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

It is sixty years to the day when Dr Richard Beeching’s report “The Reshaping of British Railways” was officially published on the 27th March 1963. The report and its effects are still discussed with many opinions to this to this day,  often in connection with the proposed reopening of some lines and the actual reopening of Exeter to Okehampton in November 2021. This post is an attempt to offer some, hopefully balanced, thoughts and discussion about the report, with of course a slight Southern perspective.

Dr 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 Conservative Government Minister of Transport Ernest Marples and had also appointed Dr Beeching in the first place.
It would seem however Marples had a direct conflict of interest between his role as Minister of Transport and the civil engineering road building firm Marples Ridgway. This firm was founded in 1948 by engineer Reginald Ridgway and the then accountant Ernest Marples, whose shares he “sold” to his wife.

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 it can also be argued that the figures used within the report were not statistically strong as only a weeks worth of data of passenger numbers from stations etc. were used) within the report appear compelling, (even though the phenomenal subsequent rise in both car usage and ownership could hardly have been predicted at the time), 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, that were essentially unprofitable perhaps due to the carriage rate structures inherently set by the Government a hundred years previously, but trains loaded with containers. Does that seem familiar today?

Whilst Dr Beeching is a much maligned name (or in some eyes “Scapegoat”) for the passenger line closure section of the report, the majority of the actual line / station closures occurred whilst Barbara Castle was the then Labour Government Minister of Transport, this despite the Labour Party opposing the closures whilst in opposition. It it is also easy, perhaps, to forget that this report also proposed investment in alternative passenger services such as high speed coaches, that of course never occurred, and 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…

6 thoughts on “60 years since “The Reshaping British Railways” – the Beeching report”

  1. Thank you for an excellent and informative post on the ‘Beeching’ report – a copy of which sits on my bookshelves.
    So often talked about (frequently lambasted) but I always wonder how many have read the report during the last six decades…

    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:

      I agree, many whilst having an opinion of an opinion have never read the full report or put it in context with the politics of the time.

  2. Hi Graham like so many railway enthusiasts this day and age I have never read Dr Beeching report, but I would if I could. I would like to know more behind the report itself as I also think that if the heritage railway world took a fresh view of the report there would be better lines and projects being open

  3. There are lies, damned lies, and then statistics.

    I speak as someone whose job before retirement was to assess statistical effects of RCTs for the NHS. I have no doubt that the statistics assembled for the Beeching Report were factually accurate, what I have a problem with is the interpretation of what they meant.

    The fact that Beeching was involved with Marples is enough of a red flag on its own. But, that said, British Rail needed to stem the losses.

    Arguably, hey this is 60 years after the event, with hindsight at maximum, the focus should not have been so much on line closures, but rather operational efficiencies.

    That would’ve meant staff cuts, but also changes in operations and equipment. Wagon designs for one, containerization (obviously), and draft gear (couplings) along with air brakes.

    1. I was around in the days of Lord B. In subsequent years, as an accounting professional, I could see the inadequacy of the statistics collected and quoted at the time. I have doubts over their accuracy and reliability as regards subsequent interpretation and decision support. Accounting methodology was both overly simplistic and skewed to produce the desired result. The mindset was mostly about cost-cutting, although some bright ideas for growth were indeed promulgated.
      You’re right about where the focus should have been, but railway management back then was inadequate in a changing world (along with management everywhere).
      Mike O’

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