The new and very thorough biography of Ernest Marples, The Shadow behind Beeching, which has just been published by Pen & Sword, is an interesting reminder of just how things change – and how they don’t. The public mood in the postwar period that enabled Beeching to cut a swath through the railways was very much pro-car and anti-rail. The railways were seen as an outmoded form of transport with some locomotives built in the 19th century still clanking round the network. What a contrast with sleek and fast automobiles that were able to take people from door to door with a minimum of effort. Towns and cities had to be adapted to suit their needs while on the other hand the railways were a messy inconvenience.
However what the book makes clear is that the views which enabled this disdain of the railways together with the belief that the car was king were very much the result of heavy lobbying by vested interests such as the Road Haulage Association. Indeed, Marples himself who, when appointed as Minister of Transport had large shareholding in the roadbuilding company Marples Ridgway and which he then passed on to his wife. The Beeching axe fell while simultaneously motorways and ring roads were being constructed around the country
It was only after it was realised that however many roads were built, they would not solve the nation’s transport problems that a new focus on railways and public transport emerged in the 1970s. The turning point which I have highlighted in my writings many times was the decision to scrap the ringways in London that would have wrecked the capital, destroyed 40,000 homes and turned it into a car dominated dystopia. Yet, there had been support for what were called the motorway boxes from all the major political parties for more than a decade until the idea was finally killed off by the Greater London Council in 1973.
In a rational world, the focus should then have been on creating a nationwide effective transport system given the acceptance that a focus solely on motor transport was clearly misplaced. Instead we have had what I term a ‘more of everything’ policy. Rather than accepting that there are mutually exclusive alternatives given that transport budgets are always going to be limited, successive governments have sought to show how inclusive they are by wanting more roads, more trains, more planes and even more cycle lanes. Hard decisions are avoided and this is particularly true of the present administration which has a £27bn roads programme at the same time as promising record investment for rail.
This means that today, it is unacceptable to close railway lines but it is also impossible to make motorists pay the true cost of their activity. And we have a Chancellor who tries to delay the inevitable increase in fuel prices caused by global economic forces by cutting back taxes on motoring even though the reduction will hardly be noticed given the rapid fluctuation in the price of fuel.
This is the context in which Britain has a new world class railway to celebrate. By the time you read this, Crossrail – or the Elizabeth Line to give it the rather misleading official title since it is not a Tube line – should be open. Again, in a rational world, we would already be building a second Crossrail and we would be considering how to make similar improvements to suburban railways across the country. Instead all the expertise gained from Crossrail will soon be lost and town and cities across the UK will still be struggling with inadequate bus services and a few tram routes if they are lucky. Crossrail should be a beacon for the future but instead it will remain a unique example of what urban transport can be like.