Charles Loft, Last Trains, Dr Beeching and the Death of Rural England, Biteback Publishing, £20; Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, Holding the Line, how Britain’s Railways were saved, £20, Oxford Publishing Company
Richard Beeching is the most famous civil servant of the Twentieth century. A physicst working in the higher echelons of ICI, he was plucked from industry by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples, in 1961 as chairman of British Railways with the remit of stemming the losses. His name lives on in infamy, called into play whenever cuts in of any type of public service are being discussed. He is the pantomime villain in railway circles, blamed for the axe taken to the network in the aftermath of his Reshaping Report which resulted in the closure of 5,000 miles of line and 2,500 stations.
The 50th anniversary of his report this year has resulted in much reappraisal of both the impact of his report and his own role in the cuts. Charles Loft, as his book’s subtitle reflects, rightly points out that the Beeching closures have become perceived in the public mind as something much more significant than the mere closure of a means of transport. Instead, it is seen as the death of the John Major view of rural England where people cycled round to their neighbours for tea and where the village pub was the centre of a ‘hail fellow, well met’ community.
Beeching, therefore, has become a symbol of all the ills of modernisation, the catalyst for the transformation of rural Britain from Ambridge to Milton Keynes. As Loft puts it, ‘The level of infamy attached to Beeching’s reputation today reflects the place of the branch line in English culture’. But, he argues, the branch line was doomed, killed by the car and the lorry, not Beeching.
Loft, indeed, exonerates Beeching from blame. The poor man was not the architect of these changes, but merely had the task of sorting out an industry which had declined inevitably in the face of its own inefficiencies and competition from motor vehicles. Nor was there a conspiracy according to Loft. Ernest Marples, the transport minister who employed Beeching may have been a bit of a scallywag who later fled to Monaco and drove a car illegally, waving his resident’s permit pretending it was his licence at a Daily Mirror reporter, and he definitely preferred roads to rail, but that was merely a reflection of the times.
Not so, according to Austin and Faulkner who are not at all convinced of either Marples’ or Beeching’s innocence. Leaning heavily on their detailed research in Parliamentary papers (Faulkner is a life peer), their book is a history of the 20th century battles between the supporters and enemies of the iron road. And they find no shortage of villains and plots to kill off the railway.
Even before Beeching, there were closures of heavily loss-making services amid a growing feeling that this was a rundown and dying industry that was ripe for culling. They outline the background to the Beeching report, suggesting strongly that the whole episode resulted from a concerted attempt by both ministers and officials to favour roads as opposed to rail. After Beeching there were numerous attempts to bring about large scale closures and Austin and Faulkner have uncovered a series of real scandals. We know about Sir David Serpell, whose most extreme version recommended the closure of all but 1,650 miles of the 10,000+ network, and while we can now laugh about the idea of converting railway lines to roads, this was a serious proposal entertained by Sir Alfred Sherman, one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite advisers. However, the authors have uncovered other plots such as a secret meeting at Sunningdale in 1997 when ministers, officials and advisers discussed in some detail which reveals how a ‘conspiracy to close significant parts of the railway network still dominated the thinking of senior civil servants’. Anthony Crosland, too, got in the act telling Peter Parker, who was later BR chairman, in 1974, ‘Peter, I see a future for BR as a smaller, sensible little railway’.
Actually, it is quite possible that both these books are right. Beeching was not necessarily part of a conspiracy but his world view was blinkered and his approach was dictated by civil servants with Mr Toad rather than Fat Controller inclinations. Throughout the history of the railways there have been opponents keen to stymie its growth or kill it off, and oddly, it is only now, in the 21st century, that their value has been widely recognised across the political spectrum with more passengers than almost ever before, even if those branch lines will never be reopened.