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Controversial Beeching Report That Closed Many of Britain's Picturesque Railways

The name of physicist and engineer Dr. Richard Beeching is anathema in many parts of Britain to this day.

What's more mysterious and romantic than a ride on a 19th-century British train? For context, think Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, with its opulent carriages covered in velvet and mysterious travelers.

Britain's long rail history

Britain's first railway line was built in 1830 between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. By 1840, the British industrial revolution had been going strong for over 80 years, and the need to move both people and goods had never been higher.

In 1846, Britain passed the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act, which authorized the creation of new private railway companies. The proposed routes covered a staggering 9,500 miles (15,300 km), and resulted in the creation of Britain's picturesque and ubiquitous rail lines.

Pre-Beeching rail lines
Pre-Beeching rail lines, Source: Btline/Wikimedia Commons

By 1914, just before the start of WW I, Britain's railway network was comprised of 23,440 miles (37,720 km) of track. During WW II, all of Britain's railway lines were used constantly to move both men and materiel.

In 1948, Britain nationalized its railways as British Railways, and in 1955, the Modernisation Plan provided large sums of money to convert steam locomotives to diesel and electric in the hope of making the system profitable. Instead, the losses mounted, reaching £68 million in 1960, £87million in 1961, and £104 million in 1962. This last amount is equivalent to £2.24 billion in 2019 pounds.

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The "axe man" Dr. Richard Beeching

Richard Beeching was born in 1913 on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, and he attended London's Imperial College of Science & Technology. There, he majored in physics, and Beeching received his Ph.D. under the guidance of Sir George Thomson, who went on to receive the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the wave properties of the electron.

In 1961, after holding a number of positions in private industry, Beeching became the first Chairman of the British Railways Board. British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan tasked Beeching with the following:
"First, the [railway] industry must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be modeled to meet current needs, and the modernization plan must be adapted to this new shape."

Beeching began his research by studying traffic flows, concluding that many stations contributed very little to the bottom line and that one-third of routes carried just 1% of passengers. In some cases, passengers could get to their destination by using less direct routes.

In 1963 Beeching issued a report entitled, The Reshaping of British Railways. It concluded that 6,000 miles (9,700 km) of mostly rural and industrial rail lines should be closed. The report also recommended the closure of 2,363 rail stations, and that freight handling should be containerized.

British railway station
British railway station, Source: Nils Öberg/Wikimedia Commons

Over the next three years, adopting Beeching's recommendations led to the loss of 70,000 British Railways jobs. The closures sparked heated protests from communities that were losing their only form of public transport. Many of these communities were along the coasts of north Devon, Cornwall and East Anglia.

Some rail lines received a reprieve, such as those through the Scottish Highlands, the Central Wales Line, and the Tamar Valley Line in Devon and Cornwall. Beeching attempted to justify his conclusions by saying, "I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping."

In 1965, Dr. Beeching issued a second report entitled, The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, which introduced a new name for the rail system, British Rail, and debuted its new "double arrow" logo. This logo is still in use today as the symbol of National Rail.

British Rail logo
British Rail logo, Source: Gerry Barney/Wikimedia Commons

This second report concluded that only 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of track should continue to be developed, and using an idea that was innovative for its time, Beeching proposed a trunk route design, where all railway traffic would be routed through just nine selected lines.

Traffic to Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Scotland would go through the West Coast Main Line, running to Carlisle and Glasgow. Traffic to the north-east would be through the East Coast Main Line, and traffic to Wales and the West Country would go through the Great Western Main Line, then on to Swansea and Plymouth.

A not always favorable legacy

The British government rejected this second Beeching report, and Beeching returned to his job in private industry. In 1965, Beeching was made a life peer, created as Baron Beeching of East Grinstead in the County of Sussex.

Today, Beeching is seen differently by people from various perspectives. Former Monty Python member Sir Michael Palin, who has become a noted travel writer and has hosted numerous travel documentaries, told the BBC in a 2013 article that, "There was something about the scale and the brutality of the attack [Beeching's closings] that I remember at the time made me feel that this is wrong."

In the same article, former Chief Executive of Network Rail, Sir David Higgins, said, "... the reality is he [Beeching] made the tough decisions that anyone in that position would probably have had to make, the shame was it wasn't followed on with investment in the subsequent decades after that."

The effect that Beeching's closures had on Britain was that towns and villages become more isolated, leading to a brain drain to the big cities. When Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the bank of England visited the former mining town of Ashington, 15 miles north of the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne, he told the Guardian newspaper that he had "... narrowly missed the last train from Newcastle by around 55 years, courtesy of Dr. Beeching. He [Beeching] has been neither forgotten nor forgiven."

Richard Beeching died in March 1985, and his unfavorable legacy is reflected is a pub called "Lord Beechings" that is located in the town of Aberystwyth, which was cut off by Beeching's closure of the Carmarthen railway service.

Two roads, "Beechings Way" in Alford, Lincolnshire, and "Beeching Drive" in Lowestoft, Suffolk are named after railway stations shuttered by Beeching. Michael Williams' 2011 book, On the Slow Train, celebrates 12 of Britain's most beautiful and historic rail journeys, some of which were saved from the Beeching axe.

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