Don’t blame Beeching for loss-making railways

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.

Member of the Advisory Council

Paul Withrington graduated in Civil Engineering from Bristol University in 1962. In 1966/7 he took an MSc in Transport Planning under the aegis of the Greater London Council, where he worked for two years followed by a period as a lecturer at Portsmouth.  He joined Northamptonshire County Council in1975 as Project Manager, Transport Planning. Since 1994 he has directed Transport Watch appearing at public inquires and undertaking policy analysis. In 2000/01 he appeared as the Strategic Objector at the Public Inquiry into Railtrack's West Coast Main Line Modernisation Programme.

24 thoughts on “Don’t blame Beeching for loss-making railways”

  1. Posted 27/03/2013 at 12:28 | Permalink

    I have to disagree.

    There are routes , such as Preston to Southport, where the only A-roads between the two are clogged up and getting worse, and all because of the loss of railways. Beeching killed off any chance for an infrastructure based solution to traffic problems, and each and every railway he axed is proof of that.

    Every existing trackbed needs rails, not asphalt. The latter would be an economic disaster and environmental suicide.

  2. Posted 27/03/2013 at 12:29 | Permalink

    Beeching was the final State-forged nail in the coffin of the industry that in private hands, built the modern world.

  3. Posted 27/03/2013 at 13:17 | Permalink

    @Doktorb – Would such railways have made much difference to traffic congestion if they had remained open? It seems unlikely given the tiny fraction of passenger miles carried by such lines. This partly reflects the time losses often involved if travellers switch from road to rail, since rail involves additional travel at either end of the journey (e.g. from the station to the final destination). Despite the best efforts of town planners to force new development into public transport corridors, much economic activity remains spatially dispersed and impossible to serve by rail at a reasonable cost.

  4. Posted 27/03/2013 at 13:41 | Permalink

    Doktorb and Srorris do not seem to have grasped the importance of the numbers.

    The routes that Beeching closed was carrying one percent of passenger miles and one percent of tonne-miles. Closure did not lead to any perceptible drop in usage. If anything there was an increase compared with the previous trend, perhaps brought about by concentrating resources on the more heavily used element of the rail network.

    Opening the Preston to Southport railway would do little or nothing to relieve congestion on the adjacent A-roads. Such a railway may carry a handful of freight and passengers but not enough to count. Instead that invaluable right of way should be paved. It would then attract tens of thousands of lorries and other vehicles from the unsuitable roads that they now clog,

    Congestion should be controlled by universal road pricing.

  5. Posted 27/03/2013 at 15:04 | Permalink

    I think one thing that the Beeching Report and its subsequent closures have taught us is that closing railway lines makes a lot of people very unhappy. It is one of the few times when the rail network has been looked at and reshaped in rational economic terms. The Beeching cuts definitely were necessary, but towns and cities across the land are still left smarting (more emotionally than anything else). The railways are now a political issue, I don’t think trying to make them pay is a good idea, and Richard Wellings’ views (based in economic fact, no doubt) jar my ears. People are unreasonably attached to their rail lines today and they are a public good. Perhaps you could wait a few years until people stop caring, and try again? I don’t know whether this sentiment is a permanent one.
    What I do fail to understand is that you seem to be against new rail schemes, even the ones with strongly positive BCRs? I thought they brought in BCRs specifically to make economists happy?
    Also, I’m told that rail transport is green and will save the environment, so maybe you could take that into consideration.

  6. Posted 27/03/2013 at 17:04 | Permalink

    Vollinx is right, or at least partly so. Certainly closures make railway enthusiasts unhappy, but, for them, Rail is a religion and criticism blasphemy.

    There are in my view, no rail schemes with a positive BCR. Instead there is fraud. Here are two examples:

    The headline cost for HS2 out to Leeds and Manchester, the “Y”, is £33bn. However, that excludes the trains at £8bn and tax set to 20.9% within the economic analysis. Adding those provides close to £50bn or £2,000 for every household in the land. It is that that should be the headline, not the £33bn.

    The £44.1bn benefits in Table 4 of the January 2012 analysis are sourced as follows: £5.2bn for improved reliability, as though the trains could not be made to run on time without spending tens of billions on a high speed network, £6.7bn for reduced crowding, as though that could not be greatly reduced by adding carriages to existing trains, £5.5bn for other rail user impacts (such as better access to stations) for heavens sake, and £2.1bn for “other impacts” (reduced road congestion). That provides a total of £19.6bn most of which are imaginary. The remaining £24.6bn depends, in part, on the discredited notion that time on a train is entirely wasted. Hence rather than returning £2 for every pound spent the return will be below 50 pence.

