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Many railway lines were closed as a result of the Beeching Axe
The Beeching Axe is an informal name for the British Government's attempt in the 1960s to reduce the cost of running British Railways, the nationalised railway system in the United Kingdommarker. The name is that of the main author of The Reshaping of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching. Although this report also proposed new modes of freight service and the modernisation of trunk passenger routes, it is remembered for recommending wholesale closure of what it considered little-used and unprofitable railway lines, the removal of stopping passenger trains and closure of local stations on other lines which remained open.

The report was a reaction to significant losses which had begun in the 1950s as the expansion in road transport began to attract passengers and goods from the railways; losses which continued to bedevil British Railways despite the introduction of the railway Modernisation Plan of 1955. Beeching proposed that only drastic action would save the railways from increasing losses in the future.

However, successive governments were more keen on the cost-saving elements of the report rather than those requiring investment. More than 4,000 miles of railway and 3,000 stations closed in the decade following the report, a reduction of 25 per cent of route miles and 50 per cent of stations. To this day in railway circles and among older people, particularly in parts of the country that suffered most from cuts, Beeching's name is still synonymous with mass closure of railways and loss of many local services.

Background

Pre-Beeching closures

Although Dr Beeching is commonly associated with railway closures, a significant number of lines had actually closed before the 1960s.

After growing rapidly in the 19th century, the British railway system reached its height in the years immediately before the First World War. In 1913 there were 23,440 route miles of railway.

After the war, the railways began to face competition from other modes of transport such as buses, cars, road haulage and air travel. Due to this, a modest number of railway lines were closed during the 1920 and 1930s. Most of these early closures were of short suburban lines which had fallen victim to competition from buses and trams which offered a more frequent service. An example of this was the Harborne Line in Birminghammarker, which closed to passengers in 1934.

Also, a number of lines had been built by rival companies between the same places to compete with each other. With the grouping of railway companies in 1923, many of these duplicating lines became redundant and were closed. In total 1,264 miles of railway were closed to passengers between 1923 and 1939.

With the onset of World War II, the railways gained a reprieve as they became essential to the war effort and were heavily used. By the time the railways were nationalised in 1948, they were in a substantially worn down condition, as little maintenance or investment was carried out during the war.

Early closures under British Railways

By the early 1950s, railway closures began again. The British Transport Commission (BTC) created the 'Branch Lines Committee' in 1949, with a remit to close the least used branch lines. Many of the most minor and little used lines were closed during this period. However some secondary cross country lines were closed as well such as the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway in East Angliamarker, which was closed in 1959. In total 3,318 miles of railway were closed between 1948 and 1962.

This period saw the beginnings of a closures protest movement led by the Railway Development Association, whose most famous member was the poet John Betjeman.

Background to the Beeching Axe

By the early 1950s, economic recovery and the end of fuel rationing meant the pre-war trends of increasing competition for the railways reasserted themselves as more people could afford cars and road haulage could compete for freight. The railways struggled to adapt. Britain's railways had fallen behind other countries. In an attempt to catch up, the British Transport Commission (BTC) unveiled the Modernisation Plan in 1955, which proposed to spend more than £1,240 million on modernising the railways (£ as of ) , replacing steam with diesel and electric locomotives. The plan promised to win back traffic and restore the railways to profit by 1962. Much of the Modernisation Plan was approved.

Traffic on the railways remained fairly steady during the 1950s, however the economics of the railway network steadily deteriorated. This was largely due to costs such as labour rising faster than income. Fares and freight charges were repeatedly frozen by the government in an attempt to control inflation and please the electorate.

The result was that by 1955 income no longer covered operating costs, and the situation steadily worsened. Much of the money spent on the Modernisation Plan had been borrowed, and much was wasted. By the early 1960s the railways were in financial crisis. Operating losses increased to £68m in 1960, £87m in 1961, and £104m in 1962 (£ as of ). The BTC could no longer pay interest on borrowed money, which worsened the financial problem. The government lost patience and looked for radical solutions.

In tune with the mood of the early 1960s, the transport minister in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government was Ernest Marples, director of a road-construction company (his two-thirds shareholding was divested to his wife while he was a minister to avoid potential conflict of interests). Marples believed the future of transport lay with roads, that railways were a relic of the Victorian past.

