Many remember 1966 as the year England won the football world cup but as many know, it marked significant railway closures. In 1966 marked the closure of two iconic main lines. The Great Central, that marvel of railway engineering, and the much loved Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway.
In my first Blog, I couldn’t let 2016 end without discussing the 50th anniversary of these closures. Recently a friend asked me if there was ever a railway line in this country which carried trains from continental Europe. He was amazed and somewhat shocked when I said there was and that it had been closed in 1966. In fact, the Great Central railway wasn’t just shut it was totally obliterated. Imagine if this still existed today – there might not be a need to build HS2!
Is Beeching to blame for the closure of the Great Central Railway?
Beeching is widely perceived as the culprit.
Recently I read Richard Hardy’s book Beeching: Champion of the Railways (a used copy can sometimes be bought for as little as 1p plus postage) which I had had in my library since it was published in 1989. I have the highest regard for Hardy and think he was one of the greatest railwayman ever. I have been fortunate enough to meet him on a number of occasions. However I struggled to bring myself to read this book because I thought if he concluded that Beeching was indeed a Champion of Railways, I might lose some respect for Hardy.
25 years after purchasing this book, I summed up the courage to read it! What did I conclude? That – horror of horrors – Beeching was a champion of railways! Hardy put the case well and I was convinced. Beeching had a government directive to massively reduce the cost of railway operation. That’s what he did but he also championed the Intercity concept and freightliner trains.
Changes needed to be made.
Many people say to me that in the 1960’s travel was changing as cars and lorries became more popular and affordable. Railways were less viable. As a railwayman, I reluctantly accept this. What I cannot accept for one moment is that the infrastructure of closed lines had to be destroyed and that no one could foresee the resurgence in rail transport.
I disagree!! In 1963, John Betjeman said that railways would be used again even though at that time it was well known that road traffic was becoming hellish. Betjeman predicted that we would come to deeply regret the loss of branch lines. His thoughts were broadcast in a BBC programme in which he is shown travelling on the Somerset and Dorset railway.
Only recently, Jeremy Vine of BBC Radio 2 tweeted that the closure of Sidmouth railway station in the 1960s has led to increased traffic in the town today.
Railway Closures – Conclusion
So what do I conclude? I agree that railways in the 1960’s had to be culled BUT I am firmly of the belief that given the interests of those in road building and lorry companies it was a conspiracy to destroy the future competition that a resurgent railway would present. By obliterating viaducts and building roads over the track bed, the economics of reinstating a railway would be excessive. I leave you for the moment with this conclusion but I shall revisit. I’d be interested to know what you think.
Click here to buy ‘Beeching Champion of the Railways‘
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of many railway closures. I walked my local railway line to Budleigh Salterton. Could I find evidence of the railway after all this time? Find out here
Brian Racher says
It is a fact that the Beeching Report was deeply flawed. The criteria used in compiling the report was deliberately engineered to result in the closure of many lines. This was a direct result of the Minister of Transport of the day having a conflict of interest with his connections to the road building industry. He famously once said he would like to see all railway lines converted into roads, and the name Marples is still hated within the railway industry old guard. It follows that Beeching had a forced agenda to apply – he realised that he would be blamed for the closures that would result, and the fact that he would become a figure of hate by the public and those within the rail industry. Many proposed line closures were strongly challenged by those most affected – the public – and this is where the suspect methods of the report came to light. Every station within the network was assessed on its value to the rest of the system. This was based on ticket sales, and did not take into account those arriving from elsewhere. Some popular holiday destinations were then obviously considered as having a low value, as their ticket sales were naturally low. (The same formula should have resulted in the closure of the main London termini, as they would have been considered as receiving stations, because the bulk of their throughput were commuters from outside the central London area). Many lines were assessed in the off peak seasons – hardly a fair reflection on their all year traffic. It was admitted later that this was a mistake, but by then the damage had been done. Another trick in this assessment was ignoring or under stating seaon ticket sales. Track maintenance costs were grossly overstated. Main line costs were applied to lightly used lines, where rail wear was minimal. It is a fact that in some of these applications, worn rail was replaced by lesser worn 2nd hand rail, so “new” prices, and frequent replacement needs should not have been applied. Many branch lines were worked in this fashion. Indeed, the Heritage Line I work for has rail dating back many years, and is still fit for use, not having reached anywhere near the maximum wear limit. It is a fact that some branch lines were basket cases, with no hope of generating enough revenue to support continued operation, but it is ironic how many of these are now extremely successful Heritage Lines, some reconnected to the National system, but would they have died a slow lingering death had they remained in operation under BR? Hard to say, but some locations (IE Cranleigh and Bramley in Surrey) have grown since the 60’s, and now would justify the re-instatement of their line into Guildford, but costs make that unlikely. apparently. So yes – the whole Beeching fiasco was a Government inspired conspiracy – some line closures were justfiable, but the majority were certainly not. It proves that the man in the street has little or no say whatsoever when Government “policy” or dogma comes into play. The political interference and the Beeching Report landed BR with a very bad name, which some used to justify the creation of the privatised fractured “Network” we have today. The effects of the Beeching conspiracy is still being felt today.
