The Beeching Myth
Charles Loft argues that Dr Beeching, hatchet-man of the railways in 1963, has been unfairly blamed for the decisions of politicians.
The torrid time which Stephen Byers endured as Minister of Transport in the wake of the Hatfield disaster and the subsequent collapse of Railtrack provides a salutary lesson in the pitfalls facing those responsible for transport policy; and if Alistair Darling has had a lower profile so far, we can be fairly certain that the state of Britain's transport infrastructure will become a cause for media concern again before too long. Forty years ago this month an earlier occupant of Byers' hot seat, Ernest Marples, together with Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of the British Railways Board, unleashed the most enduring furore in British transport policy with the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways, better known as The Beeching Report. Although the report had much to say about positive measures to reduce an operating deficit that had spiralled from £16.5 million in 1956 to £104 million in 1962, its proposal to close around a third of the passenger rail network and nearly 2,500 stations attracted attention that all but obscured everything else it had to say.
From Wick to St Ives, from Rye to Amlwch, from Black Dog Halt to Nottingham Victoria, hands were thrown up in horror. The closures that followed attracted regular protests. At Cirencester Marples was burnt in effigy outside the station. At Silloth a crowd of 9,000 delayed the departure of the last train (some protesters had to be removed from its path by blasts of steam from the locomotive), and the Ministry of Transport's files are stuffed with cries of indignation: 'this inhuman plan ... is like cutting off the nation's feet to save the cost of shoe leather'; 'with no station and no trains we might as well be dead'.
Strident as they were, such protests were only to be expected; throughout the 1950s railway closures had met with a similar response. More surprising is that Beeching's infamy has lasted long after the lines he closed have disappeared beneath undergrowth, ring roads or housing estates. In 1997 the BBC could produce a sitcom about life on a railway station in the 1960s entitled Oh Dr Beeching and assume that the audience would know who Dr Beeching was. 'Oh Dr Beeching, what have you done?' asked the theme tune's lyric; 'there once were lots of trains to catch but soon there will be none'.
The lasting popular view of Beeching is of a cold-blooded accountant, concerned only with finance, whose report examined the railways in a vacuum when what was needed was a study of transport as a whole. One historian has called Beeching's appointment 'a tragedy for the nation' and accuses him of 'callously' ignoring the social consequences of closures. Another, in a work entitled The Great Railway Conspiracy, suggests that the closure programme was at least partly motivated by a deliberate anti-rail bias on the part of the Conservative government of the day.
Such suspicions have been fuelled by a number of factors. Prior to 1962 closure proposals had (in effect, although not in law) to be approved by the relevant local Transport Users' Consultative Committee. These committees rarely exercised a veto, but their hearings provided such an effective forum for critics of railway management, and took up so much time and effort, that they deterred railway managers from a vigorous pruning of the system. In 1956 the Ministry suggested that it might be better to publish a closure programme as part of a plan à la Beeching and have 'one big row' about it, than to fight a series of individual battles, but the British Transport Commission decided to experiment with diesel railbuses and other economies instead. Yet by 1959 it was clear that such measures were insufficient and therefore attempts were made to accelerate the rate of closures. To this end, the 1962 Transport Act attempted to prevent the committees' hearings from discussing the detailed pros and cons of each case by limiting their role to that of reporting to the Minister on the degree of hardship a closure would cause. Unsurprisingly, Beeching's opponents cried foul; nor did the change prevent constant criticism of Beeching's arguments.
The personalities of Richard Beeching and Ernest Marples did not help matters. Beeching was, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan noted, 'better at making plans than getting them across'. It was all too easy to believe that this austere technocrat simply did not care about the social consequences of closures. The fact that Beeching had been one of four businessmen appointed to a Special Advisory Group on the railways in 1960, the recommendations of which were kept secret for over twenty years, fuelled speculation that he had produced a secret closure plan before he joined the railway board, raising the suspicion that the traffic studies he subsequently conducted were somehow less than honest. (In fact the group's recommendations said little about closures and were not published because its members were unable to agree on their most important conclusion, how best to reorganise nationalised transport.)
