Some thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the report that devastated Britain’s network of branchline railways, with a look to the future.
Many moons ago, I wondered why there were no train lines linking Cambridge to towns like Bedford and Huntingdon. The reason being the radio regularly contained reports of rush hour traffic and accidents on the A14. It was only in more recent years that I discovered that there were once two separate railway lines that once linked Cambridge to towns and villages to its west. One was the old Cambridge to St Ives railway on which now lies the Cambridge Guided Bus, and the other is the old Varsity Line.
Several years ago, I randomly struck gold in coming across the New Adlestop Map which is an electronic map showing the pre-Beeching rail network. I still find the map fascinating to this day, wondering which old rail lines I’d like to see recommissioned and brought back into full use, along with those I’d like to see upgraded.
Who was this Beeching chap and what did he do?
A physicist and engineer, Richard Beeching was brought into the civil service to the Ministry of Transport (where we get the term “MoT” from) to make the railways profitable again. He was brought in by the then Conservative Transport Minister Ernest Marples. Marples was controversial because of his links and financial interests with the road lobby – in particular standing to benefit from the delivery of massive roadbuilding contracts at the time of the expansion of the motorway network. He also ultimately fled the UK because of ‘tax issues’.
Because it was Beeching’s name at the top of the report, it was him that would go down in history as being the man responsible for ripping up the UK’s rail network. It was his report that led him to being labelled the most hated civil servant in Britain.
“With a business background at ICI and no experience in the rail industry, Beeching was appointed…to take charge of an ailing network, in decline since the early 20th Century and indebted to the tune of £136m.
His £24,000 salary was attacked on newspaper front pages but he confidently claimed he could make the railways pay for themselves.”
I’m not going to go into huge detail on what the report said. The maps I’ve linked to more than speak for themselves. Ditto with the quotation above – the start of bringing in someone with no background in a given industry or area to write an ‘independent’ report that politicians use as political cover for unpopular decisions? Think Lord Browne and tuition fees, someone who spent four decades in the oil industry then brought in to overhaul higher education.
Was the wrong man brought in to answer the wrong question?
Making the railways pay for themselves…where have I heard that one before? Bringing down costs is one thing – and part of Beeching’s analysis was to look at the number of passengers using the lines in order to help decide which ones should be saved and which should be scrapped. Defenders of Beeching also point towards the development of faster intercity services too.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, did Beeching simply follow the beans or should he and Marples have had a stronger more positive vision for the railways? Actually, responsibility here lies with Harold MacMillan, the Prime Minister of the day who should not have appointed someone with massive conflicts of interest as Minister of Transport. What would a report commissioned by a minister that cared for the railways but knew something had to be done, and written by someone who knew the industry – warts and all – have looked like?
We cannot forget though that this was also a time when there was a modal shift away from trains towards cars. To what extent this was driven by demand and to what extent it was driven by vested interests is something beyond my knowledge. What is noticeable from the archive photographs of the protest is how placards show people were concerned about their communities. Yet Beeching’s defenders would argue that they didn’t care enough to make the railway network viable. Hence the closure of so many lines.
Should successive governments and councils have taken a more flexible view on keeping rail corridors open?
Well that’s a loaded question – of course they should have. But that’s easy to say with the hindsight of 50 years. Asking someone in 1963 to predict what the future would look like in 50 years time…well…try that now. What will the UK look like in 2063? But the point is having the flexibility of ‘will we need this corridor for other forms of transport a long time in the future?’
One of the things that was argued at the time was using the various bus and coach networks to compensate for the loss of rail links. Yet one of the things bus and coaches regularly find themselves trapped in is traffic – especially in urban areas. Coming back to the ‘flexibility’ issue, was it a reasonable thing to ask successive governments to consider what hitting transport capacity limits will look like? Think of cities full of skyscrapers. Big work buildings need significant transport networks to allow people to commute in and out of them. This is one of the things that disturbs me about Cambridge – a number of big buildings are going up on my side of town. These are clearly aimed at a commuter market (and badly designed too) yet the railway station and lines are at capacity, as any rush-hour commuter will tell you.
Electrifying the railways
I think it was back in 1997 when I visited my older brother at university that I found to my horror I was on a diesel chugmobile of a train. I didn’t like such trains then and still don’t now. Because most of the trains that go into and out of Cambridge were electrified back then, I assumed this was true for the rest of the country. But actually, very few lines are electrified. Have a look at this map. If you are a Labour voter outside of London and the South East, you should be horrified that there was no programme of electrification under 13 years of a Labour government. So when one of Labour’s shadow front bencher’s came to Cambridge in 2012, she got ambushed by your favourite dragon fairy, thus we had an interesting conversation about all things transport policy while she tamed Puffles with tea & cake.
One of the things the Coalition has got right is the announcement of spending on railway infrastructure – in particular the electrification of a number of lines. Personally I’d like them to go further in terms of the number of lines, such as the Stansted Airport -Birmingham line, as well as trying out new things such as solar-powered lines like this one. It’s one of those things I ponder on longer train journeys – like putting wind turbines on some of the metal poles that the overhead wires are tied to, so that every time a train whooshes past, the turbines turn. (Whether it would efficiently generate enough electricity is not something I’ve looked at!)
The big picture on transport, industry and housing
This perhaps is one of the things that Beeching and successive governments haven’t had is that wider strategic vision for transport within the context of industry and housing. Ditto making the case to the road lobby about how public transport reduces congestion on the roads, which is of benefit to them. On freight, such questions I’d ask are:
- What are the rail freight lines we have?
- What are the rail freight lines we need in order to have the biggest impact on reducing congestion on the roads?
- Where can we upgrade lines and where do we need to build new ones?
- What supporting infrastructure needs to be put in place to make the lines sustainable?
I’ve moaned about Oxford and Cambridge transport before. I regularly moan at my local politicians from all parties about this. I’m surprised still that no senior politician has stated publicly that their party’s policy is to reopen the Varsity line or equivalent. My personal take is to go beyond just Oxford-Cambridge by rail and extend an electrified line eastwards to Norwich and Ipswich, and westward all the way to Bristol and Wales. Can it be done in a manner that can also take up a lot of passenger traffic that otherwise has to go into London & out again?
Finally, there’s this little idea that I had on digitally mapping the UK rail network pre and post-Beeching. This is my challenge to the Department for Transport. Can it commission someone to create a tool that will aid transport planners at all levels to see which routes can be reopened for rail/light rail / trams. Precedent has already been set with this tool for HS2. Having a user-friendly tool like this could spark the imagination of people far more passionate and wiser than I. Otherwise we only have the PDF New Adlestrop map to go by.