Fifty years ago in 1963 a man called Dr Beeching produced what is one of the most controversial UK reports ever. In it he suggested closing one third of the UK rail network. Its hard to explain to someone who is not British what this means to us 50 years on. I was trying to explain to an American student in our home-group the implications of this, but rail in the US seems to be almost invisible.
Britain invented the railway and as happened almost everywhere from the US to Argentina there was a Railway boom. People thought it was a licence to print money. In the UK there were pitched battles to stop railways being built. People thought if you travelled at over 30 miles an hour you’d die and that farm animals in fileds the railway passed through would die of terror. But we ended up with an amazing dense network of local routes. These tended to be built an operated by individual companies who raised the money on the stock market. They soon found that it was hard to make money and consolidation of companies started.
By the time the Second World War started in 1939 there were 4 major regional companies running the rail network in the UK. There was little competition between them except that their margins. Even before the war it was recognised nationalisation was necessary, they simply couldn’t raise enough money to keep the network going. After the war this was carried out with little opposition from the political right. In the fifties it was suggested that scrapping steam trains and replacing them with Electrics and Diesel trains would stem losses, but it didn’t. It was into this situation that Beeching arrived in the early 60’s. Beeching was an engineer and physicist seconded from the chemical company ICI. In his first report he suggested closing a third of route network. He produced a report in 1965 which was even more drastic implying less than half the network should be invested in.
Luckily the incoming labour government rejected many of his closures although just over 4000 miles of track was closed. Beeching believed investing in the road network (the motor car) and to be fair in bus transport. Reaction seems to have been mixed at the time, with little opposition or a lot (in the case of the borders railway police had to protect the last train). But in the 1960’s car use was mushrooming and most people forgot about the train and drove.
In the 1990’s the Conservative government decided to privatise the railway. They did this by privatising the track and leasing the rolling stock. In other words one company maintained the track and a variety of companies would lease (franchise) the right to run trains on the track (freight as well as passengers). This certainly didn’t work well at first and even now the effects have been mixed. The companies didn’t know how to run trains which were old and unreliable. Passenger complaints reached a record. Railtrack the company that ran the track was a shambles, more interested in paying its shareholders than investing in track and infrastructure. After some bad crashes the incoming labour government essentially nationalised it and set it up as a not for profit company called Network Rail. The franchising system for the train operators still exists but not been successful in cutting government subsidies to the operators.
Whilst privatisation has had mixed results something that no one expected has happened. Passenger numbers which had been declining for many years started rising again. Numbers had almost reached an all time high in 2011. Suddenly the rail network is starting to run out of capacity. This has coincided with rising oil prices but pre-dates this. In addition Network Rail has started reopening lines closed by Beeching. This is a slow process and runs into problems since the land was in many cases sold off and has been built on (a lot is used as part of the national cycleway network). The biggest reopening to date will be part of the borders railway.
Beeching’s legacy is mixed. 50 years on people still moan. Yet he had some good ideas. He recognised the importance of railfreight in making railways pay and called for containers to transport freight. He also thought that people would drive to points on the reduced rail network than take the train. At the time they didn’t and used their car throughout. But this latter journey type happens a lot nowadays. To be fair by the time he got to the network over half had already shut from its first world war peak. However, we did loose a lot of capacity that would be useful in a post oil world and reopening railways is expensive.