Rail 717: Beeching guilty as charged but should not have been alone in the dock

It’s Beeching bonanza time. This month sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of the report, called blandly The Reshaping of British Railways, with no mention of Richard Beeching’s name, which along with Beveridge is probably the most famous government report of the 20th century. Already countless newspaper articles and radio programmes are being prepared to mark the event and Beeching’s name will resume his starring role as bogeyman in the next few weeks. At least to help inform the coverage, brilliantly produced facsimiles of the report are available cheaply from National Archives.

There are several depressing aspects to this. It is sad that the one British Railways chairman’s name to live on is that of the man whose name is barely ever mentioned separately from the words axe or closures. It is source of regret, too, that when there is so much to celebrate about the state of today’s railways, it is this anniversary which attracts so much attention.

However, if all this coverage helps to set the record straight, then that will help. Beeching may have made mistakes, and his analysis was undoubtedly flawed, but he was part of a longer term process that was inevitable and he cannot be blamed to its overall thrust. Beeching is an all too easy hate figure with his bald head and passing resemblance to his sinister contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock. It’s almost, too, as if his name has just the right ring to elicit antagonism – would the closures have been known by the name of the BR chairman had been called Smith or Jones?

The report is remarkably succinct and its key thrust is well known. The most famous section set out the bare statistics which seemed compelling and devastating: ‘One third of the total route mileage caries about 1 per cent of the total passenger miles….[and] one third of the freight ton miles’. In a similar vein, half the mileage carried only 4 per cent of passenger miles and 5 per cent of freight. Similarly, for stations, one third of the 7,000 stations produced less than 1 per cent of total passenger receipts and half just 2 per cent. At the other end of the scale, just 34 stations, half a per cent of the total, produced a quarter of receipts.’

The implications were all too obvious. Huge swathes of these lines and hundreds of stations had to be closed. Beeching’s approach to the railways was to view it as a conventional business in which each part had to make a profit. There was no talk in those days of cost benefit analysis and ‘externalities’, the benefits of the railway accruing to non users such as motorists who have less congested roads because many people are taking the train or employers who have better access to the labour market. Nor was the death toll on the roads – then nearly 8,000 per year, four times current levels with less than half the traffic – taken into account in the equation. Indeed, there was no equation. Moreover, Beeching’s analysis was based on the notion that people were indifferent to the mode of travel. So they would take a bus instead of a train, or simply drive, even though there might be epic traffic jams.

Unprofitable activities, therefore had to be closed down, even if lots of people were using them. Around 5,000 route miles out of 17,000 and a third of stations were to be closed  It was this emphasis on closing down any activity that was unprofitable that led to the worst damage caused by the closures – which were not Beeching closures, because he did not have the power to close any lines, as it was the politicians who made the final decision. But by and large they adopted his recommendations although some lines were saved after local campaigns – ironically, not necessarily those that should have been. David Henshaw, in his book The Great Railway Conspiracy, the best analysis of the Beeching era, reckons that around 1,200 miles of ‘financially viable or socially necessary’ lines should never have been considered for closure.

The key problem was that Beeching was not really batting for the railways. Although he did emphasise one or two positives, such as his support for Freightliner and intercity passenger services, saving money was the main imperative, not creating a railway for the future. Partly this was not his fault. The prevailing ethos in the early 1960s was that the car was king and that it would form the basis of all future transport systems. This was a failure of imagination that demonstrated Beeching’s limitations and one which perhaps someone with a wider view of the history and potential of the railways might have.

Contrast this with what happened when the Serpell Report, which suggested various options to cut back on the railways, was published a couple of decades later during the Thatcher years. This was written for the government by an outsider – Sir David Serpell, though he was a board member. When BR was given an early sight of the report, Sir Peter Parker, its chairman, leaked the most outrageous option – cutting the railways to 1,630 miles – and effectively killed off the whole issue.

Of course it is easy to be critical of the Beeching process with the advantage of hindsight, but there were fundamental mistakes in the report which ultimately had a major impact on the railways. One was the haste with which it was produced and implemented. Chopping the unprofitable sections to leave a profitable core railway is the holy grail of railway economics. But like the holy grail, it has never been found and even today it is impossible to know what the effects of cutting a branch line – either in terms of income towards the whole railway or the savings in costs that would arise from closure. Beeching’s most dishonest tactic was to assess all the ticket income in one single week in April which was far too narrow as a base and ignored the important summer traffic.

