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

It is fifty six years to the day when Dr Richard Beeching’s report “The Reshaping of British Railways” was officially published on the 27th March 1963. This is a sneaky repeat post from six years ago on the fiftieth anniversary, buts its still spoken about, with many opinions to this  to this day, so my thoughts below are still relevant.
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

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 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…

4 thoughts on “56 years since “The Reshaping British Railways” – the Beeching report”

  1. It could be argued many closures were inevitable; others in haste with little forsight and minimal social consideration. Indeed 100 years before ‘Beeching’ at the time of ‘railway mania’ there was little or no overall strategic thinking when Parliamentary Acts were almost ‘rubber-stamped’ leading to unecessary duplication.

    Looking across the Southern there are so many lines that did suvive ‘Beeching’ and are very busy today. The Southern was a commercially-orientated company. Horsham – Shoreham might have survived had it been electrified and Uckfield – Lewes remains a bone of contention.

    More importantly, until Beeching very little had been undertaking in terms of examining operating costs versus revenue – particularly when it came to freight. Even then the reshaping process was rushed for political expediency at a time where there could have greater commercial gain; particuarly through meaniful and robust methods of reducing cost.

    Others may have other views…. 😉

  2. It’s a classic case of shooting the messenger. Beeching was not responsible for the fact that 1950’s Britain was in love with the car, and had given up on travelling by train. It was a case of use it or lose it. Passenger trains were under used, lines were lost and for several decades nobody was bothered. Roll on fifty years and we realise the car wasn’t the answer to it all, but isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing.

    We should also reflect on the fact the US railroads went through exactly the same cycle for exactly the same reasons.

    Still, without the Beeching cuts we wouldn’t have preserved railways on old track beds or some jolly nice cycle rides (which our family enjoy) so there is some benefit, albeit unintended.

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