Steaming ahead

On its fortieth anniversary, the Beeching Report looks positively progressive compared to today's transport policy.

Austin Williams

Topics Science & Tech

With the rail network in a parlous and overcrowded state and with a new round of cuts in the offing, it is apposite that 27 March is the fortieth anniversary of the infamous Beeching Report.

As a regular traveller on GNER’s east-coast mainline service from London to Newcastle, I regularly find myself gritting my teeth to put up with the infuriating level of public provision masquerading as customer services. A breakfast baguette does not really make up for the lack of a seat.

My experience of the Friday exodus crowds of Geordie brickies, Glaswegian squaddies, screaming babies, laptop luvvies and mobile phonies makes Kings Cross seem like Bombay Central. As I try to cram my knees behind the interminable encroachment of the seats in front, the tannoy incessantly blares out the news that I am sitting on the quiet coach and we hare off at a furious 20 miles an hour. Overdue, over-stressed and overheard.

And it is the Beeching Report of 1963 that has gone down in history as the signal moment when the railways went into decline. As a direct result of its proposals, one third of all stations were closed, platforms deserted and 5000 miles of railway lines mothballed. Consequently, the name of Richard Beeching has become as British – and as synonymous with cuts – as Henry Cooper. Is it just a coincidence that the Great Train Robbery took place in the same year?

In conventional wisdom, the era of Oh Mr Porter and Brief Encounter was destroyed at a stroke. Adlestrop no more; The Royal Scotsman retired; and Bath Spa never recovered. Hundreds of miles of rails were left to put the rust into rustic, to be enveloped by undergrowth or transformed into ubiquitous, sanitised country walks.

Of course, decimating the railways was a crude managerial method of balancing the books and lacked a certain long-term vision of the needs of rail travel. But, funnily enough, while the Beeching Report comprised a 15-point plan to eliminate the railway’s deficit by removing uneconomic routes, freight and manpower, the essence of the report advocated that resources be concentrated on intercity passenger traffic and replacing steam by diesel.

These progressive elements have been forgotten in the general opprobrium heaped upon Baron Beeching. Compared with transport policy today, the difference is that now there is no progressive vision for improving mobility – no positive modernisation – to run alongside the rationalisation policies.

Over the past 40 years, passenger levels have crept up to the pre-Beeching levels without any new rail lines being built. The lack of belief in infrastructural improvements has meant that rather than build new fast lines, the Strategic Rail Authority proposes to ban slow trains which ‘get in the way’. Cramming more people on to existing stock is exemplified by the Connex plan to remove toilets from its trains to get more people on. With this mean-spirited attitude, no wonder we have heightened dissatisfaction.

Many commentators look back disapprovingly and interpret Beeching’s cuts as launching the inexorable rise of the private motor car in lieu of the train and public transport. Manchester’s Exchange Station for example, the largest station in Europe, was axed and transformed symbolically into an expansive concrete car park. It is worth remembering that, in his day Beeching didn’t want to cram people into inadequate rolling stock. He saw the car as the alternative – and a benefit to village dwellers – which then enabled him to get the relatively small numbers of passengers off the trains.

He was right. The car was the future, and a great freedom for
those previously stuck in the countryside. Undoubtedly, freeing up expenditure for the construction of the fledgling motorway infrastructure through Beeching’s proposals has given the UK a road network that was only dreamed of in the 1960s. Furthermore, the Railway Children might have enjoyed inhaling the polluting smoke trails of the Night Mail, but the shift to diesel has transformed the environment for the better – and that at a time when environmental concerns were not even high on the agenda. Such are the benefits that arise as a natural consequence of improving transport technology and efficiency.

Even though closing 2361 of 7000 stations in England, Scotland and Wales in the 1960s was undoubtedly a sad indictment of a public transport system trying to balance the books by slashing services, it is all too apparent that the independent bravura shown by Beeching stems from a bygone age.

Today, rail union leader Mick Rix, the scourge of New Labour, foreseeing a second round of Beeching cuts, has called for Crown intervention, saying that while ‘Queen Victoria never got her hands on (the railway and rolling stock), perhaps it is time her great-great-granddaughter did’. With radical opposition like that, God save the transport system.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

The stay-home society, by Jennie Bristow

Facts about the tracks, by Austin Williams

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Topics Science & Tech


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