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The Beeching axe - 50 years on

4 March 2013

Britain’s railways and communities are still paying the price for the catastrophic decisions made 50 years ago this month in the Beeching Report. Paul Salveson looks at what was lost, what was saved and the lessons for modern campaigns against railway cuts.

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The name of ‘Beeching’ has entered the English language. To ‘do a Beeching’ implies a reckless act of destruction. It was Dr Richard Beeching, the first Chairman of the British Railways Board, who was the infamous ‘axe man’ responsible for the closure of thousands of miles of railways in the 1960s and 1970s. His report, ‘The Re-shaping of British Railways’, was published 50 years ago, on 27 March 1963. The recommendations of the report were enthusiastically adopted by the Conservative Government of the day, which had of course appointed him with a clear remit to ‘sort out the railways’. Transport Minister Ernest Marples, who had made his fortune from road-building, warmly endorsed Beeching’s advice to close thousands of route miles of the national network.

The unions put up a lukewarm opposition despite their members’ futures being on the line – nearly 9,000 clerical and supervisory jobs alone were under threat, and many more in the ‘waged’ grades. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that a stronger fight could have been mounted. The National Union of Railwaymen’s general secretary, Sid Greene, was of the traditional right-wing school which was most comfortable having ‘a quiet word’ with the men in power. William Evans, the retiring general secretary of Aslef, described the report as ‘a very able document and an entirely honest attempt to rationalise the railway system’. Evans’ comments were repudiated by his executive. The first statement from the TSSA came from future Labour minister Ray Gunter who told a TV interviewer that the Beeching report was ‘one of the bravest efforts I have known in industry to face the economic facts of life.’ Labour’s transport spokesman George Strauss welcomed the report though expressed concern about ‘the proposals to curtail railway services on the drastic scale suggested.’ Fighting talk, indeed! What we were seeing was the culmination of the post-war pro-roads consensus which viewed railways as a thing of the past. At best, their future lay in a small number of main-line routes.

The report’s targets were not just little- used rural branch lines. Important commuter routes such as Liverpool to Southport and Leeds to Ilkley and Wetherby were on the death list. Main lines such as Edinburgh to Carlisle via Hawick (‘The Waverley Line’) were to disappear, leaving major Borders towns isolated. Thankfully, some routes managed to survive, but many lines which could have played an important role in solving today’s transport problems were mercilessly cut. Any BR manager who had ideas for reducing costs of local lines such as ‘pay-train’ operation was told in no uncertain terms to shut up if he wanted a career to look forward to.

Most rank and file members of TSSA were horrified at the implications of Beeching but felt helpless in the face of a Government determined to implement the report. The rail unions discussed options which included a national rail strike but this was rejected by the TSSA. However, the unions managed to extract improved resettlement and redundancy terms. The fight was lost before it hardly began. Closures followed in rapid succession, making opposition difficult and fragmented. BR was under pressure to deliver results and line after line went with hardly a whimper of protest. ‘Last trains’ became local carnivals with trains carrying many times their normal passengers. I can remember the last train from Horwich in September 1965, hauled by a steam locomotive cleaned and embellished by local enthusiasts the night before, departing from this railway town to the accompaniment of dozens of exploding detonators. It was all a bit unreal. Cold reality set in very quickly, with many towns and villages virtually cut off. The so-called ‘replacement bus services’ lasted a few years, sometimes just months, before they were withdrawn. We are still counting the cost.

There was some local resistance. Probably the strongest fight was waged against the closure of the Waverley Line, with riotous scenes on the last day. Like many more Beeching closures, this route is now, at least in part, being re-opened at very considerable cost. It should never have been shut in the first place.

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Subsequent accounts of Beeching by railway historians have bent over backwards to be positive about the report. However, a new book puts a more critical slant on the Beeching legacy. ‘Holding the Line – how Britain’s railways were saved’ is written by two highly experienced railwaymen, Lord Richard Faulkner, former adviser to the British Railways Board and a Labour peer, and Chris Austin OBE, who spent many years at the BRB and subsequently held senior roles at the Strategic Rail Authority and then ATOC. The book is the first detailed account of successive attempts to reduce the size of Britain’s railway network, of which Beeching was only the most well known. The book shows, with clear evidence, that there really was what almost amounted to a conspiracy in government circles to destroy what was once the best railway system in the world. The authors write:

“There was no single conspiracy to destroy the railways, but individuals from various parts of the political spectrum were drawn to the supposed Holy Grail of a much smaller network and a ‘profitable’ core. They included right-wing free market ideologues opposed to the concept of public transport, well-meaning but misguided social democrats who saw rail subsidies as a regressive, beneficial only to the middle classes, and a variety of lobbying interests who would benefit from the expansion of road building, car ownership and road haulage – including trade unionists opposed to the development of rail freight services.

