Rail 600: Beeching cannot be blamed for all the railway’s ills

The BBC is featuring a Beeching season this autumn, with a whole host of programmes kicked off by an assessment of the railway enthusiasts’ hate figure by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop. There are also a series of regional programmes looking at the effects of the closures in every part of the country.

A reassessment of Beeching it timely. It is all too easy to jump on the Beeching as anti-christ bandwagon and actually that does the railway lobby no favours. Of course it is right to view him critically. His infamous report published in 1963 did, indeed, envisage the closure of 5,000 route miles, almost a third of the railway, as well as similar proportion of the 7,000 stations. While certainly he lacked perspective and failed to recognise the true value for an area of retaining a railway, it is too easy to demonise him and blame him for the fact that the closure programme went much too far.

Already, as far back as the time of nationalisation in 1948, it had been recognised that around 30 per cent of the then nearly 20,000 route miles was uneconomic and by the time of Beeching’s arrival at the British Railways Board in 1961 half had already been closed. Certainly there was a case for many closures of branch lines which were not only uneconomic but pretty much redundant with poor and infrequent services used by few people. The mistake was to have such a hurried programme of closures which were assessed on the basis of little evidence and with little regard to the wider consequences. And British Railways’ tactic of gradually reducing services on lines it secretly earmarked for closure until no one bothered to use them, meant that many of Beeching’s recommendations were effectively predetermined.

Moreover, he cannot be blamed for all the closures in the 1960s and 1970s.

A mitigating feature of the Beeching story is that it was the politicians who made the final decision not the officials at British Rail and the role of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was extremely duplicitous. In the election hustings he had promised to stop the closures but, in fact, once Labour was elected in 1964 they were speeded up and, indeed, lines not envisaged to be shut, such as Oxford – Cambridge were added to the list. Interestingly, David Henshaw says in his excellent book on the Beeching closures, The Great Railway Conspiracy, that most of the lines shut before 1966 were probably ripe for closure, while all the major mistakes, such as closing the Great Central, occurred afterwards. Henshaw, in a detailed analysis, reckons that at least a third of the closures should not have even been contemplated for closure and many of these have, in fact, been reopened.

In defence of Beeching, too, he was not just a hatchet man. He claimed, when interviewed by Hunter Davies in the early 1980s that ‘I suppose I’ll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping’. He did recommend investment in major lines and in container freight systems which were developed during his tenure but he did not sufficiently examine ways of running the railways more efficiently rather than simply closing lines and therefore he cannot escape his post-mortem reputation as an ‘axe man’. His second report, published two years later, recommended cuts that even a government unsympathetic to rail could not stomach and he was not reappointed. Interestingly, David Serpell, the man who persuaded Beeching to become chairman of BR and who died in July aged 96, produced a further report in 1983 recommending even greater cuts to the railway which proved equally impossible to implement.

The problem, as Henshaw says, was that in the terms of reference, ‘Beeching had not been asked to look into the social and economic value of the railways, but simply to find a means of returning the industry to profit as quickly as possible’. Beeching was searching for that Holy Grail, a network that was just the right size to require no subsidy. Of course, given the context of increased competition from cars and lorries, the controls on fares and the lack of investment, that was a mirage. The railways would always need subsidy and there was a good reason for that. As everyone knows, they deliver all kinds of benefits which are not captured through the fare box but gained by wider society as a whole.

Beeching used a fairly crude analysis of whether a line was profitable, largely based on a survey carried out in a week in April 1961 which, therefore, did not take into account holiday traffic. Moreover, it was based on receipts taken at particular stations which was obviously misleading since many places, notably seaside towns, were mainly used as a destination rather than a starting point. Nor did Beeching have the tools of cost benefit analysis now available to policy makers which were only developed later in the 1960s..

However, had they existed, I suspect they would have been misused. That is precisely what is happening today with the story of trying to reverse one of the cuts made after Beeching, though not one he recommended, the closure of the Lewes – Uckfield line outlined in detail in this and the previous issue of Rail.

I have long been sceptical of cost benefit analyses and ‘business cases’, and this example seems to highlight their inadequacy. Given that there are few technical problems with the reopening which, therefore, would be relatively cheap and that it is in a growing commuter area as well as providing a much needed diversionary route for the Brighton line, it seems extraordinary that the Network Rail analysis into the scheme suggests there is no economic case for it. If that is the case, then surely there are many lines operating today which should be closed. The lessons of Beeching do not seem to have been learnt.

And perhaps to take them on board, the context of what he did has to be understood. The railway made mistakes, too, such as failing to adapt to the changed circumstances of the transport industry in the 1960s. One can see the same mistake being made by the government today, but in the opposite direction. It has failed to recognise the crucial nature of having an efficient and modern railway system that can mop up excess transport demand to ease congestion on the roads and stimulate the economy of major towns and cities.

Ticket scam must stop

In one of its more sensible moves, the main rail union, the RMT, has launched a campaign for zero tolerance on assaults to staff. The numbers are getting worse. There were 4,865 reported assaults against rail workers in 2007 and a 50 per cent increase on the 2002 figure of 3,179. The union points to reduced staffing as a source of rising assaults but another source of conflict is the way that inspectors are forced to implement rules that are perceived as unfair by the public.

The one thing that causes many arguments between ticket inspectors and the public is the fact that people who have, for whatever reason, got on the wrong train with a limited flexibility ticket are asked not just to pay the extra but the whole new fare which, invariably, will be very high. The inflexibility of some ticket inspectors, spurred on by their employers, has no limits. The Sheffield Star recently highlighted the case of a soldier, Zachary Hoyland, returning from serving in Iraq on an Arriva CrossCountry service who was thrown off the train because he did not have the armed services card which entitled him to the discount he had obtained. Hoyland, who was, incidentally, in uniform had offered to pay the difference but it was the fact that he was being asked to pay the whole fare which made him lose his temper and get thrown off the train. He said: ‘I wasn’t happy but in the end I offered to pay the difference between a discounted and a normal ticket and with the help of a girl on the train I scraped together the £50.50 it cost, but when he said that it really wound me up.‘ He admits he should not have started swearing but he was somewhat provoked by a remark from the conductor who, according to The Star, said: ‘It is not as if you’ve taken a bullet or anything.’

When I mentioned this on the blog on my website, I was inundated by stories from people who had experienced or witnessed similar incidents, often involving tourists whose whole experience of Britain must have been marred by such unpleasant behaviour on the part of the train companies. The stories are actually quite painful to read and show that the tale of Zachary Hoyland is by no means unique.. This terrible injustice could easily be tackled by the train companies, through their Association, which could change the rules without difficulty. The amount of revenue they would lose would be negligible, and would easily be made up by the improvement in their reputation.

In order to put pressure on the railways, please send me further examples of this intransigence – or , indeed, times when the inspectors have been flexible, as has happened to me on a couple of occasions when I have taken an earlier train than the one I was booked to take (thank you East Midlands Trains and Virgin!).

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