Published 25th March 2013
The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) organised two debates to mark the 50th anniversary of the what has become known as the infamous Beeching ‘Reshaping The Railways’ report. This was published on March 27 1963 and led to wholesale rail closures - and arguably the start of the modern railway. For years, Dr. Beeching was reviled as the man who nearly destroyed the railways – but did he?
The first debate was at London’s Science Museum and the second at The National Railway Museum in York to be held on March 27, the exact anniversary of the report.
The evening was introduced by the President of the CBT, the actor and rail supporter, Michael Palin. The panel of experts each spoke for 10 minutes about how they now viewed the report with the benefit of hindsight. In speaking order, the panel was:
Lord Richard Faulkner former advisor to the British Railways Board, Chairman of Railway Heritage Committee and author of ‘Holding The Line’
David Higgins, Chief Executive of Network Rail.
Lord Adonis, former Transport Secretary
Lindsay Durham, Director Strategy at Freightliner and Chair of Railfreight Operators’ Association
The debate explored Beeching 50 years on and was he right or wrong.
Michael Palin said that yes, he did collect train numbers but was not an extreme trainspotter visiting sheds by night through a hole in the fence in SAS mode! He also spoke about the case for naming engines which demonstrated the railways’ pride in their operations at the time and was also ‘an esoteric branding exercise’!
Mr Palin said that yes, the railways were inefficient at this time making losses so something had to be done. Beeching and Marples arrived on the scene with their combined road interests and asked: “Who said God didn’t have a sense of humour in appointing them to look after the future of the railways” and he also doubted if either was a trainspotter!
He described how railways were closed with viaducts blown up, tunnels used as shooting ranges and tracks torn up. The Marples/Beeching policy resulted in a major piece of Infrastructural vandalism and a profligate waste of resources. Their pro-road vision ignored, and did not try to understand, the historically special place of railways in British life. The north London line is his local line and was nearly closed while adjacent suburban roads became congested.
He said how the Beeching Plan was carelessly rushed through after the protagonists had moved on and each became a Baron. In a clever play on words, Mr Palin said that barren was how they left the railway. Thatcher was criticised for her lack of support of the railways but her support of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link gave the railways its biggest boost since Beeching and railway building became fashionable again.
Despite the mess of privatisation and horrors of the Railtrack years, the suburban lines now carry record breaking numbers punctually such as the London Overground. Crossrail and HS2 herald the new golden age of railways 50 years after the Beeching plan. The Public has come back to the trains despite attempts to price them of it and railways are seen as the future and not the past. Beeching and Marples became saviours of the railways and perhaps they should have a class 380 named after him operating on the North London Line.
Lord Faulkner was an advisor to the British Railways Board (BRB) and said that he recruited Mr Palin to Transport 2000 while being delayed at Leeds station years ago. The search for the Holy Grail in railway terms was the search for the profitable railway and this was the core of the successive Governments’ thinking from Nationalisation in 1948 for half a century. They all thought that if they reduced the size of the rail network, profitability would arrive - eventually.
Beeching was a key point in this quest as he abolished the British Transport Commission and formed the BRB. Marples, the Transport Minister, set up the Stedeford Committee in 1960 named after Sir Ivan Stedeford. Beeching also served on this committee whose report was never issued despite Parliamentary questions being asked.
When Labour formed the Government in 1964, they carried on the Conservative rail closures despite opposing them in the election campaign. But in 1968, Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) were set up and received grants to subsidise urban local rail networks for up to 3 years and these have survived to today.
BRE produced a Blue Book in 1972 proposing more substantial rail cuts followed in 1975 with new network maps showing a further reduced rail network. Then in 1979, more cuts were proposed with the most serious threat in 1982 with the Serpel Report which would have reduced the network drastically. Fortunately, none of these reports were acted on saving the network for today’s new railway age.
