History Today eBook: The Second World War

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'.

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