The Great Vanishing Railway

Doctor Beeching

- the railway axe man

Throughout Britain there is a legacy of political meddling with the rail network. Once a grand system, it is today just a shadow, being concentrated on certain over stressed corridors. Even in today's more enlightened times, the government is still reluctant to acknowledge that the rail system is a service to the people and worthy of our money, and treats it as a potential source of revenue and shareholder income.

The rail system was nationalised in 1948 and the government appointed the Transport Commission to oversee the activities of the network. The commission was initially given a wide scope, although materials were in short supply after the Second World War. However, by the mid 1950s it was under the thumb of the government and vested interest.

The British Transport Commission reports and accounts for 1948 and for 1960 compare favourably, however in the face of the facts, in 1961 the Commission solemnly pronounced that the railway system in Britain was in decline, and passenger numbers were on a roller coaster slide to oblivion.

 

1948

1960

Route mileage (total)

19,630

18,369

Freight ton miles

21,456,842

18,650,261

Increase in year

0.45%

5.3%

Passenger miles

21,259,000

22,270,000

Increase in year

-7.6%

3.4%

Freight Receipts

181,696,313

247,320,163

Increase in year

16%

1.9%

Passenger Receipts

122,572,809

151,274,093

Increase in year

4.2%

8%

Total Receipts

337,314,996

478,571,057

Working Expenses

311,057,259

546,223,137


The figures show a market changed little in size between 1948 and 1960, and the indications were that traffic levels were on the increase in 1960, and likely to return to the levels before the poor years of 1958 and 1959.

If rail use was fairly steady, what was the cause for the losses? Obviously the rates and fares were not keeping pace with the increase in expenses. In particular, in 1960 railwaymen were being paid more than double the pay in 1948:

 

1948

1960

Number of staff

648,740

514,500

Average male staff earning

137s 11d

285s


The 1950s modernisation plan, rushing through unproven and costly diesel conversions, resulted in significant investment, and thus depreciation. But levels of maintenance were also significantly improved:

Expenses include (in part)

1948

1960

Rolling Stock Depreciation

11,353,884

25,509,241

Civil maintenance

47,974,348

132,077,896


The increase in spending on maintaining the track, structures and signalling is interesting considering recent criticism of the lack of spending by Railtrack.

The Government of the day, Sir Anthony Eden continued Tory rule in 1955, was wedded to the Oil Companies, especially so after the disastrous conclusion of the Suez Crisis when Egypt nationalised the British and French interests in the Suez Canal, and snatched the oil refinery and production facilities without any economic compensation to the companies. The British Government were supposed to have prevented this but had been ineffectual in preventing Nasser from his take-over plans. The oil companies, therefore, required the government to support their business at the expense of the national good.

On the roads, the final trolley buses systems were dismantled as they did not consume oil and were used mainly by the "Working Class" and therefore did not matter to the Tories. Buses guzzled Diesel by comparison, and were therefore the way forward. Diesel trains were encouraged over more efficient electric traction. Can anyone see the benefit in a locomotive carrying vast amounts of fuel to power a huge diesel engine that is coupled to an electric generator that then drives the wheels? Taking power from the grid and using it directly in the engine seems a much better proposition.

Pre-war policies were forcing the railways into bankruptcy. The government's wartime policies ensured the insolvency of railways. Worse still, this had been forecast by senior Ministers and civil servants in 1940.

B.R. began life with 1941 prices and 1948 costs, unlike all other industry. Whilst B.R. was unable to obtain the limited raw materials authorised in Government's Economic Plans, road transport - year after year, was allowed to exceed the limits that they had been given. Hence, they soon had a modern post-war fleet, whilst B.R. had to lumber on with war worn vintage rolling stock.

B.R. was actually directed not to overtake wartime arrears of track renewal, so that they were not finally cleared until nine years after the war ended! On top of this, Whitehall theorists & politicians implemented post-war laws & policies which bankrupted B.R., and would have bankrupted any industry. A court of law decided rail charges, delaying increases for over 12 years! The so called "subsidy" began as an interest bearing loan to "compensate" for prices being held, by Government and their appointees, up to 41 points below the inflation rate, whilst BR's suppliers were uninhibited in their price increases.

No other industry - not even other nationalised industries - had their prices controlled by a court of law. In recent years, Ministers criticised B.R. for not making profits when it was their own legislation that made this impossible!

