Half a century on; we still live with the concequences of the Beeching Reports.
True to my word about a year ago, I’ve written an article about Beeching! We’ve celebrated quite a number of milestones in the last 12 months, and another is looming; it is 50 years since Dr Beeching published his enquiry into Britain’s railways which lead to the systematic dismantling of the vast majority of the branch lines across this country. The Reshaping of British Railways and it’s sister report, the snappily titled The Development of the Major Railway Truck Routes published two years later set in motion the eradication of nearly 55% of all of Britain’s railways. The loss was felt across the nation and at a time when demand for rail travel is at a level that hasn’t been seen since the 1920s and our road network has reached saturation, we now suffer the consequences of those rather short-sighted actions. It has been widely accepted since the 1960s that the methods of obtaining the numbers used within the reports was underhand; choosing days to visit the stations when the number of passengers was going to be disproportionately low compared with peak times.
The cuts were swift and the cuts were severe; Wiltshire is an excellent example of this, the branch lines were all but expunged. In places like Devizes and Marlborough where congestion on the roads today is comparable to the seventh circle of Hell, only a few earth works and street names remind us that the railways ever came that far. Personally, I believe that we should have followed the example of France. Go through any part of rural france today and it is very likely that sooner or later you will come across a railway line. There are a great many that are no longer in use. They lie dormant; requiring minimal maintenance, the French rail authorities have held on to a great deal of their disused lines, just in case. One can imagine there is that thought in the back of their minds, that at some point in the future it will come in handy to have the lines in place as it is far less expensive to keep them in some sort of repair than to have to start an infrastructure project from scratch.
It is any wonder therefore that I was delighted therefore to learn that the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has plans to rebuild and reopen some of the stations that were closed in the wake of these reports? Councils will be invited to bid for the money, and it has been made clear that these are for, what is known in project management circles, as quick wins. Stations which could be implemented relatively easily and at minimal cost. More stations, more accessibility to the rail network and hopefully more capacity could help to relieve the pressure on the roads, and some major pinch points for congestion around the country, so I truly hope that it is a successful project, not to mention there will be an inevitable creation of jobs.
I also feel that the remit given to Beeching was totally wrong, and that he missed some great opportunities. Part of his brief from Harold Macmillan was this, “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“. It focused on what was required in the 1960s, where car ownership was not as prevalent as it is now, and where fewer people commuted long distances. It clearly makes no provision for future needs and the massive backlog on maintaining the infrastructure is still a huge burden on current taxpayers thanks to the under investment at this time. The opportunities I mentioned have to do with the locomotives themselves; why not keep the lines in place, and get more efficient engines in place? I admit I adore the sight of a majestic steam locomotive charging through the countryside, there is definitely something romantic about the image (and it has nothing to do with tunnels!), but they are woefully inefficient, and by the time of this report, the Japanese (or more specifically, those in and around Tokyo) for example, had had five years of electric railway engines in the form of the Odakyu 3000 series, which served as a blueprint for the Shinkansen or Bullet Train which began service in 1964, whereas we were still prattling around with Thomas the Tank Engine well into the 1970s.
We are still (and probably always will be) playing catch up after years of consistent under investment in our railway network. I’m not suggesting that the actual people on the ground working for Network Rail aren’t working hard, but they and the money are badly mismanaged as the Potters Bar disaster proved only too tragically.
Just a few things to think about; IF we still had the railway lines in place, it would have been easy for rail services to have been reintroduced as the population has grown in this country. IF we had a greater rail network, pollution on our roads would not now be as great and our pollution reduction targets would be achieved with greater ease, especially if we had been prudent and invested in electronic locomotives sooner. IF we still had the extensive rail network which once crisscrossed this great Sceptered Isle of ours, David Cameron would probably not now have such a headache about HS2 because a) the whole project might not be so imperative as our network would be strong, and b) a little like skyscrapers in a large city, what is another railway line when there are so many others already?
I have also heard whispers of reconnecting a couple of preservation railways with mainline services. Should it ever come to fruition I for one would be very happy, and what a brilliant way to bring tourists back to British seaside resorts now that people are taking ‘staycations’ .
Posted on February 5, 2013, in Comment, Conservative Party, General, Local Government and tagged Beeching, Bullet Train, Devizes, HS2, japan, Marlborough, Patrick McLoughlin, Railways, Transport. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.