An advisory group known as the Stedeford Committee after its chairman, Sir Ivan Stedeford, was set up to report on the state of British transport and provide recommendations. Also on the committee was Richard Beeching, at the time technical director of ICI. He was later, in 1961, appointed chairman of the new British Railways Board. Stedeford and Beeching clashed on matters related to the latter's proposals to prune the rail infrastructure. In spite of questions in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was published only much later, and the proposals for the future of the railways that came to be known as the Beeching Plan were adopted by the government, resulting in the closure of a third of the rail network and the scrapping of a third of a million freight wagons.

Beeching believed railways should be a business and not a public service, and that if parts of the railway system did not pay their way — like some rural branch lines — they should close. His reasoning was that once unprofitable lines were closed, the remaining system would be restored to profitability.

Beeching I

When Beeching was chairman of British Railways he initiated a study of traffic flows on all the railway lines in the country.

This study took place during the week ending 23 April 1962, two weeks after Easter, and concluded that 30 per cent of miles carried just 1 per cent of passengers and freight, and half of all stations contributed just 2 per cent of income.

The report The Reshaping of British Railways (or Beeching I report) of 27 March 1963 proposed that of Britain's of railway, of mostly rural branch and cross-country lines should close. Further, many other rail lines should be kept open for freight only, and many lesser-used stations should close on lines that were to be kept open. The report was accepted by the Government.

At the time, the controversial report was called the Beeching Bombshell or the Beeching Axe by the press. It sparked an outcry from communities that would lose their rail services, many of which (especially in the case of rural communities) had no other public transport.

The government argued that many services could be provided more cheaply by buses, and promised that abandoned rail services would have their places taken by bus services.

A significant part of the report proposed that British Rail electrify some major main lines and adopt containerised freight traffic instead of outdated and uneconomic wagon-load traffic. Some of those plans were eventually adopted, however, such as the creation of the Freightliner concept and further electrification of the West Coast Main Linemarker from Crewemarker to Glasgowmarker in 1974. Additionally the staff terms and conditions were improved over time.

Rail closures by year



At its peak in 1950, British Railway's system was around and 6,000 stations. By 1975, the system had shrunk to of track and 2,000 stations; it has remained roughly this size thereafter.

Closures of unremunerative lines had been ongoing throughout the 20th century. Numbers increased in the 1950s, as the Branchline Committee of BR also looked for uncontentious duplicated lines as candidates for closure. Approximately of line had already been closed between nationalisation and the publication of Beeching's report. After publication, however, the closure process was accelerated markedly.

Year Total length closed
1950
1951
1952
1953
1954 to 1957
1958
1959
1960
1961
1962
Beeching report published
1963
1964
1965
1966
1967
1968
1969
1970
1971
1972
1973
1974


Recommendations not implemented

Not all the recommended closures were implemented; a number of lines were kept open for political reasons. For example, lines through the Scottish Highlands such as the Far North Line and the West Highland Line, although listed for closure, were kept open, in part because of pressure from the powerful Highland lobby. The Central Wales Line was said to have been kept open because it passed through so many marginal constituencies that no-one dared to close it .

In addition, lines such as the Tamar Valley Line in Cornwallmarker were kept open because the local roads were poor.

Some lines not recommended for closure were eventually closed, such as the Woodhead Line between Manchester and Sheffield in 1981, after the freight traffic, on which it had relied, declined.

Beeching II

This is what the BR network would have looked like if Beeching's (II) plans had been implemented — only the lines represented in black would have remained open
In 1964, Dr Beeching issued a second, less well-known, report The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, widely known as Beeching II, which went even farther than the first report. The report singled out lines that were believed to be worthy of continued large-scale investment. Although closures were not mentioned specifically it was widely accepted that any line not mentioned as worthy of investment in the report was to close.

Essentially, this meant that all lines other than inter-city routes and important commuter lines around cities had little future and should close. The map on the right shows that if the report had been implemented, the railway would have been cut to 7,000 miles (11,260 km), leaving Britain with little more than a skeletal system. Several parts of the country, including much of Wales, Northern Scotland, Yorkshire, East Anglia and the South West of England, would have been left largely devoid of railways.