Robb Woolford says
Totally agree RailwayBlogger ~ The GCR was built with great foresight, to connect France via a Channel Tunnel. If The Victorians could predict that…….then why couldn’t we foresee the value of the branchlines in times ahead!!? ?
Nick Pile says
Yes.The almost immediate destruction of the viaduct at Brackley once the line was closed gives weight to the “conspiracy theory”. What we will never know (because MPs in those days had even less accountability to worry about than do today’s) is how much money from the “road” lobby (which includes the hugely lucrative fuel industry, motor manufacturers, tyre makers etc, never mind the hauliers) landed up in MPs’ pockets. I’m going to suggest it was a great deal. And it wasn’t confined to members of the Conservative Party……..
David Latham says
I live in a village that had a railway between a city and a town and was closed just after WWII. The villages it served have increased in size with many new houses built in the area something which has been replicated all over Britain. It’s a shame that no one ever stopped to think that this would happen and that the population would increase. Perhaps mothballing the lines and protecting the routes should have considered at the very least but instead we now have congestion on our roads with buses trying to squeeze down narrow roads.
Brian Racher says
Agree, David Latham. There is a line fairly local to me that was closed in the 60s. Revenue from the entire line was poor, but was far better at the last three stations at the western end. All three locations have grown enormously since then, as has the resulting traffic congestion. Local groups have been trying to make the case for re-instatement of this section for years, the track bed and formation of which survives, meaning major works would not be required. These groups are constantly knocked back by being told the re-instated line would never be viable. Either the costs are grossly overstated to kill the campaign, or the prices being quoted are far too high, hoping for major profits. Either way, despite residential and Council support, it will never happen.
Eric Shaw says
Well put. I too believe it was a conspiracy with the government of the then with the then transport minister having a vested interests in roads. Beeching eas told to do a job. If he said otherwise on some railway closures he would of been removed from his post. A massive shame about the GCR. Built with so much foresight.
Alastair Majury says
Thanks for sharing this balanced view on the cuts of the 1960s. Kind regards Alastair Majury from Dunblane
Many 1960s closures were deliberately forced by, for example, re-timing trains to miss mainline connections. The old Cambrian main line from Whitchurch to Oswestry and Welshpool, which I frequently travelled on in the 50s and 60s and was invariably well patronised, is one example
Dr Graham Bould says
Although agreeing with many of the views I do feel that British Rail was caught in an unenviable position by the Governments of assorted shades. The railways were losing money. Name any other industry that could be expected to sustain massive annual losses on the chance that things might improve, or certain population centres gro, in forty years time. Hindsight is easy for us but BR management did not have a crystal ball.
Hi Graham, I appreciate that fashion for traveling by car at the time was impacting on the bottom line for the railway but my conspiratorial point relates to the destruction of the infrastructure so that rail transport couldn’t come back easily thus ceasing to be a threat to road based companies.