It is easy to get sentimental. Many branch lines had to go, although more could have been saved had greater attention been paid to costs. Having a stationmaster, porter and a crew of three on each train on a little used line was obviously a relic of the past, and Beeching totally failed to address the issue of how to reduce costs. He never examined how cutting back on unnecessary expense might make lines viable

It is important to note, too, that the core railway was saved. In fact, as Chris Austin and Richard Faulkner, the authors of a new book, Holding the Line which examines the way the railways have survived so well into the 21st century despite so many attempts to cut and cull them, Beeching’s less well known second report, on duplication of main lines, published two years later, was in many respects more damaging: ‘In almost every case, the Trunk Route was even more damaging to today’s railway than the first Beeching Report, creating bottlenecks which have either been opened up again at significant cost, or await funding to replace capacity lost in the 1960s and 1970s.

While there is no doubt that the Beeching report was highly damaging to the railways it is not Beeching who should bear responsibility for most of the series of errors that led to the cutbacks going too far. His most outrageous suggestions could have been rejected, either by BR managers or politicians. Some, indeed, such as Oxford – Cambridge were not even in his original report. British Rail later tried to close various other key lines, most notoriously Settle – Carlisle.

While Beeching compounded his misguided thinking through dodgy analysis, the use of figures that verged on the dishonest and his narrow minded focus on profitability, it was the politicians and many other BR executives who were most to blame. First, there was a group of Tory politicians who in the late 1950s deliberately tried to undermine the rail system in favour of the road network, most notably the man who appointed Beeching, Ernest Marples. Then there was the failure of the Labour government led by Harold Wilson, to fulfil its commitment in the 1964 election manifesto to reverse the proposed closures. And finally there were the BR managers who were all to pleased to wield the axe rather than address the fundamental management problems and overstaffing that could have saved many lines. Beeching’s role, in the process of change in Britain’s railways has, therefore, been exaggerated and he is one of a much larger number of culprits for the errors that were made in bringing about what actually was a necessary reorganisation of Britain’s railways.


Announcements – the other side of the story


Here’s an irony. Soon as I had written about the excess of announcements on a Javelin journey, I travelled on a SWT suburban service to Norbiton from Waterloo, an unfamiliar route And guess what – there were no announcements apart from a couple from the guard saying it was a train for Strawberry Hill. The automatic indicators were, too, not functioning and I had some difficulty peering out at the dark stations to find my stop.  Impressively, however, I tweeted this and within minutes SWT asked me what train it was and reported the matter. The guard, of course, should have picked up on the lack of automatic announcements and announced each stop.

That does not mean, of course, that there should be the abundance of announcements I complained about. A train operator source responded to my previous article by suggesting that whenever they ask passengers, they apparently want more announcements not fewer. That’s bunkum. What people want is an informative announcement system which gives, say, the names of the stations at the beginning of the journey, and one as each station is being approached. No one wants stuff about CCTV cameras, taking ‘all your belongings’, ‘safety cards in Braille are available’ and all the rest. And as for ‘elf and safety requirements, that’s bunkum, too since the number and type of announcements varies from the more than 94 on a Javelin journey with 25 stops, to virtually none, and yet the Office of Rail Regulation is not contemplating taking any train operators to court over lack of them.

  • John Bright

    It is indeed total bunkum. I have complained to South eastern on a number of occasions, I think you summed the problem up perfectly as removing the pleasure of travel. On one occasion someone at South eastern customer services told me they get more complaints about announcements than anything else. He made it quite clear he didn’t mean a shortage of announcements. He then told me my comments would be passed to their train manager. Whether this is the individual who decides what announcements will be made he didn’t say but one would think it should come from someone rather more senior. Please keep up your campaign, I’m not getting much value out of my railcard avoiding the announcements.

  • Chris Lefort.

    There’s an error in your last paragraph on Beeching. I think instead of rail network, you mean road network.