Labour assumed that as only rich people travelled by rail, it was not right to subsidise the railways by taxpayers. There was a secret conference at Sunningdale in March 1977 when the Permanent Secretary suggested rail closures would be approved by local authorities. Closures would be decided on the type of track being used, modern continuously welded track meant a line remained open but jointed track routes would have been closed. It was in the late 1980s when politicians realised the railways were becoming more popular so any closure plans were dropped.
Beeching was given a clear set of instructions by Marples, the Transport Minister, which included setting up a container traffic business known today as Freightliner. Loss making services should have been closed but why the tracks were torn up immediately which was unforgivable it meant trains would not be likely to return to closed routes.
Lord Adonis said that railways brought him into politics starting when he as a 13 year old, he campaigned for his local Oxfordshire railway to remain open. He travelled to school at Kingham by train and he knew surrounding lines had closed to Cheltenham and Banbury. But the 1970s BR ideology of declinism threatened his Cotswold line by reducing the services to a shuttle to Oxford or Worcester withdrawing through trains to London.
The argument was that a million pounds had to be spent on the track to keep diesel hauled services running. He wrote to BR requesting traffic figures and they sent him some figures which he and his friends proved wrong after a week-long survey and they were sent to BR.
The through trains to Paddington remained and he thought he had saved the line but the Chairman of BR, Sir Peter Parker commuted on the line from Charlbury so this was a more likely reason the line was saved he said! As road traffic grew, rail usage increased and more through services were introduced using new rolling stock and the line is now profitable.
One of his Transport Secretary duties was to open the newly doubled line with David Cameron (the local MP) after it was nearly closed. This line is really the story of Beeching he said. The railways had shrunk from 1914 and some sort of ‘Beeching’ was inevitable but the big failure was not to invest in the remaining railway apart from the Freightliner services.
Electrification was not undertaken as promised, the Advanced Passenger Train did not materialise and crucially, the rights of way were not maintained on closed trackbeds. These are hugely precious and it was a cardinal error to make and may stop the Oxford-Cambridge line reaching east of Bedford to Cambridge because of objectors and the trackbeds have been built over.
Japan opened the Shinkansen in 1964, one year after Beeching, and was a revolutionary rail network introducing the high speed rail concept to the world. Ironically it was Mrs Thatcher who started our high speed network with the CTRL (HS1) and only because she was shamed into this by the French President Mitterand when he opened the high speed line to Calais from Paris.
He said passengers would speed through France and enjoy a leisurely ride through England and it was this perceived insult that made her find the private finance to pay for HS1. We were 20 years late in developing a high speed network and in the 1980s we should have been doing this and not privatising the railways.
Lord Adonis said that he was proud to have introduced the HS2 Bill which will be the next renaissance of the railways and that Network Rail (NR) was now expanding the network rather than shrinking it. We can look back at Beeching as a historical period now over and not carrying on today.
David Higgins is the Australian Chief Executive of Network Rail and said that he was no expert on rail! He had used UK rail from the 1970s and also walked along old railway tracks in the Peak District.
He said that Japan spent 10% of their GDP on rail in the 1980s and knew how to connect their cities but todays railways are very different from Beeching’s time. There are now 800 signal boxes against 8,000 50 years ago for example.
Three hundred of these are Beeching era 1960s versions while 500 are Victorian! 50 years ago, 150,000 trackworkers were needed while today the number was 15,000. Today safety is much better and in the 1960s, there were an average of 5 fatal train crashes a year – a very different safety standard from today and we must improve further.
Secondly we must understand the scale of UK railway growth. Utilities such as airports and power have experienced compound growth by less than1% on average a year. Rail has grown by 5% compound every year and last year was 8% in numbers and revenue, the largest increase in Europe where it is about 2%.
European rail infrastructure is more modern that ours but we have to accommodate greater growth on older infrastructure. Rail has a strong future in the UK given the geography of the UK and its cities, but UK rail is a far more complex operation than elsewhere and in the Beeching era.