As for hindsight maybe BR management should have listened to numerous individuals including Sir John Betjeman who said at the time that roads would become clogged
and that we would rue the day we destroyed our railways. Thank you for the points you raise though. Best wishes.
Geoff Brown says
The real culprit was Ernest Marples. Look at his vested interests in road building and road haulage. He ended up fleeing the country! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Marples Beeching had been a succesful industrialist but was given an impossible task to complete in a totally unrealistic time frame. If Beeching was looking at the Railways today with computerised staff-less stations, wider use of DMU’s etc he may have drawn a different map for closures? To criticise him for not successfully anticipating the growth of car ownership and the impact that would have is ludicrous. Those of us who lived through the “Beeching era” can only dream of the uncrowded roads and de-restricted first motorways that were available then. NOBODY has got any predictions for future transport needs right in any field?
It’s time to put the record straight.
Stop vilifying Beeching!
Marples was the REAL VILLAIN ….in more ways than one it would seem.
David Guthrie says
This is an excellent blog and thread and made for a great read – Thanks! Speaking of Dick Hardy and I am minded to recall that he also said one other interesting thing about Beeching in that he ‘opened many more eyes amongst BR Senior Management than he closed”. I suspect that had he have been given a free hand (i.e. without Marples & Co in the background) he may well have developed BR far more as an on-going business than he did in the time that he was in Charge. It is also easy to overlook that most of the closures (and more than Beeching even proposed) actually occurred post Oct 1964 under a Labour Government that had been elected on a manifesto to ‘reverse Beeching’. Many of the closures were short-sighted and had we had a legal requirement to to mothball for a 10-year period, then a number probably would have been reversed. The closure of the GCR, however, was frankly a case of the criminal squandering of a publicly-owned asset and underlined the biggest problem that the Railways have ever had in their time, namely Politics and Politicians.
Michael Hearn says
When Marples was a junior Minister he was required by Parliamentry Law to resign as a Director of Marples Ridgeway. His resignation would have been recorded by the Company Secretary and would also be recorded in Companys House. As a Cabinet Minister he would have been required again by Parliamentry Law to put his shareholding into a Blind Trust. The movement of these shares would be recorded by the Company Registrar of Shares. Again a legal requirement for recording who owns shares in the company. I would add that Ministers today have to do this and a number have Blind Trusts that are registered with the Statements and Standards Committee in Parliament. I beleive that limited access to who has these type of trusts is available online. Marples therefore not only had no direct involvement in Marples Ridgeway and no financial involvement at all, for which he could provide auditable documentary evidence. I was told this evidence was used when he sued two newspapers for libel. There was at the time no confilct of interest as he had obeyed the rules, and indeed was given advice on what to do. Indeed people are somewhat surprised when they are told this truth about Marples, but are prepared to beleive what they are told without checking the facts themselves. (There was a lot of stirring up by the newspapers of the day as it was widely known and is the case today that bad press reads, it sells newspapers and hence profits increase). A cause of the Rail problem was that it was in debt road transport was competing with it etc. and the then new 1962 Transport Act at the time specified that railway lines had to opereate at a profit. If they did not they were closed, Marples had little room to move on this and the dubious way in which lines were selected was down to the way the survey was undertaken by Beeching. At the end of the day it was a document for discussion but McMillian at the time of publishing the report was concerned about its political impact on key marginal seats as it could result in the Tories loosing a future election.Sadly it was seen as a document of lines for closure althought a number did not get closed for a number of reasons. It was not until the Castle 1968 Transport Act in which subsidies could be given to lines that were of a social need.
Love the Blog. What I think was sad about it all, was not the fact of the shortsightedness, but the unwillingness to actually look to change the railway infrastructure. What I mean is (And I do love the romance of steam trains) is to modernise the rolling stock, we should have electrified earlier instead of sticking with steam, that was labour intensive, having to fire the boiler up two hours before the train was needed and thinking diesel deltics were the way to go. The fuel consumption of the Deltic was horrendous despite the tremendous pulling power and the top speed being better than the steam train.
Too slow to change, kills most industries even today.