On 27 March 1963, ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ was published. Better known as the Beeching Report, the paper was a seminal moment for Britain in the twentieth century. Dr Beeching’s report (and subsequent axe) recommended the closure of 5,000 miles of tracks and 2,363 stations, with 67,000 jobs lost. Most of Beeching’s initial suggestions were eventually implemented and our railways were changed forever.
Beeching is still a controversial figure. The trade unions, then and now, paint him as a mad axeman who destroyed a noble institution and the livelihoods of thousands of railway men. No wonder one ‘Dr B. Ching’ is still lampooned in Private Eye every week.
But serious reforms were needed. In 1961, British Railways were losing £300,000 every day, the equivalent of £5.4 million today (taking inflation into account). As Britain’s road network improved and car ownership rocketed, Beeching believed the car was king and railways were doomed to contraction. He was right on the first and wrong on the latter. Look at this graph of how passenger travel has changed since the 1950s:
Road traffic levels have grown beyond anything Beeching predicted — the car has indeed become king — but railway usage has almost doubled too. Growth looks minimal on the graph above but look closer at rail passenger numbers over the last 20 years:
Charts courtesy of UK Railway Statistics
Plus, at the end of last year, the Office of Rail Regulation reported record passenger numbers, record distances travelled and record income for train operators. Beeching’s mid-century shift must have done something right. That’s not to say he was a prophet. Train fares are increasing at an alarming rate, as highlighted by protests across the country today over the strain placed on commuters. Budget cuts continue to threaten the network — the TUC are warning against 20,000 job loses, unmanned stations and increased ticket office closures.
Driven by demand, several of Beeching’s closures have since been reversed. Look at the number of lines reopened since 1961. One of the most significant closures – a 98-mile stretch from Edinbrugh to Carlisle is now being rebuilt at a cost of £300 million, with passenger services to resume in 2014.
As I’m rattling up the country on a publicly owned East Coast mainline train, it’s difficult to imagine the Victorian railway Beeching inherited. The progress has been impressive. At the same time the carefully-constructed franchising system is failing and concerns remain that the network will drift back into unprofitable public ownership. Whatever happens, fifty years from today we’ll still be talking about Beeching. By then, the consensus will hopefully have shifted. Dr Beeching was unfairly targeted; instead, he did the right thing to save Britain’s railways.