The Beeching cuts (also Beeching Axe) were a reduction of route network and restructuring of the railways in Great Britain, according to a plan outlined in two reports, The Reshaping of British Railways (1963) and The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes (1965), written by Dr Richard Beeching and published by the British Railways Board.
The first report identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles (8,000 km) 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 and reducing the rail subsidies necessary to keep the network running; the second identified a small number of major routes for significant investment. The 1963 report also recommended some less well-publicised changes, including a switch to containerisation for rail freight.
Protests resulted in the saving of some stations and lines, but the majority were closed as planned, and Beeching's name remains associated with the mass closure of railways and the loss of many local services in the period that followed. A few of these routes have since reopened, some short sections have been preserved as heritage railways, while others have been incorporated into the National Cycle Network or used for road schemes; others now are lost to construction, have reverted to farmland, or remain derelict.
After growing rapidly in the 19th century during the Railway Mania, the British railway system reached its height in the years immediately before the First World War, with a network of 23,440 miles (37,720 km). After the First World War the railways faced increasing competition from a growing road transport network, which led to the closure of some 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of passenger railway between 1923 and 1939. These closures included the Charnwood Forest Railway, previously closed to passengers in 1931; the Harborne Line in Birmingham, closed to passengers in 1934. Some of these lines had never been profitable and were not subject to loss of traffic[clarification needed] in that period. The railways were busy during World War II, but at the end of the war they were in a poor state of repair and were soon nationalised as British Railways.
The Branch Lines Committee of the British Transport Commission (BTC) was formed in 1949 with a brief to close the least-used branch lines; 3,318 miles (5,340 km) of railway were closed between 1948 and 1962. the most significant of these was the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, closed in 1959. This period saw the beginning of a closures protest movement led by the Railway Development Association, whose most famous member was the poet John Betjeman. They went on to be a significant force resisting the Beeching proposals.
Economic recovery and the end of petrol rationing led to rapid growth in car ownership and use. Vehicle mileage grew at a sustained annual rate of 10% between 1948 and 1964. In contrast, railway traffic remained steady during the 1950s but the economics steadily deteriorated, with labour costs rising faster than income and fares and freight charges repeatedly frozen by the government to try to control inflation. By 1955 income no longer covered operating costs, and things got steadily worse.
The 1955 Modernisation Plan promised expenditure of over £1,240 million; steam locomotives would be replaced with diesel and electric locomotives, traffic levels would increase, and the system was predicted to be back in profit by 1962. Instead losses mounted, from £68 million in 1960 to £87 million in 1961, and £104 million in 1962 (£2.04 billion in 2016 terms). The BTC could no longer pay the interest on its loans. The government lost patience and looked for radical solutions.
By 1961 losses were running at £300,000 a day; since nationalisation in 1948, 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of line had been closed, railway staff numbers had fallen 26% from 648,000 to 474,000[note 1] and the number of railway wagons had fallen 29% from 1,200,000 to 848,000.[note 2]
The report The Reshaping of British Railways (or Beeching I report) was published on 27 March 1963.
