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 Kingdom.
Many railway lines were closed as a
result of the Beeching Axe
The name is that of the main author of
The Reshaping of British Railways
, Dr Richard
. 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
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
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.
Although Dr Beeching is commonly associated with railway closures,
a significant number of lines had actually closed before the
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
, road haulage
. 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 Birmingham, 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
With the onset of World War II
railways gained a reprieve as they became essential to the war effort
and were heavily used. By the time the
railways were nationalised
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 Anglia, 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
, whose most famous member was the poet
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
(BTC) unveiled the Modernisation Plan
in 1955, which
proposed to spend more than £1,240 million on modernising the
railways (£ as of ) , replacing steam
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
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
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
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
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.
When Beeching was chairman of British
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
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
At the time, the controversial report was called the
or the Beeching
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
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 Line from Crewe to Glasgow 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.
||Total length closed
|1954 to 1957
|Beeching report published
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
West Highland Line
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
dared to close it .
addition, lines such as the Tamar
Valley Line in Cornwall were kept
open because the local roads were poor.
Some lines not recommended for closure were eventually closed, such
as the Woodhead Line
Manchester and Sheffield in 1981, after the freight traffic, on
which it had relied, declined.
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
government. Dr Beeching
himself resigned in 1965. Although politicians were responsible for
rail closures, Dr Beeching's name has become synonymous with them
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
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
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.
An overgrown viaduct across Lobb Ghyll
in Yorkshire, built by the Midland Railway in 1888 and closed in
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
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
network, the advent of
and the sheer
economic costs of having two break-of-bulk points made
long-distance road transport a more viable alternative.
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 Sunderland to West Hartlepool line cost only £291 per mile to
operate,, and so closing them made little difference to the overall
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
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
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
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
many of those were elderly types, and running costs could be
greatly reduced with the introduction of diesel multiple units
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
threatened with closure, reprieved and now handles more traffic
(both passenger and freight) than at any time in its history.
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
It was built to the wider Continental
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
Tunnel rail link.
Since the opening of the Channel
Tunnel and High Speed 1
, there has been
discussion about 'High Speed 2
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
" 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
caused by increasing reliance on cars
which followed, and also by the general public's hatred of the
cuts. The 1973 oil crisis
be the final end of large scale railway closures, as it highlighted
the problems of relying entirely upon oil dependent road
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 Carlisle, Hawick and
Edinburgh, in 1969; plans have since been made in 2006 with
the approval of the Scottish Parliament to re-open a significant section of this
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
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
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-Tweed and Edinburgh.
The report met with fierce
resistance from many quarters and, having lost credibility, it was
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 Bicester to Princes Risborough, the latter was formally the junction of four
separate lines at an important railway
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.
line which was singled was the Kyle of Lochalsh Line from Inverness to Dingwall which is now the major barrier to increasing the
number of trains on the Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick.
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
. Similarly some road schemes have had costs
marginally reduced by requiring railway lines to be singled, such
as the Shrewsbury to Chester
Line from Chester to Wrexham General 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
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 Swindon 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.
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.
studies instigated by the now-defunct Greater London Council, the Snow Hill
tunnel, south of Farringdon station, was reopened for passenger use in 1988, providing
a link between the Midland Main
Line, from St
Pancras station, and the former Southern Railway, via
Bridge station. 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 Bedford to Brighton.
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.
Line (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.
Chiltern Main Line was redoubled
in 1998 between Princes Risborough and Aynho
Junction. Chandler's Ford 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 Parkway and opened in December 2008.
reopening is the Robin Hood Line in
Nottinghamshire, between Nottingham and Worksop via Mansfield, 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 Spalding, Ruskington Station re-opened on 5 May 1975. Metheringham
Station followed on 6 October 1975.
West Midlands a new Birmingham
Snow Hill station was opened in 1987 to replace the earlier Snow Hill
station. The tunnel underneath Birmingham city centre that served the station was also
reopened, along with the line towards Kidderminster and Worcester. This introduced a new service between
Birmingham and London, terminating at Marylebone. The former line from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton has been reopened as the Midland Metro tram
The line from Coventry to Nuneaton
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 Walsall–Hednesford line was reopened to passenger traffic in 1989
and extended to Rugeley in
However, regular passenger services were terminated
between Walsall and Wolverhampton in 2008 on cost and efficiency
Wales as a declining industrial region.
result, it lost the majority of its network. Since 1983 it has
experienced a major rail revival, with 32 new stations such as
Llanharan, and four lines reopened within 20 miles
(32 km) of each other: Abercynon–Aberdare, Barry–Bridgend via Llantwit Major, Bridgend–Maesteg and the Ebbw Valley
Line via Newbridge.
Scotland, the Edinburgh-Bathgate 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.
was and did. Plans
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 Chatelherault, Merryton and Larkhall 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 Edinburgh and Galashiels 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
without any rail links. In 2007 there has been a campaign to open
the East Fife Coast Line
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.
Several lines have also reopened as heritage railways
In June 2009, the Association of Train
called for a number of lines to be
reopened. A total of 14 new lines, with about 40 stations are
The lines involved, either wholly or in part, include:-
Cranleigh Line, the Bordon Light Railway, the Fawley Branch, the Torbay and Brixham Railway, the
Sutton Park Line, the Aldridge
- Brownhills Line, the Wisbech - March Line, the Fleetwood
Branch Line, the East Lancashire Railway, the Skelmersdale Branch, the Newbiggin Branch, the Blyth Branch Line , and the Durham -
Washington - Newcastle line.
In popular culture
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
a song called The Beeching Report
, criticising Beeching's
Flanders and Swann
, writers and
performers of satirical songs, wrote a lament for lines closed by
the Beeching Axe entitled "Slow
satirical magazine Private Eye, the column on railway issues, "Signal
Failures", is written under the pseudonym "Dr. B.
a reference to the report.
- 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.
- White, H. P. (1986). Forgotten Railways. ISBN