for both in-cab signalling and train radio communication, has been dogged with difficulties over standardisation and selection of systems. A test is being carried out on the Cambrian line in Wales but has also been dogged with difficulties and cost overruns.

Driverless trains

This has been widely suggested by the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and indeed two Underground lines and the Docklands Light Railway are controlled by computers at a remote location. However, these trains all still have a person aboard who is able to operate them if anything goes wrong. They also all operate on relatively simple routes and expanding the concept to busy rail networks seems like a long way off. The likely savings are obvious, though would require large scale investment in signalling systems, but convincing the public of the safety of such systems would be an uphill task.

High-speed rail

The high-speed rail lines are effectively the motorway of the railways. They were first introduced in Japan half a century ago and new lines are seen as both a way of speeding up journeys and of increasing capacity. However, they are expensive to build  – £32bn is the projected cost for the 330-mile HS2 in the UK – and have very long lead time before coming into operation. The high speeds also mean that they are heavy energy users in relation to conventional railways.

New sources of electricity

To survive the 21st century, railways need to emphasise their green credentials. The renewed trend towards electrification helps as electric lines are cleaner and more energy efficient, but the industry needs more environmentally-friendly power sources. In France, where nuclear power is used on electric rail lines, SNCF already claims zero-emission services.

There are a number of technological dead ends. Maglev has been touted for years as the technology that could make running on railway tracks redundant. A number of trial systems have been introduced, but there have only been a couple of commercial applications, despite decades of research and promising announcements. The best known project is the airport shuttle in Shanghai which runs up to speeds of 268mph. However, cost – the Shanghai system cost £500m for a 19-mile system, safety, the problem of junctions, and the incompatibility with existing rail services, has prevented more widespread introduction.

The other potential game-changing development that has stalled is fuel cells. Remarkably, the 2007 White Paper on the railways, Developing a Sustainable Railway, rejected the idea of further electrification, a policy since reversed, on the basis that fuel cell technology, among others, would be developed within a 10-15 year time frame. In fact, apart from a narrow gauge experimental trains developed by students from Birmingham University, little progress has been made on this technology.

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