  • Greg Tingey

    Indeed the name of the real villain – the criminal fraudster Marples never seems to get a mention. ….
    As for “announcements” – I’m afraid that “they” have decided what’s best for us – with LUL being by far the worst offender.
    Nothing will be done until we get a crowd-crush disaster, caused or exacerbated by far too many, far too loud far too repetitive & confusing “announcements”

  • stimarco

    I do feel Beeching is too often judged by people applying the crystal clarity of hindsight and modern thinking on running large organisations and networks. Rail transport at the time was viewed by almost *everyone* – including much of the general public – as an anachronistic relic, with labour-intensive infrastructure and even many steam locomotives locomotives still in use. (The “Modernisation Plan” of the 1950s was also the West Coast Route Modernisation fiasco of its day and still fresh in many politicians’ minds.)

    Local and regional trains were dirty, noisy, bone-shakers that served windswept platforms at increasingly filthy and ill-maintained stations, while cars, running on cheap petrol, would take you from door to door. Freight was being haemorrhaged to far more flexible road alternatives. And rail freight really wasn’t helped by the increasing number of strikes either. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Once a business transferred away from rail freight, there was absolutely no chance of it switching back again.

    The rubber tyre was king. Tram tracks had either already gone, or were being torn up. Cobbled streets with minimal car-friendly signage were being upgraded to tarmac, complete with painted lines, pelican crossings and roundabouts.

    You claim that someone other than Beeching might have seen the congestion and anti-roads backlash coming, but that didn’t really kick off until some years later. And Beeching was a “big picture” man. He came from ICI, which was already a massive chemicals conglomerate at the time, but, despite his qualifications, at that level of management, you simply aren’t concerned with the details and minutiae of how a business is run.

    You don’t get to *be* the manager of a business like ICI if you don’t have some talent for the job and a desire to rise to that kind of challenge. When Beeching came to BR from ICI, he asked BR’s management teams how they calculated the various fees they charged for tickets, freight handling and so on – in effect, he wanted to know how much each component of the organisation was costing to run, and how they worked that out. (Today, it’s called “business metrics” and it’s taught in basic “How to run a business” classes.)

    It turned out that BR’s management had no clue at all how to answer such questions. There *were* no business metrics! There was no way to determine exactly what everything was costing. Money went in. Something mysterious happened to it and – abracadabra! – all that money disappeared again. Nobody had a bloody clue how BR actually *worked* at this level, because its nationalisation had been just as big a botch-job as John Major’s subsequent (re-)privatisation. BR’s management tiers were a complete and utter basket-case.

    While Beeching’s pruning of the network was, with hindsight, too harsh, there is one very important change that happened during his tenure: BR finally started to grip on its management and finances. It would take until the 1970s and 1980s for that sea-change to pay off fully, but we really do have Beeching’s insights in how massive organisations like ICI and BR *should* be run to thank for at least starting that process.

    Ernest Marples, on the other hand, was a crook. Although it’s sad to say that the political landscape today is little different. We’re just more jaded about politicians now and consider that kind of venality and corruption a given.

  • stimarco

    Re. automated announcements:

    It never ceases to amaze me just how awful the _quality_ of some of these announcement systems are. All too often, nobody bothers to provide direction to the voice artists. Sound samples are also frequently badly trimmed, resulting in the timing being noticeably ‘off’, with completely unnecessary pauses where another sample is swapped into place.

    If you’re ever in Rome, you can hear an example of both of these avoidable technical problems on their metro’s “A” line, particularly when the announcer states which side the platform is on: the intonation for the right-hand exit (“destro”) sounds like a question, (“…destro?”) and has a noticeable pause before it too.

    Some of Italy’s regional commuter trains make me at their appalling quality. (It doesn’t help that I know exactly how it’s done behind the scenes. I’ve been both an audio engineer and a programmer in the past.) There’s one particular route where each station is announced in both Italian and English, but rather than using the same actor’s voice throughout the English version, they swap in the Italian voice to read the station names. It sounds very jarring.

    On the other hand, Rome’s Metro announcements are very simple: as the train leaves a station, it’ll tell you what the next station is. As it approaches said station, it repeats the announcement, adding information about which side of the train the platform is in. (The dot-matrix signs also show an arrow pointing to the exit side.) That’s it. No noise pollution.

    Then again, only metro line “B” has a (brand new) branch on it; line “A” is still a simple line with just one terminus at each end. Both lines also have ramrod-straight platforms throughout. I can understand why LU might need more complex announcements for, say, the District and Northern lines, with their multiple routing options and sharply curved station platforms.

