MENTION the name Dr Richard Beeching to people of a certain age and they’ll give an involuntary shudder.
They call Beeching ‘the mad axe man’ who ripped the guts out of Britain’s rail system, whose recommendations led to the closure of over 2,000 stations and thousands of miles of track, mainly on rural and industrial lines.
Their thoughts are perhaps in the song over the end titles of the 1960s set comedy series ‘Oh Dr Beeching!’ about the fight to save a rural railway line, sung by actress Su Pollard. It goes: ‘Oh, Dr. Beeching what have you done?’
There once were lots of trains to catch, but soon there will be none,
I’ll have to buy a bike, ’cos I can’t afford a car,
Oh, Dr. Beeching what a naughty man you are!’
But how naughty a man was he? The railways had long been at the centre of a tug-of-war between the unions who fought against modernisation and the switch from steam trains to electric because of the effect it would have on the coal industry. Meanwhile against them were the ‘modernisers’, some of who had vested interests of their own.
It was then Minister of Transport Ernest Marples who appointed Beeching as chairman of the newly- formed British Railways Board in June 1961 whose remit was to make the railways economically viable.
Outside of Parliament, Marples made his money though his company which specialised in building roads, so he did quite nicely out of what was to come.
Political expert Dr Martin Farr of Newcastle University said: “In the 19th Century, the railways were seen as the thing of the future. By the 1950s it was the car and the roads.”
From day one it seemed that Beeching acted as a lightning conductor for criticism away from Marples. As he wasn’t a railway man – he was brought in from ICI where he had been a technical director – suspicion of him was immediate, particularly as his salary was £24,000 a year (about £370,000 in today’s money) which had to be reduced from its original £25,000 because of public disquiet at the sum.
How he proposed to turn round the fortunes of the railways which were running at a £140m loss the year he was appointed was revealed in his report “The Reshaping of British Railways” published in March 1963. As well as the closure of stations and tracks detailed above, his cuts cost about 70,000 jobs.
While the mad axe man label persists in some quarters to this day, particularly those in rural areas which were hit the hardest, others did think his recommendations were inspired and dramatically improved the railway system.
Dr Farr said: “It’s very rare for a civil servant to achieve any sort of agreeable profile. He was very much seen as the bogey man, a bowler hatted figure of clinical efficiency, embodying all that was disliked about Whitehall.”
Applying an accountant’s eye, Beeching reported the least used 50% of stations generated just 2% of passenger revenues. Also a third of the 17,830 miles of track carried just 1% of passengers.
The post-war rise in the popularity of cars was the main contributor. From 1938 to 1961 the number of cars trebled from 2 million to six million and by 1970 it was expected that figure would rise to 13 million.
As a symbol of all that was wrong with the railway system, Beeching selected the Thetford to Swaffham line in Norfolk which carried an average of nine passengers on five trains a day.
The North East paid a heavy price. To name but a few, stations at Ashington, Bebside, Bedlington, Easington, Fourstones and Fencehouses in Northumberland were closed. As were Blackhall Colliery, Brancepeth, Crook and Horden in County Durham.
To be fair to Beeching he called for fresh investment to be focused on those lines and stations left, the failure to do so being seen as the greatest criticism of his plan. However he did drastically modernise freight transit, introducing fast Freightliner container trains and “merry-go-round” coal trains to power stations.
But apart from the long overdue completion of electrification of the West Coast Main Line to Glasgow, and the introduction of the Inter-City 125 train in 1976, little was done for a generation to improve inter-city connections. Then just as rail traffic started to pick up seriously in the 1980s, rail privatisation set network modernisation back another decade.
Britain of course compares dismally to rail progress in the rest of the world and Europe. Japan’s bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka began the year after Beeching in 1964. The Italians in 1977 and the French in 1981 followed suit, transforming links between big economic centres.
Meanwhile plans for High Speed 2 between London and Birmingham, our first inter-city high-speed rail link, hasn’t got off the drawing board yet.
However, last week Network Rail set out its £37.5bn investment plan for the network. The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has said it will now carry out a “rigorous” assessment of the strategic business plan, which aims to deliver 170,000 extra peak-time commuter seats on a network experiencing unprecedented growth.
The news must have cheered campaigners in the region who are fighting for lines which closed as a result of the Beeching Cuts to be reopened.
Dennis Fancett is chairman of the South East Northumberland Rail User Group which has fought long and hard to reopen the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. Having established as long ago as 2008 there was the demand for the line to be reopened after running a special packed out chartered train on it followed by an impressive presentation to the Department of Transport, they are waiting for the next stage of the process which requires Northumberland County Council to submit a request for a full costing audit from Network Rail.
“We’ve been waiting for six month,” said Dennis. “Maybe this news will get things rolling.” He added: “I was only five at the time of the Beeching Cuts and too young to remember them personally. What I can say is that we now live in a completely different era. In those days we were starting to turn the corner and it looked like everybody was going to own a car. Beeching and his advisers couldn’t see the need for railway which was quite short- sighted.
“Fifty years on we see road congestion, not enough parking spaces for cars and the need to travel out of the area to find work. That is the business plan behind our plan to reopen the line. It’s not a nostalgic thing. It’s about establishing a future for the people of the area.”
However, there are fears Network Rail’s £37.5bn five-year improvement programme could snub a wish list of North East track upgrades.
Rail passenger groups have warned while some East Coast Main Line work will speed up connections, almost none of Network Rail’s refurbishment money will come to the region. Lines in the region calling out for electrification, new passenger services or full scale reopening have had the case turned down as money instead goes on improving services via Manchester and Leeds as well as improving links to London.
Tony Walker, of transport group Railfuture’s North East branch, said last week: “Of the £37.5bn total budget only a pittance is earmarked specifically for a track enhancement in the North East, namely the easing of the so-called pinch point between Northallerton and Ferryhill.
“No mention, however, of electrification or track enhancements for the important Tyne Valley route between Newcastle and Carlisle, or of an intention to progress plans for the introduction of passenger services over the Ashington and Blyth freight lines: or of track upgrades on the Middlesbrough to Sunderland route: or of reinstatement of the Ferryhill-Pelaw line which means Washington remains isolated.”
Mr Walker added: “These particular projects would really help boost mobility and connectivity in our region. Pressure must be put on Network Rail to make sure North East services get a fair allocation of resources.”