Sometimes the differences between the near past
and the present can seem more startling than those of more distant
periods. What was then state-of-the-art technology includes what
now is very obsolete, while the paths not taken, and cultural and
social structures, are not those of the present. However, there
is enough of the presently familiar to make any differences seem
even more anomalous.
The UK in the 1950s and 1960s had a different,
pre-decimal currency and a much steeper system of taxation - up to
98% of income at the highest rate. Political parties were more
defined in terms of ideologies and policies, and both the government
and 'the unions' played a greater role in directing the economy than
now: large areas of the economy were under a significant degree of
state intervention, whether or not they had been formally
The background to the Beeching report
The railway system developed in the United Kingdom
from the early nineteenth century, initially for industrial and then
commercial purposes, with passengers coming later.
There was much speculation and competition,
duplication of routes, construction in expectation of usage which
did not materialise or, for personal rather than commercial interest,
Acts of Parliament for lines that never got beyond the printed page,
schemes that ran out of money or went bankrupt, and so on. There
were also a number of closures for various reasons - including better
or preferred routes, amalgamations, economic failures, fraud, and
changing patterns of industry and population, leading to the
'Grouping' of the 1920s. The same processes were to occur in other
countries, often for similar reasons.
In the inter-war period, with ex-soldiers trained
to drive and large quantities of decommissioned military vehicles
available, there was a shift to road haulage, and also in passenger
vehicle usage, whether private cars or charabancs, leading to
decreasing railway usage. Much damage to the rail network occurred
during the Second World War, which was followed by post-war
nationalisation. There was an urgent need for investment and
restructuring in the railway system: largely due to lack of money
the decision was made to retain steam locomotives, rather than
diesel or electric, as coal was relatively cheap. Other countries
which had suffered wartime damage were to undertake similar
redevelopments - and in various cases were to benefit from moneys
supplied under the Marshall Plan, unlike the UK.
There was a shift to road transport in the 1950s.
Car ownership was increasing, while the sale of decommissioned
military vehicles led to the development of road haulage companies,
which in this period became deregulated. It was argued at the time
that road transport meant that goods could be taken door-to-door
rather than having to factor in a change of transport method from
road to rail and back - which involved an expensive and time-consuming
method of wagons being moved between various goods yards.
There was already an ongoing rationalisation of railways
between the 1930s and the 1950s, which saw some unprofitable
passenger services being discontinued, such as the route between
Canterbury West and the fisheries harbour at Whitstable in Kent
Dr Richard Beeching at the release of his now-infamous report
Walking former railway lines to
explore and describe their remnants.
Goods transport involved small wagons and pick-up trade - which involved
much time and also delays to following trains. Passenger rail travel
was seen as uncomfortable - not least because people often used it
mainly for holiday travel on summer Saturdays, and the system could
not cope with the throughput. Many of the lines were under-utilised
for the rest of the year. Much passenger traffic switched to coach
travel - which was more flexible, and less subject to the delays
encountered on the rail network.
While a modernisation plan was introduced in 1955,
it had only a limited impact. There was also a major rail strike in
1956, which resulted in the further transfer of goods to road traffic,
initially for the duration of the strike but this became permanent.
There were a number of rail and station closures during the 1950s,
including major lines: by the beginning of the 1960s the rail network
had reduced by a significant percentage from its Victorian peak.
With changes in fuel prices - coal became relatively
more expensive, and diesel cheaper - the decision was made to change
the motive power, despite the initial unreliability of some diesel
engines (at the time electrification was seen as being too expensive).
There was little consideration at the time of several issues which
would now be seen as significant, such as pollution, social aspects,
and the impact of changing population (not just to new towns), and
industry (the transition from manufacturing and heavy industry to
tertiary and service industries being already underway).
The Stedeford Commission and after
It was agreed that something had to be done with
the rail transport network because it was economically unsustainable.
As with other such drastic infrastructure reforms, there was a great
divergence of opinion on what was required, and the means and
methods of achieving a viable system. The impact could not be fully
determined at the outset - and neither could some of the changes in
population and industry that were taking place or which were likely
Some of the arguments proposed at the time are now
less obvious in their justification than they seem to have been then.
A major limitation in rationalisation was that only the network as
such was considered, rather than other aspects which could have had
a significant impact on costs - such as the level of staffing (one
of the major costs) and the changing use of technology.
