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.