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

It is fifty eight 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 eight years ago on the fiftieth anniversary, buts its still spoken about, with many opinions to this to this day, and currently in connection with the proposed reopening of some lines (including Exeter to Okehampton), 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 and even through to Okehampton to complete the Northern route to counter the issues sometimes experienced along the ex GWR coastal route via Dawlish.

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…

One thought on “58 years since “The Reshaping British Railways” – the Beeching report”

  1. I perceive much of the railway’s freight traffic was always essentially unprofitable due to the carriage rates previously set by the Government a hundred years previously.

    Following the 1962 Transport Act (and Dr Beeching’s drive bring the railways back into profitability) there was an imperative to identify and develop profitable traffics with loss-making or only marginally profitable to either be reorganised with realistic pricing else withdrawn.

    Although BR’s gross receipts were considerable they were not even covering direct costs, let alone making any contribution to track, signalling, administration etc.

    Taking fish traffic as an example (and being very simplistic), carriage rates were now to be based on wagonload, rather than the previous consignment charging which had previously been very attractive to fish merchants. For many this new system was far less viable both financially and in terms of the service provided.

    However, prior to Beeching there had already been a steady erosion of the railways’ fish traffic to road services; a significant factor in this decline was the changes in the arrangements around fish processing with processing factories placed near the ports delivering straight to supermarkets.

Leave a Reply