The Stedeford Commission - of which Dr Beeching,
recruited from ICI, was a member - met from mid-1960, and looked
into various transport issues. The report that was issued was not
published, which was a cause of complaint at the time. Two new bodies
were set up shortly thereafter to replace the Stedford Commission
- the Hall Commission to deal with roads, and the Beeching Commission
to deal with the rail network. Both were to some extent basing their
proposals on the continued availability of the other mode of
transport, rather than working in tandem.
Many rural passenger services were seen as unprofitable - often
being introduced only after the more profitable goods traffic had
been catered for
The minister in charge of transport at the time,
Ernest Marples, had significant links with the road lobby (in his
official capacity he opened the M1), and he therefore faced a
potential conflict of interests. His road-related financial interests
were transferred to his wife while he was in office - a set-up which
would probably be considered quite differently in more recent
The decision to appoint a senior figure from the
private sector, rather than from within the public sector, to head
the rail inquiry was then seen as controversial. So too was Dr
Beeching's salary - being that which he had earned in his managerial
post, £24,000 per annum, when both his immediate predecessor and the
prime minister earned much less - £10,000 per annum.
 Given the fuss and furore
that the media made of the early twenty-first century's
parliamentary expenses row, it can only be imagined what kind
of field day they would have had with Ernest Marples in today's
lynch-mob mentality press.
It was pointed out that he was far from being at
the highest levels of management and pay, and the impact of the
taxation system meant that the differential in take-home pay was
less than £2,000. It was also stated that it was no longer possible
to rely on the goodwill of persons from the private sector to serve
the country at a lower salary than they could otherwise obtain,
and that the public sector might well have to increase its
Dr Beeching initiated a thorough analysis,
including surveys and cost analysis, of the rail system. Rather
surprisingly this was the first time this had been undertaken in
the railways' history.
The initial report was published in 1963 and it
caused much controversy. It proposed a wide range of cuts - although
a number were included which were already happening - and the removal
of many 'duplicate' routes. Dr Beeching personally was in favour of
a drastic reduction in the extent of the rail system, down to what
were seen as the economically viable main intercity routes, a
simplification of the network, and a transformation of goods
A primary factor in determining station viability
was in the number of tickets sold, rather than total passenger
throughput - which affected stations with high visiting populations.
The impact of the removal of linking and feeder routes upon the
remaining network - making the whole less viable - were not
considered. Nor were the 'duplicate routes' necessarily as redundant
as they were perceived to be - bottlenecks and delays now arose on
the remaining lines when repairs were instituted. 
Even without the impact of the rail strikes, the
economic advantages of road transport throughout the journey, rather
than having effectively to break the journey twice at now distant
rail depots were seen at the time.
Ernest Marples - road builder who was put in charge of
 This is still a major problem
today on many lines. A few, such as the Great Western routes to
Bristol and Somerset, offer alternatives during maintenance or
accidents but others, such as large sections of the East Coast
Mainline simply lock up entirely whenever a major problem
There was a certain acknowledgement from various
sides that Dr Beeching was constrained by his remit and by other
factors beyond his control, as well as the necessity for some
reforms. A range of arguments were raised against the closures.
Some were practical, including the limited base of evidence, and
that social aspects (including the holiday traffic, or severe winter
weather as happened in 1962-1963, when rail was the only means of
access to some isolated areas) or future developments were not
considered sufficiently. (It has also been subsequently noted that
there was insufficient computer and other analytical means to
provide a proper analysis of journeys taken.) Other arguments used
involved a degree of sentiment or appear less plausible with
Dr Beeching introduced various reforms of a
positive nature, apart from the analyses. He initiated the
freightliner system - which is now part of the container system
of transport (standardised containers were just coming into use
at the time, after a period of development since the early 1930s).
What was known as the Intercity service (until privatisation)
proved to be a great success.
There was also the so-called merry-go-round system
for coal transport, allowing the loading and unloading of wagons while
in motion. There was pressure to open up the yards to private usage,
despite somewhat understandable objections and resistance by the
rail unions. It was argued at the time that if such access were not
allowed there would be further shifts from rail usage, with
consequent further negative impact on the railway staff. The removal
of many small stations and the pick-up freight services meant that
remaining services could be speeded up.
