Sixty years after Beeching’s axe fell, the railways are dying all over again
Civil servants are rarely well known beyond Whitehall’s corridors of power. Occasionally, they are thrust reluctantly into the spotlight, as Sir Chris Whitty and other medical officers were during the pandemic. But they are positively anonymous by comparison with arguably the most infamous government official of the 20th century, Dr Richard Beeching. To anyone who grew up in the 1960s, his name is ineradicably associated with one of the greatest cultural and industrial upheavals of modern times.
Indeed, his notoriety resounds even to this day, 60 years after the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways, better known as the Beeching Report, in March 1963. This was commissioned by the Conservative government to try to stem the cost to the Exchequer of propping up a railway system that was being used less and less as car ownership grew.
The report opens by quoting the brief provided by the prime minister, Harold Macmillan: “First, the industry must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be modelled to meet current needs, and the modernisation plan must be adapted to this new shape”, with the premise that the railways should be run as a profitable business.
Beeching certainly adapted them to a new shape; but when it came to running them as a profitable business, that is another story altogether. The railways had been losing money for years before the war and continued to do so after nationalisation in 1948, only this time the taxpayer picked up the bill.
Reorganisation and modernisation had failed to stem the losses, so Beeching, a metallurgist, was tasked with slimming them down. He had served on an advisory group looking at transport finances and impressed the transport minister, Ernest Marples, who made him chairman of the new British Railways Board in 1961.
It was to be a fateful appointment. Beeching was an exceptional analyst and a stickler for detail. He studied traffic flows on all lines to identify “the good, the bad, and the indifferent”. He showed that the least used 50 per cent of stations contributed only 2 per cent of passenger revenue and that one third of route miles carried just 1 per cent of passengers. Out of 18,000 miles of railway, Beeching recommended that 6,000 – mostly rural and industrial lines – should be closed entirely, and others kept open only for freight. A total of 2,363 stations were to close. The report was accepted by the government and the axe fell, stunning local communities and prompting a controversy that is felt to this day.
Did Beeching go too far? Was he the butcher or the saviour of the railways (or a convenient scapegoat for government policy)? If you enjoy walking or cycling on what used to be a railway line to a town that seems big enough to have its own station yet has been cut off from the network for six decades, you may have wondered whether this was an act of vandalism or an unavoidable business decision.
The problem with which Beeching grappled – how to make the railways profitable – remains unanswered, with Government subsidies expected to be around £11 billion this financial year.
Privatisation 30 years ago broke up British Rail into more than 100 separate companies in the hope that competition would do the trick. But the over-complexity and separation of the infrastructure from the train operators was a mistake that the Government is now trying to rectify by setting up a new body called Great British Railways (GBR) to act as a “guiding mind” to run the network. Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, has also announced a new fares regime to replace the convoluted system that currently exists. This recognises that the fragmentation of the industry was an error – but so would be taking it back into state ownership, with all the inbuilt inefficiencies that would involve.
GBR is intended to sit somewhere between the Government and private operators. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – it sounds like a prototype for renationalisation. With so much public cash at stake, moreover, ministers will not be able to resist interfering and will get the blame whenever anything goes wrong.
The great difficulty, as it was for Beeching, is how to make the non-commuter lines profitable so they don’t need bailing out. Successive governments have sought to shift the burden of funding the railways more onto the people who use them through higher fares. After privatisation, there was a consistent increase in the proportion of rail costs funded by the taxpayer: by 2000, 50 per cent of costs were state subsidised and even by 2019, passengers were still only providing 48 per cent of rail industry income. During the pandemic this fell to just 18 per cent.
The Government hopes that the creation of GBR will bring the “whole system under single, national leadership with a new brand and identity”, with more sensible ticketing arrangements. But will it make any money and should it? Some argue that railways are a “public good” which should be subsidised in perpetuity because without them we are all the poorer. They are also used as a (very expensive) tool of social policy, as with HS2.
Then again, why should the majority of taxpayers who never set foot on a train pay for a new branch line from Little Snoozing to Great Snoring if just a few people use it? In fact, why should they pay for any of it? One answer is to discourage use of cars and road freight on environmental grounds, but as these switch to renewables, maybe the trains will be more polluting.
Before Covid there was a renaissance for rail with more passengers than at any time since the last war. The 2019 Tory manifesto somewhat nostalgically promised to reopen lines closed by Beeching and established a £500 million fund to do so. Some connections, such as Exeter to Okehampton, have been revived; but the pandemic has put paid to any widespread reversal of the Beeching cuts by accelerating the trend to home working and online shopping.
Over the years, there have been even more radical proposals for the railways than Beeching’s. Sir Alfred Sherman, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher in Opposition, suggested they all be tarmacked over and turned into roads. He was regarded as eccentric; but as motor vehicles become cleaner, maybe he had a point.