    Worse still, the computed benefits would be halved but for the assumed exponential growth in the values of time etc. of nearly 2 per year all the way to 2093, let alone the fact that nearly half the benefits come from the second 30 years of an evaluation period ending in 2093, which is long after those living will be dead.

    Even worse, they do not compare the resources spent with the supposed benefits, but the cash loss to the Government. That is absurd, in that, if the government sphere is widened or reduced, the answers would change.

    The plain fact is that this proposal, like the railways, as a whole, will make a vast financial loss. The analysis should stop there and the scheme should be abandoned. – Economic analysis are not appropriate when we have paying customers. If customers not willing to pay, then, by definition, the “business plan” fails.

    My second example is to do with adding of a single track to an existing single track between Oxford and Bicester, a distance of 12 miles. That is to cost £250,000, all in. The economic analysis did not depend on shorter journey times by rail. Instead it depended on shortened driving times to stations – OK, but for the fact that the time saving was multiplied by four on the basis of “modeling”. In fact the supposed multiplier drops put of an additative effect. Hence, far from multiplying the saving by four, a factor of 1.1 may have been sensible so as to capture vehicle operating costs…………

  7. Posted 27/03/2013 at 17:10 | Permalink

    Adding to may last,

    No, rail is not particularly green. For example, we find that passenger rail returns the equivalent of 110 passenger miles per gallon; not much better than an efficient diesel car with the average of 1.5 people aboard operating on an uncongested highway. The railway lobby often makes its comparisons with road vehicles suffering congestion. See:, (which is Facts Sheet 5 in the Transport-watch web site).

  8. Posted 27/03/2013 at 17:50 | Permalink


    On the contrary, I fully understand the numbers. I do not blame Beeching for killing the railways, “the final State-forged nail in the coffin” is pretty clear that there were earlier blows which struck fatally at the economic viability of the network. Beeching just ensured that resurrection was all but impossible.

  9. Posted 27/03/2013 at 18:50 | Permalink

    Actually, the most pressing traffic problem in the UK is traffic congestion in towns and cities.

    Instead of spending billions on projects like HS2, the most cost-effective spending would be to provide safe cycle infrastructure in our towns and cities. Cycles reduce traffic congestion but we give so little priority to safe cycling provision that less than 2% of journeys are by cycle compared to over 25% in the Netherlands. We know that people want to cycle and that they want their children to be able to get around safely by cycle, but we also know that they don’t because there is little safe provision, Motorised traffic clogs our city streets and make the environment distinctly unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists – why do we allow it to dominate the areas where we live?

  10. Posted 27/03/2013 at 19:47 | Permalink

    @Storris. How could the Beeching cuts and the subsequent concentration of resources on the more heavily used part of the network have possibly been “the final State-forged nail in the coffin”? The 30% of the network that they shut only carried 1% of the traffic and was making vast losses. Resurrection was made impossible, or nearly so, by the stupid selling off of key sections to the highest bidders e.g. developers. Instead these rights of way should have been reserved for transport use. The sensible use was as roads, not railways. Even the smallest country lane often carries more than a railway branch line. “Resurrection” as railways would be ridiculous, unless perhaps the nation is prepared to pay for a, vastly expensive full sized toy train set. As roads those rights of way would have provided new axes for development whilst enabling tens of thousands of lorries and other vehicles to divert from the historic roads, often little better than tarmacked cow trails, that they continue to clog.

  11. Posted 27/03/2013 at 20:48 | Permalink

    I read your reply with interest, Paul Withrington. This discussion has become a game of spot-the-extremist, which while fun, doesn’t have a lot of bearing on reality. I think most people are happy that railways cost an arm and a leg.

  12. Posted 27/03/2013 at 22:14 | Permalink

    “Most people are happy that the railways cost an arm and a leg” is a perceptive and ironic comment, but the reality is that under state redistribution, most folks do not even know that is the case. The McNulty report revealed that the typical £5 ticket carries on average a £4 subsidy, and in Scotland, with 15% of the route-miles, it is £15 (not that Alex Salmond includes this in his calculations.)