Threats to cut large swathes of the rail network continued throughout the 1980s. The Serpell Report (1983) presented ‘options’ which included a network of just 1,630 route miles – a loss of 84 per cent. The report, published during Thatcher’s reign, was a disgrace from beginning to end. Thankfully, the hornet’s nest of outrage it stirred up ensured it was quietly shelved. However, some of its proposals for bus substitution continued as ‘live’ options, with routes such as Norwich – Sheringham, Shrewsbury – Chester and Newport – Gloucester under consideration. Today, these are all flourishing routes; they could have ended up as nothing more than cycling paths.

The last major attempted closure came in the early 1980s when British Rail announced its intention to shut the Settle-Carlisle Line. The route had been threatened, but reprieved, in the 1960s. The announcement led to a high-profile campaign which saw over 23,000 objections – including one from a dog! This was a highly effective campaign which enjoyed very broad support which included but went way beyond the unions. This was the railways’ equivalent of the miners’ strike; failure would almost certainly have led to a new round of line closures. It was a model for how to campaign effectively. In the face of huge opposition, the Government backed down. The Settle-Carlisle went on to prosper, today carrying growing volumes of both passenger and freight.

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By the late 1980s – after the turning- point of the Settle-Carlisle’s reprieve – rail closures were less and less acceptable. However, the 1990s still saw the occasional outburst from ill-briefed politicians, reflecting a continuing under- current within Whitehall that was hostile to rail. However, the direction of policy switched from what do with a state- owned BR towards how best to privatise it. Ironically, the complex and highly- regulated structure that emerged in the 1993 Railways Act gave greater protection to local railways than they had ever enjoyed before. This did not prevent some rear-guard attempts at further reductions in the network. The Northern Rail Review was undertaken as recently as 2005 but found that ‘the Northern Rail franchise is an efficient and well-managed operation and that there are no obvious and acceptable ‘quick wins’ to improving value for money’.

By then, the ‘community rail’ initiatives around the UK had shown real results, with increased passenger numbers leading to a virtuous circle of improved services and facilities, and more passengers. It’s possible that if ‘community rail’ had not come along when it did, in the mid to late 1990s, we might not have escaped without some line closures in the early 2000s.

Apart from being wary of trusting in ‘the expert’, a key conclusion in viewing the history of actual and attempted rail closures must be the importance of organised, ‘professional’ campaigning. This is different from having ‘words in ears’ in the corridors of power. It is about large- scale mobilisation of the kind that saved the Settle-Carlisle Line, involving communities, unions, businesses and other interests. It is about building allies beyond the narrow ‘railway’ interest and making the wider case for rail in economic, social and environmental terms. More lines might have survived if the unions had been less focused on getting good redundancy terms for their members and more on reaching out to the wider community to oppose some of the most outrageous closures.

Are we out of the woods now, 50 years after Beeching? Over the last 20 years, the regional Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) have done much to promote line and station re-openings. Beeching has gone into reverse, at least in some parts of the country. If we hadn’t had the PTEs our local rail networks in the big Northern and West Midlands conurbations would be like Bristol’s – virtually non-existent. And few would argue that devolution of rail powers to Scotland, Merseyside, London and Wales has been anything other than a success. We need more devolution, providing we get the right size, funding and governance structures in place. As the Northern PTEs move towards a single ‘rail executive’ body, with their county and unitary council neighbours, there are grounds for hope that rail in the North will finally get the attention it deserves, matching the investment that has gone into the Scottish and London rail networks.

Today, the main problems facing Britain’s local railways are not lack of passengers but shortage of capacity to meet constantly rising demand. The so- called ‘basket-case’ lines of the 1970s are now carrying trains which are bursting at the seams with passengers. The challenge of the next 20 years will be to provide the capacity – both extra trains and more track capacity – to meet the sort of growth that the so-called experts of the 1960s dismissed as a pipe-dream. It was the romantics like John Betjeman and the unheard rank and file railway workers who were proved right, not the ‘realists’ such as Beeching and Serpell who were so disastrously wrong.



'Holding the Line: how Britain’s railways were saved’ by Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin is published by Ian Allan (RRP £19.99) but available on special offer to TSSA members at £13.95 including postage. Use voucher code HTL13 on www.ianallanpublishing.com or write to: Offer HTL13, Marketing Department, Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Riverdene Business Park, Hersham, Surrey KT12 4RG. Cheques should be payable to Ian Allan Publishing Ltd.

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