The report starts by quoting the brief provided by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, from 1960: "First, the industry must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be modelled to meet current needs, and the modernisation plan must be adapted to this new shape"[note 3] and with the premise that the railways should be run as a profitable business.[note 4]
Beeching first studied traffic flows on all lines to identify "the good, the bad, and the indifferent".[note 5] His analysis showed that the least-used 1,762 stations had annual passenger receipts of less than £2,500 each (£52.8 thousand as of 2018), that over half of the 4,300 stations open to passengers in 1960 had receipts of less than £10,000,[note 6] that the least-used 50% of stations contributed only 2% of passenger revenue,[note 7] and that one third of route miles carried just 1% of passengers.[note 8]
By way of example, he noted that the line from Thetford to Swaffham carried five trains each weekday in each direction, carrying an average of nine passengers with only 10% of the costs of operating the line covered by fares; another example was the Gleneagles-Crieff-Comrie line which had ten trains a day and five passengers on average earning only 25% of costs. Finally there was the service from Hull to York via Beverley (using part of the Yorkshire Coast Line, which was not closed, and the York to Beverley Line, which was). The line covered 80% of its operating costs but he calculated that it could be closed because there was an alternative, but less direct, route.[note 9]
Out of 18,000 miles (29,000 km) of railway, Beeching recommended that 6,000 miles (9,700 km)--mostly rural and industrial lines--should be closed entirely, and that some of the remaining lines should be kept open only for freight. A total of 2,363 stations were to close, including 435 already under threat, both on lines that were to close and on lines that were to remain open.[note 10]
He recommended that freight services should mainly be for minerals and coal, and that the freight system made use of new containerised handling systems rather than less efficient and slower wagon-load traffic.[note 11]
On 16 February 1965, Beeching announced the second stage of his reorganisation of the railways. In his report, The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, he set out his conclusion that of the 7,500 miles (12,100 km) of trunk railway only 3,000 miles (4,800 km) "should be selected for future development" and invested in.
This policy would result in traffic being routed along nine lines. Traffic to Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland would be routed through the West Coast Main Line to Carlisle and Glasgow; traffic to the north-east would be concentrated through the East Coast Main Line, which was to be closed north of Newcastle; and traffic to Wales and the West Country would go on the Great Western Main Line to Swansea and Plymouth.
Underpinning Beeching's proposals was his belief that there was too much duplication in the railway network: "The real choice is between an excessive and increasingly un-economic system, with a corresponding tendency for the railways as a whole to fall into disrepute and decay, or the selective development and intensive utilisation of a more limited trunk route system".[note 12] Of the 7,500 miles (12,100 km) of trunk route, 3,700 miles (6,000 km) involves a choice between two routes, 700 miles (1,100 km) a choice of three, and over a further 700 miles (1,100 km) a choice of four. In Scotland only the Central Belt routes and the lines via Fife and Perth to Aberdeen were selected for development, and none were selected in Wales, apart from the Great Western Main Line as far as Swansea.
Beeching's secondment from ICI ended early in June 1965 after Harold Wilson's attempt to get him to produce a transport plan failed. It is a matter of debate whether Beeching left by mutual arrangement with the government or if he was sacked. Frank Cousins, the Labour Minister of Technology, told the House of Commons in November 1965 that Beeching had been dismissed by Tom Fraser. Beeching denied this, pointing out that he had returned early to ICI as he would not have had enough time to undertake an in-depth transport study before the formal end of his secondment.
The first report was accepted by the Government, but many of the closures it recommended sparked protests from communities that would lose their trains, many of which (especially rural communities) had no other public transport. The government argued that many services could be provided more cheaply by buses.
Line closures, which had been running at about 150-300 miles per year between 1950 and 1961, peaked at 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in 1964 and had come to a virtual halt by the early 1970s. One of the last major closures was the 98-mile long (158 km) Waverley Route between Carlisle, Hawick and Edinburgh in 1969; the reopening of a 35-mile section of this line was approved in 2006 and passenger services resumed in September 2015.
Not all the recommended closures were implemented. Reprieved lines include:
The Beeching Report was intended to be the first stage in the rail network's contraction. As a result, some lines it had not recommended for closure were subsequently shut down, such as the Woodhead Line between Manchester and Sheffield in 1981, after the freight traffic (mostly coal) on which it had relied declined. Most of the Oxford-Cambridge "Varsity Line" closed despite its strategic location serving Milton Keynes, Britain's largest "new town". Kinross-shire and Fife especially suffered closures not included in the Report, including the main line from Edinburgh to Perth. King's Lynn was to have remained at the centre of routes towards Norwich, Hunstanton and Wisbech, all of which closed.
With a few exceptions, after the early 1970s proposals to close other lines were met with vociferous public opposition and were quietly shelved. This opposition likely stemmed from the public experience of the many line closures during the cuts in the mid and late 1960s.
