Published 21st March 2013
The Dr. Richard Beeching authored report published in March 1963 has been the source of debate for the intervening 50 years. Was he right? Did he destroy the railways? Was he the Doctor that cut society by axing the railways? Or did the politicians get involved and reverse their policy after the General Election?
The report makes no bones about why it took three years to prepare. The railways had a complex command and control structure at the time following Nationalisation in 1948. Dr. Beeching implemented a reorganisation before making his final report saying that his recommendations would be easier to implement with a new structure.
The report originated from the failure of the 1955 Modernisation Plan which itself had its origins in the post 1948 Nationalisation of the railways. These had been all but bankrupted in the war but by 1953, the railways started making a loss again as road and air travel grew with new found prosperity.
It is important to understand that The Modernisation Plan published in 1955 was about just that, modernisation of equipment and trains. Beeching’s report was about stopping the financial haemorrhage which the Modernisation Plan did not address or cure.
In the first four years of the plan, BR had invested £421m in traction and rolling stock. It was cited for example that the 22 strong 100mph ‘Deltic’ diesel fleet would replace 55 steam locomotives giving a glimpse of the new operating future. The first new locomotives appeared at the end of 1957 and steam engines were still being built, a complete contradiction in policy!
1959 was the turning point in UK railway history as it was realised that the 1955 Plan was not working so the Beeching Report was commissioned. By then, road transport costs were tumbling and railway freight rates were reduced in an effort to retain traffic. Beeching soon recognised that rail was only suitable for high volume and heavy traffic such as coal, steel and minerals.
Railways had, and still have, high fixed costs relating to the infrastructure and the usage only marginally increases these costs. For example, Beeching correctly said that a station has a high cost and is not unduly changed by having 1000 passengers a week or 6000. He argued that better utilisation would help and this is why local passenger and freight services were targeted so heavily.
Breakeven point was calculated to be 10,000 passengers a week on a given line where there was no freight to help generate revenue. Each mile of branchline cost £1750 a year to maintain in 1962 the report says.
He identified that stopping services were often slower than buses that served the same locations but were many times more expensive because of the high fixed costs. Many of these rail services did not cover their operating costs like wages and fuel, never mind about the capital expenditure on the train and track. Beeching recognised, as did early pioneers 125 years earlier, that railways were good for operating high density long distance services efficiently and safely.
So whether this was 250 passengers at 90mph between say London and major business centres with limited stops around the UK, or 500 tons of coal from the coalfields to major conurbations, or long distance fast container type traffic, he saw this as the future.
Then a double whammy hit the railways. In 1960, the steel industry went into recession reducing the need for heavy freight services while wages increased by 9% accompanied with a shorter working week for rail staff.
A one week traffic survey was carried out in April 1961 and this showed what everyone really knew, that the railways would go out of business of something wasn’t done. It showed that 50% of the route mileage produced just 1% of receipts. The report says that competition by road and air had hit the railways badly and that they could not compete in their current state.
Beeching said that the railways had to change to become competitive and that if fast limited stop services offering comfortable travel to passengers could be provided, this would allow the railways to survive and maybe grow a little in areas. But there were too many duplicated routes, an accident of history, so this had to be attended to by mass closures.
The report shows utilisation of carriages which starkly illustrates the economic issues. Some 2000 carriages were retained for holiday traffic and only used 10 times a year. It also suggests that a given route had to carry 6000 passengers a week to break even plus some freight service revenue and many branchlines failed to carry 1000 a week. Without freight, a line needed 10,000 passengers a week to break even on average.
Various solutions were explored such as running a railbus instead of a steam hauled train. Although this reduced the operating cost, stations, signalling and track still carried their high fixed costs. The other things looked at were reducing fares by half to attract passengers or doubling them to raise income. Other proposals were to close some stations and to run less trains. None of these were deemed to be practical propositions.
So the result was a proposal to close 5000 miles of track and reduce train running by 68million miles a year. This would immediately save £33m a year with a £15m revenue loss with more savings later when the track was lifted and liabilities ended.
London’s trains pretty much paid for themselves but by 1961, services were at capacity and passengers travelling in crowded trains within 20 miles of the capital. It was suggested to try and grow longer distance lucrative traffic, targeting up to 100 mile wide commuter belt around London.
Other conurbations’ commuter services did not pay their way so a report called ‘Total Social Benefit Studies’ was commissioned by the Government to see if was cheaper to close the railways or subsidise them.
The closure of thousands of stations obviously hit postal services but 3,368 stations generated only 4% of receipts and the Post Office at the time lost £8.4m a year, so something had to be done. Freight was hugely unprofitable with wagons laying idle for 10 days and working for just two days on average.
Coal and mineral traffic was profitable but individual wagonloads were not. In 1961 this traffic lost an estimated £57m on receipts of £105m. Beeching suggested that fast transferable container traffic was suited for the railways for distances over 100 miles along with coal, steel and other minerals. He laid the basis for today’s freight services with his ‘Liner Services’.
By reducing the railways, the cost of maintenance, staff and stock would be considerably reduced Beeching argued. There were very strong Unions at the time and conflict was inevitable, as were the closures.
Beeching argued that a Channel Tunnel was essential for business and the general economy and the project was stopped ten years later in 1973 as the oil crisis hit. He also argued railways should be run for society and not just for profit as he recognised the importance of both and the synergies they shared.
The Report concluded that financial breakeven would happen by 1970. But that is another story……………
The simple answer has to be yes he was. But you have to read the complete report and understand the railways and politics of the time to come to that conclusion.
Of course 50 years on he is being doubted but just 20 years ago the Railways Act was being pushed through Parliament to privatise the railways. This was designed to quietly manage a reduction in the rail network. But we all know how wrong that policy was now!
Join in our Railchat on Beeching on Thursday April 11th at 1600hrs.
Written by Phil Marsh
Posted on Tuesday 26th March 2013 | 7:05 AM
Chris Austin and I are interviewed in a short piece filmed yesterday on the West Somerset - a local objector to the closure is on too. Thanks to everyone at the WSR for making us so welcome.