Potential major closures under Beeching II



The report was seen as a step too far and was rejected by the Labour government. Dr Beeching himself resigned in 1965. Although politicians were responsible for rail closures, Dr Beeching's name has become synonymous with them ever since.

Changing attitudes and policies

It was in 1964 that a Labour government was elected under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. During the election campaign, Labour promised to halt the rail closures if elected. Once elected, however, they quickly backtracked on this promise, and the closures continued, at a faster rate than under the previous administration and until the end of the decade.

In 1965, Barbara Castle was appointed transport minister and she decided that at least 11,000 route miles (17,700 km) would be needed for the foreseeable future and that the railway system should be stabilised at around this size.

Towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that rail closures were not producing the promised savings or bringing the rail system out of deficit and were unlikely ever to do so. Mrs. Castle also stipulated that some rail services that could not pay their way but had a valuable social role should be subsidised. However, by the time the legislation allowing this was introduced into the 1968 Transport Act, (Section 39 of this Act made provision for a subsidy to be paid by the Treasury for a three-year period) many of the services and railway lines that would have qualified and benefited from these subsidies had already been closed or removed, thus lessening the impact of the legislation. Nevertheless, a number of branch lines were saved by this legislation.

Aftermath

An overgrown viaduct across Lobb Ghyll in Yorkshire, built by the Midland Railway in 1888 and closed in 1965.
The closures failed in their main purpose of trying to restore the railways to profitability, with the promised savings failing to materialise. By closing almost a third of the rail network, Beeching managed to achieve a saving of just £30 million, whilst overall losses were running in excess of £100 million. The shortfall arose mainly because the branch lines acted as feeders to the main lines and that feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed. This in turn meant less traffic and less income for the increasingly vulnerable main lines.

The assumption at the time was that car owners would drive to the nearest railhead (which was usually the junction where the closed branch line would otherwise have taken them) and continue their journey onwards by train, but in practice, having once left home in their cars, they used them for the whole journey. The same problem occurred with the movement of goods and freight—without branch lines, the railways lost a great deal of their ability to transport goods 'door to door.' Like the passenger model, it was assumed that lorries would pick up goods, transport them to the nearest railhead, where they would be taken across the country by train, unloaded onto another lorry and taken to their destination. However, the development of the motorway network, the advent of containerisation and the sheer economic costs of having two break-of-bulk points made long-distance road transport a more viable alternative.

Another reason for Beeching plan's not achieving any great savings is that many of the closed lines ran at only a small deficit, some lines such as the Sunderlandmarker to West Hartlepool line cost only £291 per mile to operate,, and so closing them made little difference to the overall deficit. Perhaps ironically, the busiest commuter routes have always lost the greatest amount of money, but even Beeching realised it would be a political and practical "disaster" to close them.

The Beeching reports made no attempt to implement ways by which loss-making lines might be made to remain open and turn a profit. The use of light railway concepts, already in use on some branch lines at the time of the report, was ignored by Beeching. Indeed, there is little in the Beeching report regarding general economies (in administration costs, working practices and so on). For example, a number of the stations that were closed were fully staffed eighteen hours a day, on lines which were controlled by multiple Victorian era signalboxes (again fully staffed, often throughout the day), and that reductions in operating costs could be made by reducing staff and removing redundant services whilst still enabling these stations to stay open. Such concepts have since been successfully utilised by British Rail and its successors on lesser-used lines that survived the axe (such as the East Suffolk Line from Ipswich to Lowestoft which survives as a "basic railway").. No thought was given to the fact that the large majority of branch lines were worked by steam locomotives, and many of those were elderly types, and running costs could be greatly reduced with the introduction of diesel multiple units or railbuses.