    I would have no problem if the romanticists in the public were actually paying for this fetish. But the increasing deficits of Network Rail and the TOC subsidies indicate that the rail network losses are (after inflation adjustment ) even higher than in Beeching’s day. Over £17bn for network rail has already accumulated. On some routes free and equally fast coaches would cost less, but ill informed public prejudice makes such a move impossible.

    Without the Beeching closures we would lag the rest of Europe who were closing too; closures had happened since the 1930’s; you cannot disinvent the car not is there a green argument for rural rail with largely empty DMU’s running often at 3 mpg.

    So….this day should be a wake-up for an evidence-based reappraisal of rail as a customer-focussed service in which cost:benefit relative to alternatives is the key to optimisation of transport alternatives. Thus it was for Beeching and so it is today.

  13. Posted 27/03/2013 at 22:16 | Permalink

    @ Vollinx. A true believer, or an extremist, does not bother with arithmetic. It is not my fault if it comes out the way it does. They are happy because they do not realise how stupid it is or that there is an alternative which would get those London surface rail Commuters to the centre at a fraction the cost of rail see

    According to Dan snow of the BBC the first great railway crash was in 1847. It cost the nation half its GDP. The next was in 1866. It cause a five year depression. The railways have been in financial difficulties since 1921. There have been several right-offs. The railway debt is now close to £30 billion. The rights of way carry a flow that, if in express coaches an lorries, would amount to only 350 vehicles per day per track. The rail network carries passengers and freight flows per track that are nearly three times less than achieved on the Motorway and Trunk road system per lane. It costs the Government 7 times as much to move a tonne of freight or passenger by rail as it does by the motorway and trunk road system. To enjoy a cathedral like peace go visit the platforms of a main line terminal at lunch time. The truth is that the difference between the railway myth and reality is so large that it beggars belief. Thereby belief in defiance of the facts is sustained.

  14. Posted 28/03/2013 at 02:05 | Permalink

    Peter Smaill and Paul Withrington, I again read your replies with interest.
    Just an observation: “A true believer, or an extremist, does not bother with arithmetic” – If you continue making this analogy between rail enthusiasm and religion I might have to suggest that the views that you hold are like those of atheists. Some people think atheists are extremists.
    I do (I really do) understand your ‘kill it now’ approach to the railways, stemming from the figures you appear to be using in order to convince readers of something. I do think that the majority of the public sits slightly to the left of yourselves, however. I digress.
    Your observation that “ill informed public prejudice makes such a move impossible” is what I was trying to infer. I don’t think there is a practicable way to properly inform the public of the wondrous information you have uncovered, so perhaps it is not worth trying.
    As I see it, railways make people happy. I’d go so far as saying that people would much rather travel on a train than on an ultra-speed deluxe coach because that’s the way things are done. People would often rather travel in their cars if the alternative was super-speed deluxe coach, even if it was really cheap. There is also something that railways do well that isn’t to do with irrational love for trains.
    And we especially can’t do away with our railways because that would make Europe very, very unhappy. All of their funding being thrown out. And also because they would still have trains in mainland Europe. Therefore, you must take your argument to the EU.

  15. Posted 28/03/2013 at 11:15 | Permalink

    @Paul Withrington

    Beeching failed in its aim, the remaining network did not prove to be a profitable one. There were serious mistakes made in calculating the effects of cutting ‘vastly loss-making services’. Something that someone with the available data and a properly economic understanding, should have been able to deduce.

    As for the nation paying for a vastly expensive toy train-set, that seems to be what we’ve got. Whether roads are a better form of transport or not, I think is open to debate. Certainly they allow a more personal experience, but does the cost to the public purse of building and maintaining them outweigh the costs of pre-Beeching railways? Had the railways remained in private, profit-seeking hands during WWI as they did during WWII, would they have found an answer to the competition from roads? Questions to ponder perhaps.

    As for data being the end of all discussion, I think you should take a look at the results of Beeching & the recent financial crash which no-one saw coming, in spite of the unparalleled amount of data, and ask yourself if that should remain the case for the future.