Government policies ensured B.R. would be loss suffering; by keeping fares below the inflation rate so as to please the electorate, and by losing freight to road through an archaic government designed rates system.

Despite this, by 1961 rail passenger traffic was buoyant. Sir Brian Robertson, chairman of the British Transport Commission and a firm believer "that the railways were a public service", was optimistic and fought for investment in the system. He was replaced by Doctor Richard Beeching, previously technical director of ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries). Doctor Beeching had different ideas. He held a press conference where he stated "losses may even get worse before they get better. Doubts about the future of the railway system as a whole can only be resolved by a more thoroughgoing study of the present working and future prospects of the system than has been made so far". The aim of these studies was to identify unprofitable activities.

During the summer of 1962, the results of the traffic surveys were released, and these formed an integral part of the "Beeching Report".

As the country awaited his report, it shivered its way through another bitter winter, with the cancellation of soccer matches for nine Saturdays running. A shortage of coal in the south of the country prompted emergency coal movements from the East Midlands, in all over one million extra tons of coal being transported by road and rail..

The Beeching report was published on March 27th 1963. Some say it was a well written, logical statement, most of which was ignored. It was welcomed by a Government strongly in favour of road transport, and busy extending the M1 north through Leicestershire. The public were informed how half of British Railways' 7000 stations produced just two percent of the total passenger traffic. 25 percent of traffic started at just 34 stations . One third of the track carried just one percent of traffic, and one half did not carry sufficient traffic to cover its maintenance costs. Less than a third of all carriages were in full time use, many being reserved for summer or peak services.

The aim was to concentrate on the lucrative "inter-city" services, and withdraw poorly supported local services. Routes needed at least 10,000 passengers a week just to break even. The Appendix to the report listed the 2000 stations and 250 train services which should be withdrawn on purely economical grounds. Closures could not be implemented immediately. Each closure had to be published and then considered by the Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC) as to whether withdrawal of passenger services would cause hardship to users. The Doctor hoped 70 percent of his closures would be complete by the end of 1964, all within three years. To reverse the debts, "it must be done quickly".

It is hard to identify a major city scheduled to suffer as badly as Nottingham. It was to loose both direct passenger routes to London, the Midland Main Line through Melton Mowbray (once the West Coast Electrification was complete), and the Great Central Line to Marylebone. It was not even clear whether Nottingham would have a through London service. In addition the closure of the Settle & Carlisle route would mean the end of Scottish rail services through the city.

The Manton to Kettering section of the Midland Main line would also be closed to passengers, leaving Corby, a town of some 40,000 people, without passenger services. The line would remain intact to serve the steelworks.

Rural areas fared even worse. Many Scottish and Welsh areas would be without rail links, and under "Beeching 2" Devon and Cornwall would have been without a single line. In comparison, the area around the capital would be maintained, and fast links to wealthy areas improved.

The report did have its good sides, proposing the introduction of cost effective "merry-go-round" coal trains, and liner services (freightliner). Perhaps the public did not realise that Beeching's proposals were merely a speeding up of a closure process already under way. Only political power and subsidies could have saved Britain's local railways, but it was not all smooth running for the Doctor.

Local opposition and pressure groups launched campaigns to save their lines. By the end of October 1963, only nine services had been withdrawn with 120 before the TUCCs. The Government was also very aware that 1964 was to be an election year, and the Transport Minister Mr Ernest Marples trod very carefully, saving a number of Scottish services in particular.

British Railways became angry at the slow pace, only ten percent of closure submissions having been approved, and announced that in future any reprieved lines would be shown separately in their accounts. There were accusations that the company had deliberately run down services so that they could be closed. Labour won the 1964 General Election, but despite hopes of a reversal of the closures, the new Transport Minister Tom Fraser announced that any services already condemned by the previous minister could not be reinstated. By the end of the year, the newspapers were reporting a wide difference of opinion between the Minister and Doctor Beeching, who subsequently left in 1965.

B.R. did its utmost to maintain the closures in a struggle to achieve that illusory profitability that Beeching promised. Every accountancy trick was brought to bear in declaring lines unprofitable, and further severe stratagems to prevent anyone from proving them wrong.

The policy of building houses on the hurriedly removed tracks was quite deliberate and apparently often specified in the land sale contract. This was to prevent the line being resurrected in the future. The fate of the doomed lines was decided by people who wanted their careers to survive the downsizing and had an interest in re-enforcing the rectitude of the policy. It appears that in many cases they promoted the belief that the sole source of the problems lay in the lines to be closed and they made sure that nobody else would ever be able to prove them wrong or incompetent by making the doomed lines run profitably.