Dynamic and aggressive, with a tendency to sail close to the wind, Ernest Marples was a self-made man who owned a road-construction company. He was required to sell his stake in the business on becoming Minister of Transport in October 1959, but was slow to do so. When the firm won the contract for the Hammersmith flyover in January 1960, Marples was in trouble, although there is no evidence to suggest that he acted corruptly (since the contract was awarded by the London County Council not the Ministry). Marples seemed to believe that there was no such thing as bad publicity and revelled in the notoriety the closure programme brought him. Just as Beeching's demeanour suggested that he was unmoved by others' hardship, so it was easy to attribute ulterior motives to the Minister's apparent enthusiasm for closures, particularly as he also presided over a shift in investment from rail to road.
The reality was rather more complex. The Beeching Report was the fruit of a period of reform within Whitehall that clarified the nature of the relationship between ministers and the nationalised industries and based transport policy on the best estimate Whitehall could make of future needs. By the late 1950s senior Treasury officials were coming to the conclusion that the nationalised industries were not charging the public economic rates for their services. This in turn fuelled demand for such services and for investment in them, which was reducing the capital available for private investment and thereby causing public expenditure to grow at a rate the country could not afford. Consequently, the Treasury argued that nationalised industries should be set clearer financial targets: and if ministers required them to perform unremunerative tasks in the public interest this should be stated publicly. Announced in a 1961 white paper, but developed in 1959 before Marples or Beeching arrived on the scene, this policy was really an attempt by officials to stop ministers intervening behind the scenes to hold down nationalised industries' prices, while allowing wages to rise in order to avoid strikes (a practice that had done more than anything to drive the railways into the red). But it also meant that the railways were now expected to propose for closure any loss-making line and leave it to the Minister to decide whether or not individual services should be retained for social reasons.
Beeching's apparent disregard for the social consequences of closure was merely a reflection of the fact that his report was a statement of what the railways should do as a business. What they should do as a social service was for ministers to decide, as only they could weigh the resulting costs against competing demands on the Exchequer. Because Beeching had little to say about social need and there was no legislative provision for subsidising loss-making services, the idea took root that the issue had simply been ignored. However, it was always accepted that many loss-making lines would have to be retained, particularly in urban areas where it was recognised that rail performed a vital role in reducing road congestion. Of course, the point at which hardship justified a loss was bound to be open to dispute; and in cases where losses were high and hardship affected relatively few, those few were unlikely to be consoled by the logic behind the process.
The Treasury's concern over public spending levels also led it to initiate a series of studies of long-term demand in various sectors, in order to prioritise public investment. No such study of transport had been undertaken in Whitehall since the war and an initial attempt in 1957 revealed little more than officials' lack of information or expertise on the subject. This problem proved difficult to solve. Such expertise could not be acquired overnight, and Whitehall was unable to establish a common measure for judging investment in road and rail. Instead, transport planning quickly crystallised around a choice between investing in rail and restricting road transport, or investing in roads and leaving the railways to perform only those tasks which they could accomplish profitably. As one Treasury under-secretary put it, the growth of road traffic in the 1950s meant that 'Whitehall is ... collectively fumbling after a new policy to meet new conditions which threaten to overwhelm us - indeed they may already have done so'.
By the time Marples arrived at the Ministry in October 1959 the tide had already turned against rail. The railways had lost nearly £50 million in 1958 and would never be able to pay off their debts. It was becoming clear that they could never hope to regain much of the freight traffic lost to road and that even if they did, this would have little impact on the growth of road traffic and the consequent demand for new roads. With both road freight and the motor-car industry now essential sectors of the British economy, with restrictions on motoring a political impossibility and congestion a growing problem, the case for more and better roads seemed clear. Marples was certainly an advocate of such expenditure, but it is clear that his enthusiasm was echoed across the political spectrum.
By the start of 1960 officials had concluded, rightly, that the £1,200 million railway modernisation programme launched in 1955 was being hopelessly mismanaged and that the railway deficit was likely to increase dramatically. Advised of that, Marples slowed the planned rate of rail investment, though considerable sums continued to be spent on modernisation (and, year on year, his Labour successors were to spend significantly less).