In retrospect, many of the specific Beeching closures can be seen as very short-sighted, in that the routes would now be heavily used or even important trunk routes. The Settle-Carlisle Railway was threatened with closure, reprieved and now handles more traffic (both passenger and freight) than at any time in its history. The Great Central Main Line, the last trunk route built in Britain until the opening of High Speed 1 in 2007, was intended to provide a link to the north of England with a proposed Channel Tunnelmarker. It was built to the wider Continental loading gauge and constructed to the same standards as a modern high speed line, with no level crossings and curves and gradients kept to an absolute minimum. This line closed in stages between 1966 and 1969 after just 60 years of service, 28 years before the opening of the Channel Tunnelmarker rail link. Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1, there has been discussion about 'High Speed 2' linking the tunnel to the North of England and Scotland. However it would be difficult and expensive to construct as much of the former GCML route has been levelled or built on (see below).

Failures of bus-substitution

The "bustitution" policy which replaced rail services with buses also failed. In many cases the replacement bus services were far slower and less convenient than the train services they were meant to replace, resulting in them being extremely unpopular with the public. Furthermore, replacement bus services often simply ran between the now disused station sites, some of which were remotely situated from the communities they purported to serve. For all these reasons, most of the replacement bus services only lasted a few years before they were removed due to a lack of patronage, thus effectively leaving large parts of the country without any means of public transport. In practice, this policy proved unsuccessful, as the travelling public never saw a bus service as a suitable replacement for a rail service.

Final closures under Beeching

The closures were brought to a halt in the early 1970s when it became apparent that they were not useful, that the benefit of the small amount of money saved by closing railways was outweighed by the congestion and pollution caused by increasing reliance on cars which followed, and also by the general public's hatred of the cuts. The 1973 oil crisis proved to be the final end of large scale railway closures, as it highlighted the problems of relying entirely upon oil dependent road transport.

One of the last major railway closures (and possibly one of the most controversial) resulting from the Beeching Axe was of the 98-mile long (158 km) Waverley Route main line between Carlislemarker, Hawick and Edinburghmarker, in 1969; plans have since been made in 2006 with the approval of the Scottish Parliamentmarker to re-open a significant section of this line. With a few exceptions, after the early 1970s proposals to close other lines were met with vociferous public opposition and were quietly shelved; this opposition stemmed from the public's experience of the many line closures during the main years of the cuts in the mid and late 1960s. Today, Britain's railways, like nearly every other railway system in the world, still run at a deficit and require subsidies.

Disposals of land and structures

Notwithstanding the positive environmental implications of a reopening, many of the areas along these routes have expanded and grown over the last 40 years. Where some lines were not profitable in 1963 (on a backdrop of falling passenger numbers and a rise in car use on uncongested roads) it has been posited that they could well be profitable now, or at least could have a desirable impact on reducing road congestion, pollution and congestion on the railway lines that have remained open, and thus be worth operating with a government subsidy. However, in many instances it would be prohibitively expensive for lines closed by the Beeching Axe to be reopened; although it was not stipulated in the report, since Beeching there has been a policy of disposing of surplus-to-requirements railway land. Therefore, many bridges, cuttings and embankments have been removed and the land sold off for development; closed station buildings on remaining lines have often been either demolished or sold. This is as much a criticism of the policy since the Beeching closures of the wholesale disposal of former railway land rather than the protection of trackbeds using a system similar to the US Rail Bank scheme for possible future use. Furthermore, many redundant structures remain (such as bridges over railways and drainage culverts) and require ongoing maintenance while providing zero benefit; the costs involved have not been "saved" by closing the line.

Serpell Report

In the early 1980s, under the government of Margaret Thatcher, the possibility of more Beeching-style cuts was raised again, briefly. In 1983 Sir David Serpell, a civil servant who had worked with Dr Beeching, compiled what became known as the Serpell Report which set out a number of options. It is important to distinguish Beeching from Serpell: Beeching recommended closures and Serpell did not. However Serpell did allege that a profitable railway (if that was the aim) could only be achieved by closing much of what remained. The infamous "Option A" in this report was illustrated by a map of a truly vestigial system with, for example, no railways west of Bristol and none in Scotland apart from the central belt. This was much more than Beeching had ever dared to suggest. Serpell was shown to have some serious weaknesses, such as the closure of the Midland Main Line (a busy route for coal transport to power stations, the conversion of the Great Central Line to a bus route (politically unacceptable due to the area it served), and even the East Coast Main Line between Berwick-upon-Tweedmarker and Edinburgh. The report met with fierce resistance from many quarters and, having lost credibility, it was quickly abandoned.

