A Defence of Dr. Beeching

Even if you don’t follow railway affairs, you (almost) couldn’t fail to have heard of Dr. Beeching. Yes, that most famous chairman of the British Railways Board has had quite the impact on popular culture, notably the TV series “Oh Doctor Beeching”, among other mentions on television, radio, literature, and so on.

The popular image of Dr. Beeching is that of a wild axeman, determined to close down lines and isolate local communities, a man of extreme coldness, verging on nastiness, who didn’t really believe in railways. While this view is not without foundation in fact, it certainly is not a balanced view of the man, and does not summarise his actual impact on the railways of Britain.

To start with, he was hardly brought in at a railway-friendly time. When Dr. Beeching became the British Railways Board chairman in 1961, it was abundantly clear to British Railways’ managers that the railways were in financial trouble. BR had actually started the 1950s in profit, but as the decade wore on, the railways slipped from the cautiously optimistic black, to a very deep red. Money was not just being lost – this was a haemorrhage of cash.

Why was this? Partly, this could be attributed to higher labour costs, as people were increasingly unwilling to work with dirty steam engines when more money could be had in cleaner industries. However, this is only part of the story, since BR was also reducing its staff numbers and introducing cleaner diesel and electric trains. One huge reason for the decline was loss of traffic to the roads. This had not been helped by the investment in roads and new motorways taking place in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Which brings us neatly on to the Minister of Transport at the time – Ernest Marples. Marples had profited from the increase in road building due to his joint ownership of civil engineering firm Marples Ridgeway and Partners. On becoming Minister of Transport, he undertook to sell his shares in the company to remove this conflict of interest. It later transpired that he had sold these shares – to his wife. Clearly then, this was not a political climate friendly to the railways.

It was obvious then, that Beeching was not going to recommend keeping every railway in the country open. But what is less obvious now is that many lines that he recommended to keep, for example the line to Hunstanton in Norfolk, were in fact closed by BR management anyway, even those which were turning a profit (and the Hunstanton line did). Even stranger, many lines he recommended for closure remained open, partly from local pressure but also from BR management. I must also mention that the regions of British Railways closed many more miles of track than Beeching ever did, even before 1961.

This talk of closures also masks something else you might not know. You see, Beeching produced 2 reports, not just the one. The first is the one we are all familiar with – the one recommending closure of lines and generally bad news – which was released in 1963, called “The Reshaping of British Railways”. The second, lesser known report came out in 1965, called “The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes”. While it can be argued that this report is implicitly recommending closure in its arguing for concentration of traffic on a small number of lines, the explicit calls for investment are undeniable in this report. In it, Beeching recommends that lines be electrified and new rolling stock brought in, a very modern attitude few would attribute to him.

This brings me conveniently onto the actual impact of Beeching on the railways. Aside from the closures, what Beeching really did was revolutionise the management of the railway. Things would no longer be done the same way they always had, merely because they had always been done that way. He argued that the then current methods of freight shipment (trains formed of tiny wagons not fitted with train brakes, ambling around the country at 35 mph max.) were inefficient (quite aside from the slow pace, the sorting of these wagons was extremely costly). This led to the creation of newer methods, such as the Merry-Go-Round coal train and freightliner services.

Merry-Go-Round (MGR) coal trains were formed of modern wagons (with full brakes), which would constantly be on the move thanks to newer loading and unloading methods. The train would be driven at slow speeds through the loading and unloading sections, with a catch ensuring that wagons could be emptied through doors in the bottom at the power station. Furthermore, these trains could be much faster due to their proper brakes, and, since they operated in fixed formations, did not need to be sorted en-route, saving further time and money.

Freightliner trains used a revolutionary new development – the shipping container. Rather than taking small wagons of freight from small sidings around the country, goods would instead be packed into standard shipping containers and taken by road to a freightliner terminal, where they would be loaded onto a fixed formation train that would travel to another freightliner terminal, when the process would be handled in reverse.

Both of these types of train were successful. In fact, both types still exist today, although coal is definitely on the decline. Beeching also came up with the concept of Inter-City, a brand image for all of British Rail’s fast mainline services, and presided over the introduction of the British Rail (yes, the “ways” bit was dropped at this time) corporate identity, including the double arrow symbol we still use to this day.

I could go on about this topic for a very long time. I did not mention the modernisation plan of 1955, which to some extent is relevant to this story, but alas, if you are interested I may write about this in future. As always, if you spotted anything I missed, or heaven forbid a mistake, please feel free to let me know in the comments.

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