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.
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 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…