NR runs the 3rd biggest telecoms network in the UK and NR is also the biggest consumer of domestic and commercial power in the UK. We have a major drainage system to manage as well as 30,000 structures to maintain. NR’s technology ranges from Victorian mechanical signalling to space age systems and we have to integrate these and the transition will be difficult to achieve.
Lindsay Durham spoke about Freightliner and its origins in the Beeching report. He introduced the Freightliner and trainload freight concepts after recognising that there had to be efficient use of freight terminals and trains.
Half a century ago a wagon was at a colliery for an average turnround of 10 days while today a whole train takes 45 minutes to load. She said that Freightliner should move specially designed wagons, direct services offering road-rail facilities – exactly what Freightliner does today!
Beeching’s plan was to connect industry in the UK and the first liner service ran between London and Glasgow. Now industry has moved to China so the trains connect the ports with population instead. Now over 100 services a day operate to and from the deep sea ports. Beeching’s original idea was to carry domestic traffic which was lost to motorways but won back with the 21st century strategic freight network and larger gauge. In the last four years of recession, there has been a 20% growth in freight container traffic.
A 1960s train carried 15 wagons, today it is double this and will soon increase to 36 with new locomotives and terminals. Beeching recognised the importance of railfreight and today around seven million lorry journeys have been removed from roads because of his plan.
Lord Adonis emphasised that building a new line such as HS2 was better value for money than upgrading the West and East Coast Main Lines and quadrupling the Chiltern Main Line.
A £10billion plan was put to him for upgrading ECML, the same as spent on the WCML and this did not deliver all the promises made such as 140mph train speeds. Even if the ECML had been upgraded, this would have given a fraction of the benefits of HS2 at more cost and still left Birmingham at the end of a branch line from London.
HS2 will link it to the rest of the UK and creates fundamental step-change in capacity rather than the open heart surgery on the existing Victorian built WCML. Upgrading these lines would have provided two thirds of the HS2 capacity at £3bn extra cost. So we would end up spending more money for a worse service and not create a modern efficient railway.
Lord Faulkner reminded everybody that there had been WCML upgrade disruption for eight years and that ‘The Guardian’ had reported that “rail replacement buses” were the most loathed three words in the English language!
He also said that the Labour Government rolling stock procurement policy which arranged the IEP train contract, was won by Hitachi but contained provision for the trains to be assembled in the UK at Newton Aycliffe near Darlington. The next big train contract, the Thameslink train contract was won by Siemens and the mistake the current Government made was not to insist that these trains were to be assembled in the UK. This would have developed a huge manufacturing facility in the UK benefitting our economy.
Lindsay Durham added that HS2 will aid freight capacity on the WCML as over 90% of container freight uses the line and by removing the faster trains onto HS2, will create more capacity for all.
Lord Adonis said that if we don’t do HS2, then we will need to do another WCML upgrade in five years and also upgrade the ECML at the same time.
David Higgins was asked about commuter train slots around London. He said they are as rare as Heathrow landing slots and trains will become as long as 14 carriages but overcrowding will continue for the next five years on London commuter routes.
HS2 and Crossrail will bring 170,000 extra peak time seats from six years time. London’s population will be 10 million in 20 years and London’s businesses demand better transport and are talking about Crossrail 2 already to keep the city working.
Lord Adonis also said that he would have approved the closure of most of the lines Beeching proposed for closing had he been Transport Minister at the time There would have been two possible exceptions, the Uckfield-Lewes line and probably the Oxford-Cambridge line which was closed by Barbara Castle and not Beeching. This was closed in the same week as the new city of Milton Keynes was announced!
Lindsay Durham added that the line freight operators would like to see reopened was the 1980s closed March to Spalding route which would now offer an alternative to the ECML.
Lord Faulkner reminded everybody that since Beeching, 350 stations and 300 kilometres of track have reopened made possible by the trackbed not being sold off. In the 1980s at a BR Board meeting, a senior civil servant attended and said that his job was to preside over the orderly rundown of the railway.