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1963: The end of the line

Richard Beeching's brief as chairman of the British Transport Commission was simple: "Make the railways pay".

British Rail was losing £140m a year when Dr Beeching took over the commission. His solution, announced on 27 March 1963, was equally straightforward - massive cuts.

The Conservative government welcomed the report, but thousands of people - many in remote rural areas - were horrified they would lose their local branch lines.

Opposition from the pressure groups failed and during the 1960s "Beeching's Axe" fell on 2,128 stations and more than 67,000 British Rail jobs.

Your memories

It was in 1955 that Brigadier Lloyd read his seminal paper, entitled "The Potentialities of the British Railway System as a Reserve Road System", to the Institution of Civil Engineers.

That led to three years of correspondence in the then prestigious Magazine ¿The Engineer¿ and to the formation of the Railway Conversion League.

I had the misfortune of meeting League members in 1967. Believing them to be mad I made the mistake of trying to demolish the case only to find that it is rock solid and that the railway myth has no basis.

Hence I can no longer speak about rail in polite society.

The tragedy of the Beeching Cuts is not the cuts themselves but the loss of 9,000 miles of superbly engineered right of way.

Those routes overlaid a network of rural roads little better than tarmacked cow trails. Had the rights of way been paved countless lives would have been saved, many villages and towns would have had bypasses at low cost and endless development opportunities would have opened up.

At the same time express coaches may have replaced the trains providing public transport at a fraction the cost of the rail.

The challenge today is to ensure more invaluable rights of way are not lost to transport use in the next round of railway cuts.
Paul F Withrington, Director Transport-Watch, UK

The staggering thing was to see old photographs of how busy railways used to be.

It was the national electricity grid which replaced endless coal trains which caused the cuts - not just private cars.
Terence Wright, England.

As somene who has had to grow up in the new age of motorways and by-passes for by-passes, I can only say that the Beeching Act and the subsequent expansion of the road network at the expense of a great rail network was the greatest mistake that government made in the 1960s.

I believe the current asthma levels among children, the level of environmental pollution and the stress involved in road traffic today are entirely down to this short sighted act of transport lunacy.
Simon Charles Rudman, UK.

I'd love to stick him on just about any of our motorway overbridges on a typical Friday afternoon and show him just what he's responsible for.

What arrogance and short-sightedness.

Then I'd take him to any of our revitalised preserved lines on just about any weekend of the year and show him what initiative and endeavour can produce.

And finally, I'd read Thomas the Tank engine to him until he began to cry with remorse.
Ralph Naden, UK

I was a train spotter like most boys of the sixties. I lived in Coventry, with the annual "seaside" holiday.

One great memory was going to Brixham from Churston. A little 042 GWR tank engine driver gave me and my big brother a cab ride. Train travel was an adventure in those days.

I think branch lines were taken out too quickly for public consultation at that time and there was a rash rushed modernisation to diesel locomotion.

So many steam locomotives, which were efficient with fossil fuel, were destroyed - and the skill sets required to operate them.
Stew Wadey, New Zealand

I'm still mad at the closure of the old MSWR route. It was purposely run down prior to closure.

The route ran between Cheltenham and Southampton. You only have to look at the alternative road routes today to see how useful the line could have been.

Here we have an invaluable resource gone to waste. Frankly I would like to see the line re-instated, but I can't see it happening.

I guess these comments are true of many other lines and could be re-told many times.
Matthew, UK

I was 15 or so at the time when Beeching closed the line between Lutterworth and Leicester. I belonged to Leicester County Youth Orchestra, and up till this time attended orchestra practice every Saturday.

The closure, and there being no bus service, meant no music, no concerts, no pictures - and no way to make the 12 or so miles into the city except on foot.

I did that a time or two as well to go to concerts at the DeMontfort Hall. However, practical involvement in music-making was just out of the question.

The service was replaced by a weekday daytime two-bus service. Useless to me (the last train left at 11pm on a Saturday).

The car was not an option - not only was I too young to drive, but cars were not owned by many in those days - I only knew two people who actually had one!

Beecham not only deprived many rural localities of a social outlet but (in my view) began the rot which has left our rail system in tatters. Ah well, years ago now, but I have never forgiven the system for depriving me of a quality music making experience.
John Schofield, UK

I do not remember the closures myself but the report is so full of over-simplifications and bland assumptions that it makes me wonder if MPs were more gullible in the 1960s.

Surely it must have been obvious to the meanest intelligence that even a single track railway can carry much more traffic than a dual carriageway motorway.

Just think what the UK travel network would be like if those thousands of miles of track had not been closed but mothballed for a more enlightened age to use.
Leslie Chatfield, England

I remember this period well since I was a young lad of 11 or 12 who was mad about steam trains and had almost got all the "Castle" class trains in my book.

It was so sad to see all those fine steam engines rusting away in the scrapyard at Barry Island. I thought it was criminal and so much of our heritage was lost by the closure of so many stations, which in some cases killed off the community too.
Michael Marsh, England

I was only born in 1974 so Beeching's axe had long since fallen before I was old enough to take much interest.

However, as I got older and had to tolerate increasingly congested roads I couldn't help but notice that, all too often, the road that we were dawdling along followed a line of trees and thorn bushes marking the course of a former rail link which could have greatly reduced or even solved the congestion problem.

The railway network was losing £140M per year in the early 1960s (Beeching report) so clearly some action had to be taken, which almost certainly had to include some cuts. I wonder what the cost of building and maintaining the motorway network has been since then - I would bet it's a good deal more than that. If only that money had been spent on the railways instead.

I believe that the government of the day saw an opportunity to make money from the various taxes applicable to private car ownership and therefore allowed the railways to die on their feet.

The government enforced pricing structure for goods transport by rail destroyed that market. Any road haulier could just undercut the train by a small amount and was not forced to carry all goods like the railways were, just those on which the best profits could be made.

The railways themselves were far from perfect however; individual lines had been built to compete against, not to compliment one another, resulting in a messy network with miles of uneccessary duplication of routes in some places.

Despite this, shutting something like a third of the network in five years was certainly going too far in my opinion.

A compounding mistake was allowing developers to build on former station yards in the 1980s and 90s, thereby truncating entire routes for the sake of a couple of dozen houses.

The route from Leeds to Harrogate via Wetherby is a classic example; mile upon mile of derelict but empty trackbed cannot be re-connected because the site of Wetherby station is now a small housing estate. Meanwhile, the surviving route from L-H is at full capacity.

The solution has to be to try and reinstate some of these former routes. For many routes it's too late - not enough remains - but we need to invest some serious money in public transport, and soon, or we'll all be going nowhere slowly, gazing out of car windows at thorn bushes a lot more in the coming years.
James Cullingworth, UK


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