This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (July 2012)
Beeching's reports made no recommendations about the handling of land after closures. British Rail operated a policy of disposing of land that was surplus to requirements. Many bridges, cuttings and embankments have been removed and the land sold for development. Closed station buildings on remaining lines have often been demolished or sold for housing or other purposes. Increasing pressure on land use meant that protection of closed trackbeds, as in other countries (such as the US Rail Bank scheme, which holds former railway land for possible future use) was not seen to be practical. Many redundant structures from closed lines remain, such as bridges over other lines and drainage culverts. They often require maintenance as part of the rail infrastructure while providing no benefit. Critics of Beeching argue that the lack of recommendations on the handling of closed railway property demonstrates that the report was short-sighted. On the other hand, retaining a railway on these routes, which would obviously have increased maintenance costs, might not have earned enough to justify that greater cost. As demand for rail has grown since the 1990s, the failure to preserve the routes of closed lines (such as the one between Bedford and Cambridge, which was closed despite Beeching recommending its retention) has been criticised.
By 1968 the railways had not been restored to profitability and Beeching's approach appeared to many to have failed. It has been suggested that by closing almost a third of the network Beeching achieved a saving of just £30 million, whilst overall losses were running in excess of £100 million per year. However, the precise savings from closures are impossible to calculate. The Ministry of Transport subsequently estimated that rail operating costs had been cut by over £100 million in the wake of the Beeching Report but that much of this had been swallowed up by increased wages. Some of the branches closed acted as feeders to the main lines, and that feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed; the financial significance of this is debatable as over 90% of the railways' 1960 traffic was carried on lines which remained open ten years later.
Whatever the figures, towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that rail closures were not bringing the rail system out of deficit and were unlikely ever to do so. Transport minister Barbara Castle decided that some rail services, which could not pay their way but had a valuable social role, should be subsidised. Legislation allowing this was introduced in the Transport Act 1968 (section 39 made provision for a subsidy to be paid by the Treasury for a three-year period) but this was later repealed in the Railways Act 1974. Whether these subsidies affected the size of the network is questionable: the criteria for reprieving loss-making lines had not altered, merely the way their costs appeared in the railways accounts--previously their contribution to the railways' overall loss was hidden in the total deficit.
The "bustitution" policy that replaced rail services with buses also failed. In many cases the replacement bus services were slower and less convenient than the trains they were meant to replace, and so were unpopular. Replacement bus services were often run between the (now disused) station sites (some of which were some distance from the population centres they served), thus losing any potential advantage over the closed rail service. Most replacement bus services lasted less than two years before they were removed due to a lack of patronage, leaving large parts of the country with no public transport.
The assumption at the time was that car owners would drive to the nearest railhead (which was usually the junction where the closed branch line would otherwise have taken them) and continue their journey onwards by train. In practice, having left home in their cars, people used them for the whole journey. Similarly for freight: without branch lines, the railways' ability to transport goods "door to door" was dramatically reduced. As in the passenger model, it was assumed that lorries would pick up goods and transport them to the nearest railhead, where they would be taken across the country by train, unloaded onto another lorry and taken to their destination. The development of the motorway network, the advent of containerisation, improvements in lorries and the economic costs of having two break-bulk points combined to make long-distance road transport a more viable alternative.
Many of the closed lines had run at only a small deficit. Some lines such as the Sunderland to West Hartlepool line cost only £291 per mile to operate. Closures of such small-scale loss-making lines made little difference to the overall deficit.
Possible changes to light railway type operations were attacked by Beeching, who wrote: "The third suggestion, that rail buses should be substituted for trains, ignores the high cost of providing the route itself, and also ignores the fact that rail buses are more expensive vehicles than road buses." There is little in the Beeching report recommending general economies (in administration costs, working practices and so on). For example, a number of the stations that were closed were fully staffed 18 hours a day, on lines controlled by multiple Victorian era signalboxes (again fully staffed, often throughout the day). Operating costs could have been reduced by reducing staff and removing redundant services on these lines while keeping the stations open. This has since been successfully achieved by British Rail and its successors on lesser-used lines that survived the cuts, such as the East Suffolk Line from Ipswich to Lowestoft, which survives as a "basic railway".