Track rationalisation

One effect of the Beeching closures which was not always immediately obvious was the single tracking of some formerly double track sections of line. One such instance is the section of line from Bicestermarker to Princes Risboroughmarker, the latter was formally the junction of four separate lines at an important railway town. After the closure of the GCR and subsequent singling works, all of the stations on the line were reduced to just a single platform until the line was re-doubled by Chiltern Railways in the early part of the 21st century.

Another line which was singled was the Kyle of Lochalsh Line from Invernessmarker to Dingwallmarker which is now the major barrier to increasing the number of trains on the Far North Line from Inverness to Thursomarker and Wickmarker. The West of England Main Line, formerly an express route from London to the South-West, was largely singled west of Salisbury and effectively reduced to a secondary cross-country line, since at national level it was viewed as duplicating the Great Western Main Line. Similarly some road schemes have had costs marginally reduced by requiring railway lines to be singled, such as the Shrewsbury to Chester Line from Chestermarker to Wrexham Generalmarker line which has a dual carriageway bridge on the A483 over the railway with only space for a single track. This now hampers frequency and timekeeping on the north-south Wales railway service.

Singling has caused capacity problems for lines that are today carrying a volume of passengers that are much greater than those during the time of the Beeching report. Traffic on the single-tracked Golden Valley Line between Kemble and Swindonmarker and the Cotswold Line between Oxford and Worcester has increased to the point where redoubling is being carried out. On the Cotswold line, there are now twice as many trains trying to run on the single track than in the 1960s after singling, and this route is also now being redoubled. Punctuality and reliability can be harder to achieve on single lines; delays are added to delays where trains have to wait for a passing train to clear a single line section. Finally, journey times are extended as waiting time and catch up time is added to the timetable. A journey from London to Worcester takes much longer today than in years gone by.

Reopenings

Since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, road traffic levels have grown significantly and in some areas this has become close to gridlock. Furthermore, in recent years there have been record levels of passengers on the railways. A modest number of the railway closures have therefore been reversed.

In addition a small but significant number of closed stations have reopened, and passenger services been restored on lines where they had been removed. Many of these were in the urban metropolitan counties where Passenger Transport Executives have a role in promoting local passenger rail use.

London

After studies instigated by the now-defunct Greater London Council, the Snow Hill tunnelmarker, south of Farringdon stationmarker, was reopened for passenger use in 1988, providing a link between the Midland Main Line, from St Pancras stationmarker, and the former Southern Railway, via London Bridge stationmarker. This line, named Thameslink, now provides a north-south cross London rail link and it has been highly successful, providing a spine of service from Bedfordmarker to Brightonmarker. Although its closure was not a Beeching cut, its success demonstrates the possibilities for rail expansion, in contradiction of Beeching's approach. Transport for London is restoring most of the section of line which once connected Broad Street and Dalston Junction, as part of its East London Railway project on the Overground network.

South East

Part of the Varsity Linemarker (closed in 1967 but not mentioned by Beeching), the Oxford to Bicester Line was reopened in 1987 by the Network SouthEast sector of British Rail. Full re-opening of the Western section of the Varsity line looks likely to happen by 2028. The Chiltern Main Line was redoubled in 1998 between Princes Risboroughmarker and Aynho Junction. Chandler's Fordmarker in Hampshire opened its new railway station in 2003, on the Romsey to Eastleigh link which had closed to passengers in 1969. Part of the London to Aylesbury Line was extended north along the former Great Central Main Line to a brand new station called Aylesbury Vale Parkwaymarker and opened in December 2008.

East Midlands

A notable reopening is the Robin Hood Line in Nottinghamshiremarker, between Nottinghammarker and Worksopmarker via Mansfieldmarker, which reopened in the early 1990s. Previously Mansfield had been the largest town in Britain without a rail link.More immediate reopenings occurred on the Lincoln to Peterborough line. The section between Peterborough and Spalding closed to passengers on 5 October 1970 and re-opened on 7 June 1971. North of Spaldingmarker, Ruskington Stationmarker re-opened on 5 May 1975. Metheringham Stationmarker followed on 6 October 1975.

