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Last Updated:  Friday, 28 February, 2003, 07:39 GMT
Historic rail cuts loom once more
by Alan Whitehouse
BBC transport correspondent

Forty years ago next month, the Beeching Report cut the railway network by a third, closing 2,000 stations and 5,000 miles of track. Now there is a growing feeling among many rail experts that the network is once again under threat.

Richard Beeching said branch lines had no future.

Alan Whitehouse travels on the once weekly train that leaves Denton station near Manchester
A train leaves Denton station once a week, in one direction only
But a handful did survive because politicians got cold feet about the rising number of protests against the closures.

The lines have been run on a shoestring for the last 40 years. There has been little investment and there are not enough trains to go round.

Now, just as in Beeching's time, rail passengers are being told they would be better off on a bus.

Some branch stations are already as good as closed.

Denton in south Manchester is the only station on the network where you cannot buy a return ticket. There is just one train a week in one direction only. You can go but you cannot come back.

It is not the only line with a timetable straight out of Alice in Wonderland. The route through Brigg in Lincolnshire has three trains - but only on Saturdays.

Government subsidies

The line from York to Pontefract and Sheffield has five - but they all run at peak times so you cannot use them to get to work or school.

None of this surprises Giles Fearnley, one of the first rail privateers to take over a clutch of branch lines. He quickly found they were bigger loss makers than he could have imagined.

Most of the lines that we decided to remove were carrying such poor levels of traffic that they ought never to have existed
Lord Beeching (1913 - 1986)
"The subsidy element into a number of the branch lines was probably at the level of about eight to ten times the fare being paid by the passenger."

This meant that for every 1 collected in fares, between 8 to 10 in government subsidy was needed just to keep the wheels turning.

Even the Strategic Rail Authority now talks about the 17/64 railway - secondary lines that generate 17% of rail travel but swallow up 64% of the subsidies. It leaves no money for investing in new trains or better stations.

Newton St Cyres station in Devon
Newton St Cyres narrowly escaped the Beeching cuts, but forty years on hardly anyone uses it.
It is a message which the Transport Secretary Alistair Darling appears to be listening to. Last Autumn, he re-opened the debate on replacing trains with buses.

And in a throwback to the original Beeching era, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Bowker, has been delivering the same message - that buses are cheaper, more flexible and might be the answer.

It all sounds uncannily like Beeching himself.

Speaking to the BBC in 1981, Lord Beeching said: "Most of the lines that we decided to remove didn't come within a mile of paying. They were carrying such poor levels of traffic that they ought never to have existed."

Transport consultant Jonathan Tyler has been working on a rescue plan. He says one way of cutting costs is to close rarely-used stations.

Looming cuts

"There is a station somewhere in the country which is used by 32 people a year. There are probably several hundred stations and a handful of lines where it is probably absurd to go on arguing that this subject is taboo, off limits, not to be discussed.

There is a station somewhere in the country which is used by 32 people a year
Transport consultant Jonathan Tyler
"We must face reality."

Richard Bowker has said he does not want to be another Beeching - but that is a decision that may be taken out of his hands.

The SRA now has less than a year to convince the government that secondary rail lines are worth keeping. The spending round of 2004 will determine if there is any extra cash - but the signs are not good.

Far from pumping extra money in, the government last month actually cut the SRA's budget by over 300m.

It is hardly a vote of confidence and many rail experts believe history may be about to repeat itself.

Part Two of the programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 6 March at 2000 GMT.

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