The Marshlink Line between Ashford and Hastings, threatened with closure in the Beeching Report, is now seen as important due to the opening of the Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1. Traffic on the single-track Golden Valley Line between Kemble and Swindon and the Cotswold Line between Oxford and Worcester has increased significantly, and double track has now been reinstated on the Golden Valley Line.
The Conservatives increased their Commons majority in the general election of 8 October 1959, their first with Harold Macmillan as prime minister, who famously said that most people "had never had it so good". Ernest Marples, previously the Postmaster General, was made Transport Minister two weeks later in a cabinet reshuffle; Marples was described by some as "cocky", "flash", "slick" and as a "construction tycoon", and Macmillan noted that the Northern working-class boy who had won a scholarship to a grammar school was one of only two "self-made men" in his cabinet.
Marples had a background with a successful road construction company. When opening the M1 motorway he said: "This motorway starts a new era in road travel. It is in keeping with the bold scientific age in which we live. It is a powerful weapon to add to our transport system." His association with the high-profile construction company Marples Ridgway became a matter of concern to both the public and politicians. As is customary, he resigned as a director of the company in 1951 on becoming a junior minister, but he only sold his shares in the company in 1960 after the company won a contract to build the Hammersmith Flyover, when questions were asked both in the media and also in the Commons on 28 January 1960; he made a statement to the House later that day confirming that the sale of shares was in hand and would be completed "very soon", noting that as part of the agreement he could be required to buy the shares from the purchaser at the original price after he ceased to hold office, if so desired by the purchaser. In July 1964, Marples Ridgway and partners[clarification needed][not a partnership] were awarded a £4.1 million contract for the "Hendon Urban Motorway" extension of the M1, in the same year that the company was taken over by the Bath and Portland Group. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing on anyone's part in this or any of the other contracts awarded to the company during his term of office, it did however lead to a sense of unease, not least within the railway sector.[note 13]
In April 1960, Sir Ivan Stedeford established an advisory group known as the Stedeford Committee at the request of Harold Macmillan to report on the state of the British Transport Commission and to make recommendations.Sir Frank Smith, a retired former Chief Engineer at Imperial Chemical Industries, was asked by the Conservative Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, to become a member of an advisory group; Smith declined but recommended Beeching in his place, a suggestion which Marples accepted. Dr Beeching, with a PhD in Physics, had been appointed to the main board of ICI at the age of 43. The board consisted of senior figures in British businesses, and none of the board had previous knowledge or experience of the railway industry. Stedeford and Beeching clashed on a number of issues, but the future size of the railway system was not one of them. For all the suspicion it aroused, the committee had little to say on this and the government was already convinced of the need to reduce the size of the rail network. In spite of questions being asked in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was not published at the time. In December 1960 questions were asked in the Lords about this "secret" and "under-the-counter" study group. It was later suggested that Stedeford had recommended that the government should set up another body "to consider the size and pattern of the railway system required to meet current and foreseeable needs, in the light of developments and trends in other forms of transport ... and other relevant considerations".[note 14]
Marples then appointed Beeching as Chairman of the British Transport Commission in March 1961. He would receive the same yearly salary that he was earning at ICI, the controversial sum of £24,000 (£490,000 in 2016 terms), £10,000 more than Sir Brian Robertson, the previous chairman of the BTC, £14,000 more than Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and two-and-a-half times higher than the salary of any head of a nationalised industry at the time. At that time the government was seeking outside talent and fresh blood to sort out the huge problems of the railway network, and he was confident that he could make the railways pay for themselves, but his salary, at 35 times that of many railway workers, has been described as a "political disaster".
The Transport Act 1962 dissolved the British Transport Commission (BTC), which had overseen the railways, canals and road freight transport and established the British Railways Board, which took over on 1 January 1963, with Dr Beeching as its first chairman. The Act put in place measures that simplified the process of closing railways by removing the need for the pros and cons of each case to be heard in detail. It was described as the "most momentous piece of legislation in the field of railway law to have been enacted since the Railway and Canal Traffic Act 1854".