  16. Posted 28/03/2013 at 11:43 | Permalink

    Vollinx’s happiness argument is, in microcosm, why we are in such a terrible mess. However, would all London’s crushed surface rail commuters be happier if they all had seats at one quarter the cost of the train in express coaches, using rail’s rights of way providing equivalent speeds for all but the longest journeys and with a service frequency many times that presently offered? That is part of what is forgone by maintaining the railways as railways. Of course I hear the bleat that people do not like travelling in coaches, but that stems from the congestion they suffer on ordinary roads and seat spacing being too close. As to congestion – our careful sums show that such coaches would, in the peak hour, occupy only one seventh of the network capacity available in the peak hour if the railway were paved. Hence the other loss suffered by maintaining the railway as a railway is that tens of thousands of lorries and other vehicles continue to clog city streets and endless acres of derelict railway remains near derelict. Take the rail tracks off and pave with asphalt and the environmental benefit in London’s would be huge. I should add, this is not new. It was first proposed by the late Brigadier Lloyd in 1955, see item item 1 in topic 7 here: let alone the others there available.

  17. Posted 28/03/2013 at 14:30 | Permalink

    I may be overly cynical but suspect that the reason the closed railways were not turned into roads may be less a lack of vision by BR and more a lack of willingness to help the competition.

    I believe that, for the last couple of decades the railways could have been saved by making them fully automated & driverless & using lighter vehicles using bus technology (carriages now look like they did when Victoria died while road technology has improved out of all recognition).. That would have allowed single carriage units to leave every few minutes, 24/7, thereby increasing capacity with lower running costs. Even that opportunity for a competitive may be passing as inexpensive computer driven cars are now becoming possible.

    Note also the way that the state owned BBC, who have a legal duty of “balance” have taken the opportunity to vilify Beeching. Does anybody know of any case of the BBC not promoting more state subsidy, regulation and taxes as the solution?

  18. Posted 28/03/2013 at 19:59 | Permalink

    @Neil Craig: Thanks for your perceptive comment. (And thanks to all the others). There are at least two problems with Rail, namely (a) the track costs six times as much as equivalent asphalt see (b) the vehicles are captive to it and very expensive e.g. a single carriage costs over one million pounds see also The latter is dated. In any event at an inquiry into a railway proposal, Chilterns at Oxford to Bicester, leasing costs per carriage were typically £100K per year as were maintenacne costs. They had circa 180 vehicles, along with 280 people in operations, 135 in maintenance, 227 in retail, and 103 in other, a total of 745. I leave readers to calculate the employees per carriage………………………..

    To appreciate the depths to which the railway lobby will go so as to dupe the politicians and the public consider this. In evidence to the Transport Committee’s inquiry into the Future of the Railway, 2003-04, Bombardier told the committee that, “to carry 50,000 people per hour in one direction we would need a 35 metre wide road used by buses or a 9 metre track bed for a metro or commuter railway”. The reality is that 1,000 express coaches per hour may offer 75,000 seats. If those coaches were travelling at 100 kph in one lane of a motor road the headways would be 100 metres. Similarly, Ralph Smyth, of the CPRE, when speaking at the Westminster Forum’s seminar, ‘Getting UK rail on Track’, 6th Dec 2012, said, “The SNCF say that a 2 track high speed railway has the same capacity as a 10 lane motorway”. Again the gap between the claim and reality is stunning. If HS2 achieves the claimed 18 1000-seat trains per hour in one direction there will be 18,000 seats. In contrast one lane of a motor road used by express coaches could, as we have seen, offer four times that. Incidentally we heard at the same seminar that half of all rail commutes are less than 15 miles long…………………….. Why do they do it? After all, if they acted in accordance with the facts that network would be vastly profitable. (The strategic road network pays the exchequer £13bn annually net of expenditure (fuel tax, plus VAT on motoring etc, apportioned to the network according to vehicle-km minus expenditure)). Answer: They do it because rail is a religion – what other explanation is there?
    Neil canvases for autoamated driverless trains. The same technolgy is in hand for motor traffic, with the potental of vastly increased capacity.

  19. Posted 29/03/2013 at 13:47 | Permalink

    Driverless trains obviousy require far fewer decisions per second than cars so, as long as computer capacity was limited trains had an edge there. This is passing. In which case perhaps the best thing to do is tarmac over these tracks and allow them to be used by driverless cars.Such cars are now road-legal in Nevada and due to become so elsewhere. I suspect that, until we have such a testbed here they will remain illegal and we will lose out in very much the same way the red flag law put Britian behind in development.

  20. Posted 03/04/2013 at 18:48 | Permalink

    Fasinating article and comments.