    A complex network will require similarly complex documentation to aid its navigation. This is unavoidable. However, the endless barking at passengers to keep their bags, mind the gaps, stop smoking, stop drinking, etc., is idiotic. It encourages “tuning-out” of each announcement, so passengers simply stop paying them any heed.

    User Interface / Interaction Design is actually a pretty well-known science these days and the above is a known issue: repetitive actions tend to become automatic. It’s a basic tenet of learning. It’s the reason a musician will practice and practice and practice, until they no longer have to *consciously* think about what they’re doing: the knowledge is promoted to the subconscious level. This is by design: it’s very much how the human brain is wired. Any design that fails to take this into account is inherently dangerous. (Yes, AWS, I’m looking at you.)

    In the IT world, the most infamous example was the “User Access Control” feature in the original release of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system, which had its paranoia cranked up to 11 and was thus prone to stopping everything and asking for your password almost every time you tried to do anything even remotely useful. The upshot was that users would blindly click on “Okay” whenever it appeared, or simply switch it off, thus negating all its security benefits. Its obnoxious and annoying frequency was dialled back in later releases, as well as in later versions of Windows, such as Windows 7.

    Similar design cock-ups have caused airline and train crashes in the past, so this really is an accident waiting to happen. Greg T. is right about this. It could certainly explain the Moorgate crash in the 1970s: driving back and forth along such a short branch line is inherently repetitive.

    What really boggles the mind is that this is a very basic part of Interaction Design and there are proper textbooks on the subject, so there really is no excuse for such design flaws today.

  • Keith

    During the 19 degree heat this week Stratford station was still droning “in this winter weather take extra care…”

    On Beeching, now we have a few useful reopened lines (Bridgenorth, Minehead, Swanage, Rawtenstall etc), it would be nice if they could actually be reintegrated into the network with through running by Train Operators. Still no sign of that happening anywhere – why not?

  • tom rose

    We all know now that Ernest Marples is the real crook in all this. What a terrible man. Authorising the destruction of such valuable infrastructure so as to enrich himself through his ownership of a company that built roads and bridges. What is hard to understand is why he was ever made Minister of Transport when the conflict of interests was so obvious.

    Beeching was just doing what his political masters wanted. But he cannot be washed squeaky clean, let alone credited with something positive, as tried by the earlier commenter “stimarco”. To base his assessment of passenger numbers on one week in April, to ignore overstaffing on branch lines as a cause of excessive costs, and to ignore the social benefits of many “unprofitable” lines can all be seen as part of a deliberate policy to portray the railways in the worst possible light. And that was just as obvious at the time. He made no honest attempt to arrive at the truth.

    Then Harold Wilson managed to destroy any faith I might have had in politicians and the political process when he reneged on the promise to halt the cuts. My 9-year old mind wondered how someone could make a promise that won them many votes and immediately renege on it with no consequences, no sanctions and no redress for the cheated voters.

    [I was still wondering the same many years later when Nick Clegg reneged on his promise to vote against cuts to student tuition fees. Without that promise his party would never have won so many seats. At least he and his party paid for breaking trust with their supporters at the next election. Their vote collapsed.]

    What really irks is that these people (senior politicians) still use their political influence or connections made through politics to enrich themselves. Look at the post-prime-ministerial career of another political slimeball, Tony Blair, or the many MPs that go straight from Westminster into a lucrative directorship with some company that they favoured while in office. And they hand out titles “Lord this”, “Baron that” to each other. Even Marples was made a Baron … ironically not long before his dubious financial dealings led to him running away as a tax exile.

    How is it that so often the people vote untrustworthy scoundrels into office, when they could equally easily give power to men and women of integrity?

  • Neil Saunders

    Wolmar is a good deal kinder to Beeching than the facts of the matter permit.

    As for stimarco’s apologia, with its little prose-poem in the second paragraph about “bone-shakers” plying between “filthy and ill-maintained” stations, he seems to be channelling the spirit of the demonic Doctor himself.

    Given that it is impracticable to relocate the British Isles to the West Indies or just off the Hawaiian coast, windswept platforms will remain a regrettable fact of life there so long as they are permitted to remain in use at all.