The Beeching report was published in March 1963 and was adopted by the government; it resulted in the closure of a third of the rail network and the scrapping of a third of a million freight wagons.
The General election in October 1964 returned the Labour Government 1964-1970 under Prime Minister Harold Wilson after 13 years of Conservative government. During the election campaign Labour had promised to halt rail closures if elected, but they quickly backtracked, and later oversaw some of the most controversial closures. Tom Fraser was appointed Transport Minister, but was replaced by Barbara Castle in December 1965. Castle published a map,Network for Development, in 1967 showing the railway system "stabilised" at around 11,000 route miles (17,700 km).
Section 39 of the Transport Act 1968 made provision for grants to be paid in relation to loss-making lines and services, but many of the services and railway lines that would have qualified had already been closed. A number of branch lines and local services were saved by this legislation.
After 1970, when the Conservatives were returned to power, serious thought was given to a further programme of closures, but this proved politically impossible. In 1983, under the government of Margaret Thatcher, Sir David Serpell, a civil servant who had worked with Beeching, compiled the Serpell Report which said that a profitable railway could be achieved only by closing much of what remained. The infamous "Option A" in this report was illustrated by a map of a vestigial system with, for example, no railways west of Bristol or Cardiff and none in Scotland apart from the central belt. Serpell was shown to have some serious weaknesses, such as the closure of the Midland Main Line (a busy route for coal to power stations), and the East Coast Main Line between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh, part of the key London/Edinburgh link. The report met fierce resistance from many quarters and was quickly abandoned.
Ian Hislop comments that history has been somewhat unkind to "Britain's most hated civil servant", by forgetting that he proposed a much better bus service that ministers never delivered, and that in some ways he was used to do their "dirty work for them". Hislop describes Beeching as "a technocrat [who] wasn't open to argument to romantic notions of rural England or the warp and weft of the train in our national identity. He didn't buy any of that. He went for a straightforward profit and loss approach and some claim we are still reeling from that today". Beeching was unrepentant about his role in the closures: "I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping".
Since the Beeching cuts, road traffic levels have grown significantly and since privatisation in the mid-1990s there have been record levels of passengers on the railways (although the impact of this is disputed). A few of the railway closures have been reversed. However, despite the considerable increase in railway journeys since the mid-1990s, rail transport's share of the total transport market remains below that of the early 1960s, with road overwhelmingly the dominant mode: rail's market share was 13% in 1961, 6% in 1991 and 2001 and 10% in 2014.
A few closed stations have reopened, and passenger services been restored on a few lines where they had been removed. See List of Beeching Cuts service reopenings
Flanders and Swann, writers and performers of satirical songs, wrote a lament for lines closed by the Beeching cuts entitled "Slow Train". Michael Williams' book On the slow train takes its name from the Flanders and Swann song. It celebrates 12 of the most beautiful and historic journeys in Britain, some of which were saved from the Beeching cuts. It perpetuated the myth that the Beeching cuts were concerned solely with sleepy rural branch lines, but they concerned well-used "industrial" and commuter lines.
In the satirical magazine Private Eye, the "Signal Failures" column on railway issues is written under the pseudonym "Dr. B. Ching".
The lyrics of the I Like Trains song "The Beeching Report" are a criticism of Dr Beeching and the Beeching cuts.
|Year||Total length closed|
|1950||150 miles (240 km)|
|1951||275 miles (443 km)|
|1952||300 miles (480 km)|
|1953||275 miles (443 km)|
|1954 to 1957||500 miles (800 km)|
|1958||150 miles (240 km)|
|1959||350 miles (560 km)|
|1960||175 miles (282 km)|
|1961||150 miles (240 km)|
|1962||780 miles (1,260 km)|
|Beeching report published|
|1963||324 miles (521 km)|
|1964||1,058 miles (1,703 km)|
|1965||600 miles (970 km)|
|1966||750 miles (1,210 km)|
|1967||300 miles (480 km)|
|1968||400 miles (640 km)|
|1969||250 miles (400 km)|
|1970||275 miles (443 km)|
|1971||23 miles (37 km)|
|1972||50 miles (80 km)|
|1973||35 miles (56 km)|
Is he aware that there has been a Press report, which I am unable to confirm or deny, that the Minister of Transport was in fact the senior partner of a firm of contractors which has obtained a contract worth £250,000 and that we understand, according to this Press report, that the right hon. Gentleman is now trying to dispose of the shares he has. In a case of this kind, does not the right hon. Gentleman think it most improper, at any rate, that any Minister of the Crown should be associated with any company with which such a contract is placed?
