50 years since “The Reshaping British Railways” – the Beeching report

It is fifty years to the day when Dr Richard Beeching’s report “The Reshaping of British Railways” was officially published on the 27th March 1963. Beeching was at the time Chairman of the British Railways Board. The report identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway line for closure, 55% of stations and 30% of route miles, with an objective of stemming the large losses being incurred during a period of increasing competition from road transport (that also had the support from the then Minister of Transport Ernest Marples whom it appears had connections to the road construction industry and had also appointed Dr Beeching in the first place).

The Reshaping of British Railways report published on 27th March 1963
The Reshaping of British Railways report published on 27th March 1963

Many of the ex Southern Lines especially in the South West of England, already coined the ‘Withered Arm’ were closed as a result of the report.  A few protests resulted in the saving of some stations and lines, but the majority were closed as planned and Beeching’s name is to this day associated with the mass closure or ‘axe’ of railways and the loss of many local services in the period that followed.

One such line that was included in the report for closure was the Tamar Valley line, however due to the poor road links in the area some of the line was reprieved and survives to this day between Plymouth, Bere Alston and Gunnislake. In fact there is currently a growing movement and support for the line to be reopened north of Bere Alston back to the south end of Tavistock.

In addition to the main report there were a number of maps included within Part 2 of the report  that diagrammatically showed data such as : Density of passenger traffic, Distribution of passenger receipts, Density of Freight Traffic, etc. and of course the main outcome of the report the map of Proposed Withdrawal of Passenger Services. I have reproduced part of a couple of these maps in this post showing the Southern Region area.

Map 3 of the report shows the Distribution of Passenger Traffic Station Receipts (click for larger version)
Map 9 of the report shows the Proposed Withdrawal of Passenger Services (click for larger version)

Map 9 Proposed Withdrawal of Passenger Services shows the almost total eradication of the ex Southern Railway lines in the South West as already mentioned above, and a number of other lines in the South of England identified for closure. Happily some of these lines have now since reopened as preserved railways such as: the East Grinstead to Lewis line, now the Bluebell Railway recently successfully extended to reach back to East Grinstead from Sheffield Park.  Also the Alton to Winchester line that between Alton and Alresford now forms the Mid Hants Watercress line.

Although the Unions at the time released their own version of the report titled “The Mis-shaping of British Railways” a number of facts (although in some cases the basis of collection of some of these facts have been questioned) within the report appear compelling and it is perhaps not surprising that the conclusions reached were so wide ranging.
The report with respect to freight on the railways proposed the move to quicker, higher capacity trains, serving the main routes, transporting greater loads to hubs. Not with the then traditional wagons but trains loaded with containers. Does that seem familiar today?
Whilst Beeching is a much maligned name  for the passenger line closure section of the  report it is easy perhaps forget that this report dramatically modernised freight on the rail network promoting containerisation and long-distance freight haulage.

Who knows if the current growth and success of the railway network as it stands today would have been possible if some of the harsh decisions as a result of “The Reshaping of British Railways” were not taken…

5 thoughts on “50 years since “The Reshaping British Railways” – the Beeching report”

  1. I think you are too kind with “the support from the then Minister of Transport Ernest Marples whom it appears had connections to the road construction industry” – most history records him as having a direct conflict of interest between his role as transport minister and the firm Marples Ridgway, whose shares he “sold” to his wife.

    More annoying, is that the Saintly Barbara Castle is let off any blame despite it being her actions that closed most of the lines despite the Labour Party oposing the closures while in opposition. Beeching also proposed investment in alternative services such as high speed coaches, all of which were ignored by Castle & co.

    None of them correctly rpedicted the future of car transport. At the time if you wanted to travel a long way, it made sense to use the uncomfortable and unreliable motor to get to a railhead. Now, nearly everyone owns a vehicle capable to transporting them on a whim to the other end of the country. Once you are in it, changing to a train doesn’t often makes sense.

    Those little used stations were feeders for the inter-city lines. While they didn’t make money, some of them would have contributed to the overall system rather more than the figures might have suggested. Of course, the statistical analysis was a bit wonky too, with only a single weeks worth of numbers used but then Beeching was there to do a job and I suspect the politicians would have done the same thing anyway, he was just a handy scapegoat.

    1. grahammuz – A railway modeller with a keen insterest in all things Southern Railway especially the 1946 to 1949 period. I can often be seen on the exhibition circuit with my Layout Fisherton Sarum or assiting MIke Wild the Editor of Hornby Magazine with his layouts at shows. I am also long time member of the High Wycombe and District Model Railway Society
      grahammuz says:

      Hi Phil

      I do agree with your point, I was indeed being kind to Marples and was aware of the Marples Ridgeway conflict of interest but was keeping post slightly less controversial than some. Your comments regarding car travel are very true, as indeed are those about the data used as I allude to in my post too.

  2. Beeching saw door to door transport using containers transported on liner trains with the short journey at each end by truck. He did not expect his liner trains being used to convey so many marine forty foot containers, but without the investment in his recommendation we wouldn’t have the freightliner network we have today.

    Also, coal was transported in 16 ton steel wagons. Beeching suggested using larger hopper wagons on a continuous loop between pit and power station and merry-go-round was born. These trains didn’t stop but today are more likely to be loaded at a port rather than pit.

  3. Graham,

    Many thanks for posting this article. While all this happened before I was born, I do think that the “Reshaping of BR” was very much a short term response designed purely to save money.

    While much has been said about Beeching and his “axe” I have not read the Rail Unions’ responses to the proposals, and as such it would be interesting to compare some of the more robust responses to Beeching’s proposals.

    It reminds me of the similar, but unrelated, closure of the Mumbles Railway (Tramway) in Swansea. The Tramway was owned and operated by South Wales Transport (part of the BET bus organisation). They had a vested interest in bus operation and thus claimed that the tramway was unprofitable and expensive and that closure would alow a more economically viable bus service to replace the trams.

    What they did not say was that they had created two companies, one owned an operated the rolling stock, the other owned the track/infrastructure and charged the rolling stock company for it’s usage (a business model for today’s railtrack???.

    The mumbles railway was ripped up in 1960 despite protests and pleas from the people of Swansea, and had the subterfuge of the Company organisation been detected – it was actually runninng at a small profit!

    Many thanks for sharing this with us,


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