West Midlands

In the West Midlands a new Birmingham Snow Hill stationmarker was opened in 1987 to replace the earlier Snow Hill station. The tunnel underneath Birminghammarker city centre that served the station was also reopened, along with the line towards Kidderminstermarker and Worcestermarker. This introduced a new service between Birmingham and London, terminating at Marylebonemarker. The former line from Snow Hill to Wolverhamptonmarker has been reopened as the Midland Metro tram system. The line from Coventry to Nuneaton was reopened to passengers in 1988. Despite the successful and potential re-opening of many rail routes as light-rail and metro lines, the concept is still under-threat due to the varying popularity of these schemes with successive governments. The WalsallmarkerHednesfordmarker line was reopened to passenger traffic in 1989 and extended to Rugeley in 1997. However, regular passenger services were terminated between Walsall and Wolverhampton in 2008 on cost and efficiency .

South Wales

Beeching saw South Walesmarker as a declining industrial region. As a result, it lost the majority of its network. Since 1983 it has experienced a major rail revival, with 32 new stations such as Llanharanmarker, and four lines reopened within 20 miles (32 km) of each other: AbercynonmarkerAberdaremarker, BarrymarkerBridgendmarker via Llantwit Major, Bridgend–Maestegmarker and the Ebbw Valley Line via Newbridge.

Scotland

In Scotlandmarker, the Edinburgh-Bathgatemarker line, reopening in 1986, was the first success of a new policy introduced by the Thatcher government of experimental reopenings that would become permanent only if well-used. It was and did. Plans are now in hand to reopen the 15 mile section between Bathgate and Drumgelloch, which will restore the complete through route from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Bathgate. More recently, a four-mile (6.4 km) section of the Argyle Line was reopened in December 2005, serving Chatelheraultmarker, Merrytonmarker and Larkhallmarker for the first time since 1968.

After several years of 'false' starts dating to the 1980s, the railway from Stirling to Alloa reopened on 19 May 2008, providing a passenger (and freight on to Kincardine) route once again after a 40 year gap. A 35-mile (56 km) stretch of the former Waverley Route between Edinburghmarker and Galashielsmarker via Dalkeith is expected to be reopened in 2013 now that funding has been approved. The closure of the line in 1969 left the Scottish Borders area without any rail links. In 2007 there has been a campaign to open the East Fife Coast Line from Kirkcaldy to Leven and maybe even on to St Andrews.

Laurencekirk station on the mainline between Arbroath and Aberdeen was shut in 1967 but 42 years later in May 2009 it was reopened. This was the 77th new or reopened station in Scotland since 1970 - others include Gretna Green, Dyce and New Cumnock - all closed in the mid 1960s but reinstated.

Heritage railways

Several lines have also reopened as heritage railways.

2009 report

In June 2009, the Association of Train Operating Companies called for a number of lines to be reopened. A total of 14 new lines, with about 40 stations are involved.

The lines involved, either wholly or in part, include:-

In popular culture

The BBC TV comedy series, Oh, Doctor Beeching!, which ran from 1995-1997, was sent in a small fictional branch line railway station threatened with closure under the Beeching Axe.

British rock band I Like Trains wrote a song called The Beeching Report, criticising Beeching's reforms.

Flanders and Swann, writers and performers of satirical songs, wrote a lament for lines closed by the Beeching Axe entitled "Slow Train."

In the satirical magazine Private Eyemarker, the column on railway issues, "Signal Failures", is written under the pseudonym "Dr. B. Ching" as a reference to the report.

See also



References

Further reading

  • Freeman Allen, G. (1966). British Railways after Beeching. Shepperton: Ian Allan. (No ISBN)
  • Gourvish, T. R. (1974). British Rail 1948 - 1973: A Business History. Cambridge.
  • Henshaw, David 1994). The Great Railway Conspiracy. ISBN 0-948135-48-4.
  • White, H. P. (1986). Forgotten Railways. ISBN 0-946537-13-5.


External links




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