    I’m an environmental engineer with a limited education in economics – things that make me public enemy number one here, Im sure. That said, a few observations:

    Firstly, it strikes me that few consider the subsidy on the other side. There was a report a couple of years back who put the non-internalised negative externality of private road transport at 10bn per annum. I can’t remember the details, but I remember it getting significant airtime. I’m sure the study won’t be popular amongst IEA writers and there may be major flaws in this, but one has to ask what the transport breakdown would be like if private vehicle use was priced at cost, including the impact to my health, as a non-driver living in a Leeds City Centre flat.

    Secondly, I find the comparison of a London overground vs a coach system bizarre. London has limited space to reterofit in transport solutions. Even with its high capacity infrastructure, the roads are clogged and the air is vile. I see the advantage in a dedicated bus lane with no traffic lights along entire routes, but surely you wouldnt’ want coaches – isles would be too narrow for rapid passenger change-overs; you’d go for double decker buses with multiple access points instead. Regardless of the cost of trains, the ability to absorb massive surges in demand (100s of people on and off in 10 seconds, even if that means having your face in someone’s armpit) is what keeps London breathing and its economy going. Economic gains are found in this which need to be considered

    Finally, I’d like to echo the points made on cycle infrastructure – it’s cheap, easy and of massive social value. Even more clever would be to better integrate cycle and motorised public transport. I was in the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago. I saw bus stops on main roads 1 mile from the nearest village. They all had full bike racks next to them where people had cycled to the bus stop and switched to public transport to go the rest of the way to town. This sort of idea could be filling empty seats on buses and trains, generating ticket revenue and reducing losses.

  21. Posted 03/04/2013 at 20:17 | Permalink

    David L – On the contrary, I’m sure many of us who are broadly sympathetic to the approach of the IEA on many issues would tend to agree with you.

  22. Posted 03/01/2014 at 21:56 | Permalink

    If the good Docter got his sums right then BR’s deficit would have been eliminated instead it increased, his remit was to make the railways pay he failed so you must question his assumptions and solutions on that basis. Not nostalgia or ideology. The fact that BR were prevented from completing there programme of DMU’ orders in 1960 by Marples and his pro rail civil servants prevented many lines being modernized and saved as the DMUs were far cheaper to operate than steam locomotives, around half the lines closed would have been profitable if converted but were never given a chance. the network left after the closures some how by magic was the right size for the number of DMU’s that BR had ordered by 1960. Marples wanted to invest in roads and the only way he could do that was by pinching the railways modernization funds agreed in 1955.

    All the rest is a smokescreen its really a lot simpler than people think.

  23. Posted 04/01/2014 at 21:38 | Permalink

    Certainly, Beeching failed to make the railways pay, but then the task was impossible. His more significant mistake was not to realise that. After all, there is no railway in the world that makes a profit in the commercial sense of the word. Capital sunk as “investment” is not investment but subsidy – never to be repaid from the far box. Some people imagine matters are marvelous on the continent, but there the subsidies are crushing. .Those interested may care to read the AMTRACK report Public Funding Levels of European Passenger Railroads April 22, 2008 here:

    Burbling about DMUs and the like will prove nothing. The plain fact is, express coaches and lorries, given rail’s rights of way, would discharge the rail function at a fraction the cost of the train, to the great benefit of the nation as a whole.

  24. Posted 27/03/2014 at 15:57 | Permalink

    Returning to this thread I see that Vollinx has quite without support imputed a “kill it now” message to my suggestion that rail should proceed under the normal rules of cost:benefit analysis.

    “Rail makes people happy”. It might be possible to have an interesting discussion about happiness economics, and indeed some recent rail appraisals invoking the related but controversial concept of “value in non-use” (!) have in effect done that, albeit with warnings about the subjectivity of such an approach. What Vollinx says is based on the distinction between “stated preference” and “actual preference”. When given a costless question, “would you like a train service?” people always say yes. But when confronted with the cost inconvenience and inflexibility of rail, 97% of travellers say “no” and the remainder who use it are much influenced by subsidy. You cannot derive an “is” (“trains are cost effective”) from an “ought” (“they ought to be because I like them”) as David Hume said of the delusions of his day, equally applicable to the mass psychology on rail today!

    There is a loss of utility to the consumer and taxpayer in the status quo (do read the McNulty report) and evidence-based reform is what is needed….

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