Marples' second response was to appoint the Special Advisory Group on railways to which Beeching was recruited from Imperial Chemical Industries. Beeching insisted that the group's work should begin with a detailed study of the costs of transporting different types of traffic by different modes of transport, to see what traffic the railways should be carrying. This was exactly the kind of study Beeching's critics have attacked him for failing to conduct. Attempts were made to carry it out, but the subject proved too complex. Whitehall had insufficient staff and could find no one else to do the job, while the railways had enough difficulty analysing their own costs and traffic levels. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the closure programme was not justified by the evidence. Beeching's traffic studies established that half the rail network carried around five per cent of its traffic, much of which was failing to cover its direct costs. As one former railway manager has admitted, 'some pretty rough and ready figures' were used to justify individual closures, but as the passenger closure programme proceeded in advance of freight rationalisation the full value of individual closures was often obscured. Many lines subsequently lost their freight services and closed completely, producing substantial savings which would not have materialised had the passenger service continued.
The Beeching Report was one of a series of measures around which Harold Macmillan hoped to construct a theme of 'modernising Britain' on which to fight the next election. In the years following the Suez debacle the belief in the need for national modernisation became widespread and it was a mood that the Labour opposition, led by Harold Wilson from 1963, was eager to exploit. The presentation of the Beeching Report as an exercise in modernisation produced a positive initial response, but when individual closure proposals began to be examined later in 1963 it seemed that neither politicians nor the public had an appetite for this version of modernity.
Conservative Central Office drew up a list of potentially troublesome closures and Marples was urged to accelerate those in which his decision was likely to be a reprieve and to postpone the others. Only now did ministers realise that the most controversial cases were also those which involved the largest savings. Long lines used by relatively large - if insufficient - numbers of people tended to cost more to operate than short branch lines with only a few trains. There was thus no painless way to achieve major economies. In any case, with Beeching reluctant to play the game and with Marples determined to be tough, it was difficult to predict which lines would be spared in advance. As it was, Macmillan's resignation on October 13th, 1963, disrupted the electoral timetable enough to undermine the whole attempt at political management.
Nor were Marples' colleagues enthusiastic when it was their line that had to close. The new prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, had to be dissuaded by his private office from intervening to save his local line and Marples endured a particularly fraught relationship with the Scottish Office. When one considers that the subsequent election, in October 1964, turned on a few hundred votes in a handful of seats, it is easy to see why ministers were unnerved. Similarly, Wilson was reluctant to include rail closures in his white-hot technological revolution, promising to halt all major closures until the government had developed its own transport strategy. However, with the election over and the economy in trouble, officials soon persuaded the new Government to continue the policy with only cosmetic alterations. Although Barbara Castle, Wilson's second Secretary of State for Transport, introduced specific subsidies for socially necessary lines, this was an administrative reform rather than a change of policy. It made no difference to the number of lines closed.
While the Beeching Report was clearly an attempt to reduce the railway deficit, it was not a knee-jerk response to it. Based on the idea that nationalised boards should be set clear targets, that the funding of social services should be the responsibility of accountable ministers and that the transport infrastructure should reflect future requirements, the report was a genuine exercise in modernisation, part of Whitehall's coming to terms with the new responsibilities that the creation of a nationalised sector placed upon it. The closure programme did not make the railways profitable, nor did the Government seriously expect it to; but it certainly reduced losses and, by crystallising the harsh reality of the need to balance the provision of services against the cost of doing so, it took a necessary first step in establishing the idea of a 'social railway', additional to the main network.
In comparison to the lack of transport planning that typified the mid-1950s, the Beeching era represented a high point in transport policy-making. This is not to say that the resulting policy was unequivocally correct. Better roads were needed, but motorway-building did not offer a straightforward solution to congestion, and it is easy to point to regrettable rail closures. Some lines, such as Nottingham-Mansfield, have reopened, others, such as Oxford-Cambridge, may do so in the future; and the isolation of towns such as Hawick and Louth from the rail network was an act of dubious wisdom.
If these were errors, they were not Beeching's, but politicians'. However, ministers of transport can never hope to satisfy our demand for unlimited road space and excellent public transport, as the availability of the former increases the latter's cost. The lasting opprobrium heaped upon the memory of Dr Beeching is testimony to this fact - and to the gulf between the images conjured up by politicians' talk of modernisation and the pains which, in reality, it all too often involves.
- Charles Loft is the author of The British Government and the Railway 1951-1964 to be published by Frank Cass in February 2004.