Clever accountancy to pronounce the death sentence for lines included:

  • fares were credited to the purchase station only (how many passenger to say, Blackpool, actually bought tickets at Blackpool station in comparison to return tickets bought at say Manchester or Glasgow?);
  • asset renewal dates were often moved to just after the scheduled closure date, so if the line stayed open it could confidently be forecast to suffer a massive loss;
  • no allowance was made for costs that would remain, even if the line closed (e.g. upkeep of over bridges);
  • no attempt was made to bring down running costs (e.g. by using single car lightweight units instead of loco+3 on quiet services, or running branches as one-engine-in-steam outside good traffic hours, saving a signal man).

A common comment is that they'd have never got away with half the stuff these days, because people would actually query the accounting. In those days the enquiries tended to accept the numbers at face value without looking at them.

They accepted them because they had to by law! Under TUCC rules it was forbidden to cross-examine BR on its figures - they were automatically taken as gospel. Anyone who tried to put questions on the accuracy of the figures was told to sit down by the chairman, and thrown out if they didn't. Similarly in new road enquiries it was forbidden to question the MoT's figures justifying the need for the road improvements.

The inquiries were just a rubber stamp for government policy. At least one TUCC chairman boasted how quickly he could get the whole thing buttoned up and the line shut.

These sort of undemocratic practises began to change with the inquiry over the Winchester by-pass scheme. As usual, the protesters where not allowed to challenge the figures. However they discovered that permission to go ahead with the scheme could not be given until all the formalities had been completed, so they made sure they weren't. At every meeting they started a riot, which resulted in the chairman closing the meeting and calling the police. Result - no meeting was ever legally finished and so no permission could be issued. This went on for ages, until the bureaucrats finally began to back down about changing some of the inquiry rules.

However the by-pass still got built!

Beeching did not achieve what he set out to do and the railways continued to lose money. The answer was only much later seen by governments, viz., that there was no point trying to make them pay and instead they should be subsidised provided they were socially necessary.

By this time it was too late for much of the network. However, some branches that managed to keep going (usually as replacement buses couldn't get to the local stations) have since greatly improved and one can only wonder as to how well some of the prime routes that closed would now be doing had they continued (S & D, Borders, Great Central - and note some of them are down for reopening which proves my point).

In short Beeching was appointed by a government that doubted rail had any future except for a few trunk routes and commuter lines and told to prove it and ditch most of it. Its been said before but worth repeating: the network was like a tree - cut the branches away too much and the trunk dies. Put another way, few people will travel far to and from the railhead or catch buses for part of the journey. They tend, where possible, to drive all the way . This is not only a loss for the truncated branch line, but also and more significantly for the main trunk route.

The big question is, were the closures really necessary? Personally I believe not. A significant number of these closures were of heavily staffed lines with significant overheads. The lines that were closed were not very different from branches that remain open today. There was significant scope for cutting costs without closure.

The 1961 Transport Commission report shows that the government and its appointees had already decided that branches were to close. The only consideration was whether the lines paid, without consideration of potential savings that could be made in the operation. By ignoring that the losses were predicted by the 1950s Modernisation Plan, and the economic problems of the day, it was easy to justify the closures.

Did Beeching make the promised savings? Under the 1968 Transport Act, revenue grants were made to retain services on loss suffering lines. According to the 1961 report, it would be reasonable to assume commuter lines would not require this subsidy. However the 1971 B.R.B. annual report lists services receiving grants. These include the Glasgow Suburban network, Fenchurch St - Shoeburyness via Tilbury and Liverpool St. to six commuter terminals (however, there are few services south of the Thames listed). Despite a grant of over 67m, profits were only 30.2m before interest (the bottom line was 15.4m in the red).

Political expediency may have allowed the loss of many lines in Beeching's day, and this continued until the concept on revenue grants was accepted. If the idea of grants had been accepted in 1960 (when suggested by the Select Committee), the lines would still be open.

If you should arrive here via a search, or be missing the navigation on the left hand side, click this button.

Post-war Nationalisation

Why the losses?

Oil is king

Railways hamstrung by government

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Report published

Let's tear it apart

Forget the rural areas

British Railways wants faster closures

If we can't have it then no-one can

Public inquiries are rubber stamps for government policy

Too late to change

Was it all necessary?

 

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