When I became Minister of Transport, last October, I realised that there was a risk of a conflict of interest appearing 381 to arise in consequence of my holding a controlling interest in the company. I immediately took steps to effect a sale of my shares. It has taken some time to arrange this as the company is a private one engaged in long-term contracts in civil engineering, but I hope that it will be completed very soon. Then I shall have no financial interest in the company. But I think that I should tell the House that the prospective purchasers have required me to undertake to buy the shares back from them at the price they are to pay if they ask me to do so after I have ceased to hold office. I myself have no option to buy the shares back. I have not, of course, had anything whatsoever to do with any tenders put in by the company while I have been a member of the Government.
Mr. A. Lewis asked the Minister of Transport whether he will publish in HANSARD a table of figures giving the contracts obtained by Marples, Ridgway & Partners Limited during the past 13 years, and the amounts of such contracts in each case.
In accordance with the statement which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made on 10th March, I have now appointed the body which will advise me and the British Transport Commission. It will be composed as follows: Chairman: Sir Ivan Stedeford, K.B.E., Chairman and Managing Director, Tube Investments Ltd. Members: Mr. C. F. Kearton, O.B.E., Joint Managing Director, Courtaulds, Dr. R. Beeching, A.R.C.S., B.Sc, Ph.D., Technical Director of I.C.I., Mr. H. A. Benson, C.B.E., F.C.A., partner in Cooper Bros., chartered accountants. The Treasury and the Ministry of Transport will also be represented. The task of the advisory body will be to examine the structure, finance and working of the organisations at present controlled by the Commission and to advise the Minister of Transport and the British Transport Commission, as a matter of urgency, how effect can best be given to the Government's intentions as indicated in the Prime Minister's statement.
There has been appointed a highly secret, "under-the-counter" study group of the railways, the Stedeford Advisory Group. Now do not let it be thought that I have any prejudice against Sir Ivan Stedeford. I have a great respect for him: I think he is a very able business man. Indeed, I exercised some influence in getting him appointed as a Governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation, where he did good work. I have no prejudice; but I do not like the way the Government have handled it. They have never published the terms of reference, and I cannot believe that there are not any. They are refusing to publish the Report. In fact, they do not wholly admit that there is a Report; but there are recommendations, and they have not been published...
IS THIS man--or any man--worth pounds 450 a week?" the Daily Sketch demanded to know. The Daily Express asked: "Is THIS the way to run a country?". The Daily Mail reassuringly observed "Dr Beeching rides the storm", while the Mirror calmly stuck to the facts. These were that Dr Richard Beeching, technical director of ICI, had been appointed head of the British Railways Board at a salary of £24,000 per annum ... Whatever the logic, politically it was a disaster.
If, in the case of any place or places to and from which railway passenger services are for the time being provided by the Railways Board, the Minister is satisfied (a) that those services are unremunerative ; and (b) that it is desirable for social or economic reasons that railway passenger services to and from the place or places in question should for the time being continue to be provided either in the same or in some different form or manner ; and (c) that because of the unremunerative nature of the services which the Minister is satisfied are desirable for those reasons (hereafter in this section referred to as "the required services") the Board cannot reasonably be expected to provide them without assistance under this section, then, subject to the provisions of this section, the Minister may from time to time with the consent of the Treasury undertake to make grants to the Board in respect of the provision of the required services for such period not exceeding three years at a time as the Minister may think fit