1960s beeching Era coal train at Rose Grove. Courtesy of Geoff Marsh

Beeching Rail Chat Summary

On 11th April we had an interesting discussion on Beeching 50 years on where we touched on a number of exciting topics.

Rail Chat Summary: Beeching 50 years on – Was he right or wrong?

Railways or cycleways, Return to sender. Beeching or Serpell?

This is the summary of a rail.co.uk ‘railchat’ held on April 11, 2013 where we used the benefit of hindsight to look at the Beeching Report half a century after it was published.

This ‘railchat’ was hosted by our rail.co.uk news editor Phil Marsh who joined the railways in 1973, a decade after the Beeching Report was published and by when the associated closures had been completed. He was interviewed by 14 national and local BBC radio stations on the subject and the consistent theme was that Beeching got it right.

Right or wrong?

The session was opened asking the fundamental questions; Was he right? Was he wrong? Were the cuts worth it?

We looked at some statistics taken from the report and other primary documents and in 1963, 938 million passenger journeys were made by train, while last year there were 1.46 billion journeys made but the rail network was only 50% of the network 50 years ago.

In the sidings

The report carries some fantastic statistics such as 6000 carriages that were used under 18 times a year. These were kept in sidings and used in the peak holiday season but cost £3.4m to keep serviceable while only earning £500,000 ticket revenue at 1963 prices. It appears that in the last 50 years, costs have multiplied by a factor of 35 so in todays prices, these carriages lost £100million a year.

Why did they cost so much? They had to be maintained to safe standards, sidings had to be kept operational to stable these carriages and staff had to be employed to look after the sidings and trains.

Action stations – or not?

The Beeching Report says that around 7000 stations were open in 1963 or 1 for every 2 1/2 miles. One comment to this was that roads can’t be held up as a success and that it was unfortunate the rail network couldn’t cope and were in a state of disrepair - like our roads. But that there will always be a place for the railways as energy costs continue to rise.

Another participant responded by saying this is why Beeching was right identifying the need for High Speed Rail as with HS2 and that the real test will be in another 50 years. Will there be a railway or will we all be driving round in hydrogen cars?

The report recognised air transport was competitive over 200 miles and threatened Anglo Scottish services. So even half a century ago, air had become a threat to the railways as it became more affordable. Others disagreed saying that a once great railway system is now a network of over stressed corridors and that expansion is the answer.

Consensus that Beeching was right?

50 years on, the consensus is that Beeching was right. Do you agree we asked? Beeching ultimately worked was tweeted back to us. We still have a train system today that serves most peoples needs unlike AMTRACK, the American railways network.

The decline of American railways was we thought, because of the huge distances travelled in America, being a far larger country than the UK, the comparison was not one that could be really made. The vast distances in America don't lend themselves to railways unlike in the UK.

Europe’s social railway network

‘Railchat’ was told that parts of the European rail network are cheap because they are operated for society and not as a business. This is a true statement for many countries but many people suggest this is true of France in particular. TGV’s are fast and pretty reliable but not cheap. In fact they are especially expensive if you travel on a route which serves any part of the European Parliament such as Brussels or Strasbourg. This is because most travel is on expense accounts so market pricing can be and is employed.

Old lines reopening and cycleways

Rail.co.uk was asked if it had seen bbc.co.uk/news/uk-219515… concerning restoring the line linking Edinburgh with the Scottish Borders. We said that a few routes had been reopened or were currently being rebuilt and it was commented that, yes this is good news – especially that part of the Borders line is currently under construction to Tweedbank from Edinburgh. This then prompted an interesting suggestion that should the cycleways created out of old trackbeds be converted back into railways?

This happened to a degree on the Airdrie-Bathgate line in Scotland and the cycle track had to be moved to accommodate the railway. SUSTRANS would probably have something to say about this though as they are the charity that converts disused trackbeds to cycleways.

But this does create a talking point because by default, if the trackbed is now a cycleway then it means the route should still be pretty much available for relaying a railway with minimum land-take required.

50 years apart the same goal was being chased!

The rail.co.uk team looked at some costs and proposed savings mentioned in the Beeching Report and at today’s process they proposals equated to around a billion pounds a year. Curiously the McNulty Report which was published in May 2011 said that a billion pounds a year could be saved if his recommendations were implemented.

‘Beeching was wrong’ claim

One participant said that the answer is that Beeching was wrong and that the UK rail network was Europe’s most expensive despite his cuts! We need expansion such as HS2.

And finally….something fishy!

Phil Marsh met up with several groups of former colleagues who were working on the railways in 1963 and asked them what did they think about it at the time and how did the report affect them.

Footplate crews said that there would always be a need for traincrew so they weren’t worried as they could transfer to a depot which would remain open if they were at one marked down to close.

Others who worked at stations said that stations were overstaffed and so it was obvious something had to happen. There was always a need for booking clerks and as computers were nearly 25 years away, booking clerks were still required to sell tickets.

A colleague who was a parcels clerk in 1963 said that the system was ridiculous! For example, a box of fresh fish would arrive at his station and he would have to send the empty box back to the fish wholesaler. British Rail was a common carrier and could not turn away any traffic unlike the post office at the time, who had size and weight restrictions on their services.

It was in Mrs Thatcher’s time as PM that the last fishvan operating from Fishguard was withdrawn as being uneconomic – not many people know that!

Thatcher or Beeching – who was worse for our railways?

This is a debate that will run forever but famously, Mrs Thatcher claimed never to travel by train. Whether this is true or not it sums up her attitude to the railways. She authorised the closure of the electrified line via Woodhead and Penistone which carried coal – whether this was a factor or not we will probably never know.

Railway investment dropped but the railways had a glossy advertising side which hid the real state of most of the railways in the first six or seven years under Mrs Thatcher.

Boom or bust?

This was despite (re)opening 56 stations in five years from 1982 including now booming places like Milton Keynes station. It also included Bedford St. Johns which was to replace another station at Bedford which had been closed so these new station claims were not all they claimed to be!

But he 1950s and 1960s new trains and locomotives were wearing out by the early 1980s and big investment was proposed in 1981. Some railbuses were built as a stopgap and they are still used today to the annoyance of passengers and train operators.

This included major electrification schemes that indicated a huge investment payback. It was referred to Mrs Thatcher’s economic adviser Alan Walters who it seems, vetoed these plans. But, BR did close Crewe for 6 weeks in the summer of 1985 and remodel the track layout lifting the linespeeds from 20mph to 80mph.

It was Beeching but if he had not been around, it would have been somebody else who may not have grasped the problem so well. The next Beeching was Sir David Serpell who died recently but was instructed by the Thatcher Government in May 1982 to review railway finances.

That is another story which rail.co.uk will report on shortly to mark the 30th anniversary of the debate on the report issued in 1983.

Written by Phil Marsh


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