Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways, better known as the Beeching Report. Dr Beeching pointed out that 30 per cent of route miles carried only 1 per cent of passenger-miles and 1 per cent of tonne-miles. He recommended closures in the vain hope that the remaining network would be profitable.
The railway lobby has an inherent bias when criticising Beeching. It was almost inevitable that Beeching would make mistakes – this was a nationalised industry central planning board. However, out of the numerous lines he closed, there is no point in pointing to two or three that might have been slightly less loss making fifty years later and saying ‘Beeching was therefore wrong’. In general, the lines that he closed were of the type that are today vastly loss making, instead of just loss making, as is the railway as a whole. Also, any commercial enterprise has to take decisions on the basis of the information it has at the time. You cannot keep thousands of miles of railway open on the off chance that they might, one day, find a slightly less trivial use.
Critics of the cuts often claim that the loss of rail traffic was very much greater than originally thought because passengers on the closed lines would be making onward and longer journeys. This overlooks the fact that the main-line stations could more easily be reached by car or bus, as well as the benefit to passengers and freight operators of concentrating resources on the busier part of the network.
Indeed, it is difficult to see any signal in the data that supports the notion that Beeching did anything to reduce usage. In 1959 the railway carried 35.8bn passenger-km. That had fallen to 30.7bn by 1963, the year in which Beeching published. Usage was on a sustained downward trend which continued until 1968 when 28.7bn passenger-km were carried. Thereafter usage recovered to circa 30bn, remaining sensibly static until privatisation. Since then there has been sustained growth. Likewise with freight. In the ten years prior to 1963 the railway lost 12 billon tonne-km. Over the ensuing 20 years the annual loss was reduced by a factor of three to 0.4bn tonne-km per year.
The idea that the cuts left the UK with an ‘inflexible vision when planning infrastructure’ as suggested by Robin McKie of the Observer is bizarre. There is little that could be less flexible than a branch line carrying perhaps one 2-car train every couple of hours. Instead the car enabled the greatest flexibility of movement that can be desired, bringing together places which were inaccessible to each other by train or bus.
The greater tragedy is that the rights of way were sold off. That was not Beeching’s fault. Instead it arose because the railway had a duty to maximise the sale values and the authorities lacked the vision to see the value of these routes as roads. Had that vision existed those routes would, at low cost, have been converted, so providing a superb network of rural roads overlaying the paleotechnic system that continues to carry modern motor traffic.
McKie goes on to make another unsustainable claim, namely that the closures ushered in an era of vast motorway expansion and cheap motorised transport. Here are the numbers. In 1963 there were already 185bn passenger-km by car – over six times as many as on national rail and over 600 times the amount carried on Beeching’s proposed closures.
Railway enthusiasts point to a renaissance of rail transport in support of opening long closed lines. Growth has indeed been extraordinary but at a huge cost (for example, it costs the government seven times as much to move a passenger or tonne of freight by rail as it does by the strategic road network). And despite the growth and rail’s perceived importance, rail carries only 3% of passenger journeys, and less than a tenth of passenger miles and freight.
Disused lines should be paved with asphalt rather than new railway tracks, thereby enabling many thousands of lorries and other vehicles to divert from the unsuitable and dangerous roads they now clog.