Many lines that were closed down in the 1960s, such as
the single-track connection between Oxford (at Cowley)
and Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire shown here,
were later turned into walking and cycle tracks, either
wholly or in part
Even with the tendency to closure there was much negotiation
over many routes and stations, involving a range of interested
parties and various government departments. A number of reprieves
were allowed on various grounds - including limited alternative
access to transport, and practicality for the network (eg. the
North London Line - now an essential part of the London Overground
system), along with marginal constituencies.
In some cases there were viable alternative
transport links - as with the stations in Uxbridge. A number of
replacement bus routes were established, although several of them
closed, sometimes fairly soon after introduction. In other cases
these were not set up despite promises. In many cases the lines were
terminated abruptly, with the subsequent rapid removal of the tracks
whatever the opinions of the local population and industry.
Various suggestions were made as to what should
be done with the redundant lines - including the establishment of
rail-buses, the retention of the actual track in case of future
need, and the conversion of lines to roads. The latter did occur
in a number of cases, but was probably not practical in others -
apart from low levels of transport usage being an issue behind
closure, the effects of vehicle breakdown in narrow cuttings or
viaducts (and possibly acrophobia in the latter case) spring to
After the report
A second report (sometimes known as 'Beeching 2')
was issued in February 1965. It concerned future planning, and the
routes which should be given priority for development - though some
perceived it as the basis for further cuts.
Harold Wilson had stated before the 1964 general
election that he would reverse the cuts, but the new Labour government
was to continue with them because the reasons for reform were still
present. There was also a certain conflict of interest among the
road and rail unions which were supporting the party.
Dr Beeching returned to the private sector ahead of
schedule, in part due to differences of policy with the minister of
transport in the new Labour government. The salary of his successor
in the railway role was £12,500 - the same as for chairmen of other
comparable boards. One of Beeching's last acts was a corporate
re-branding, which long remained largely intact. He was to continue
in various management posts and was eventually made a life peer.
The subsequent career of Ernest Marples was to be
somewhat more negative, ending with him fleeing the country to avoid
Attitudes towards the closures changed, and not
just because some of the savings were minimal. There was a growing
interest in the social aspects and other effects of the cuts -
including increasing road congestion - and other components of the
transport network were not developed as originally planned - which
had a significant impact on communities and industry.
Changes in population distribution and types of
industrial activity continued, making some of the bases for the
report invalid. Oil crises and other economic aspects came into
play, and the political vision changed. Eventually closures that
were directly related to the report ceased.
Rail-buses were part of an idea of light railway usage that had
already been explored, but it failed to take off in Britain
The situation since the Beeching era has been one
of varying fortunes. Some further stations and routes have since
closed, because of low usage or actual alternatives being provided.
In other areas there has been a certain expansion of the network,
and the restoration of closed services and stations, sometimes in
new forms - the Docklands Light Railway, the London Overground system,
the Eurostar, and HS1 are examples. There has also been an expansion
of heritage railways and railway preservation societies, starting
with the Bluebell Line, the opening of which had been attended by
Dr Beeching. The Intercity and container systems have worked
effectively in their various guises, and there has been intermittent
modernisation of the routes.
The most interesting question is perhaps what else
could have been done, given the resources and methods of analysis
then available, the urgent need to minimise losses, and that many
routes were non-viable and non-revivable.
Some factors could have been taken into consideration
- traffic throughput analysed on a number of occasions, and an
emphasis on an integrated, or at least a more coordinated policy
across the various forms of transport, rather than encouraging them
The longer term possibilities should have been
considered - some routes and rights of way might have been
effectively mothballed to allow for potential re-commissioning
should circumstances change (the branch line to Portishead, for
instance), rather the frequent near immediate taking-up of track
and decommissioning of land that occurred. It should, however, be
considered that hindsight does tend to see the flaws in a particular
policy and suggest what should have been done, when at the time other
options may well have seemed more rational.
Line closures peaked in 1964, but continued into the seventies
Various newspaper reports on the reforms
and on Dr Beeching
A number of files exist in the National
The full text of the report can be found at
the Railway Archives
Beeching's Legacy - The Reshaping
of Britain's Railways, four part television documentary
totalling 210 minutes of footage released to mark the fiftieth
anniversary of the release of the Beeching Report, Go Entertain,