Someone has uploaded an old TV documentary to YouTube, all about the Beeching closures (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Worth watching, if only for the plentiful stock footage of 1980s British Rail.
Beeching has often been portrayed as an evil bogeyman figure for the rail industry. Helpfully the entire Beeching Report is now available online to review with the benefit of hindsight and an obsessive enthusiasm for rail transport.
History judges Dr Beeching harshly, so it’s only fair to mention some of the positives that came out of his proposals. He correctly identified that slow mixed goods trains shuttling from one freight yard to another (with endless coupling, uncoupling and shunting) would never be able to compete with the flexibility of road lorries. On the other hand, he realised the potential of block freight trains to move bulk goods around the country (coal to power stations, oil to refineries, containers to ports), and encouraged the creation of a network of high-speed passenger routes (what became the InterCity network from the 1970s onward).
It’s also true that his proposals were rooted in the prevailing climate of the time, where roads were king and the railways were seen as yesterday’s technology. And Beeching did correctly identify and prune away some lines which were unnecessary (e.g. where pre-nationalisation companies were competing for traffic, and built lines almost parallel to each other).
On the other hand, some of the routes proposed for closure are astonishing: for example, almost all of what is now Merseyrail was scheduled to go, although that short-sighted decision was fortunately reversed. Had the plan been carried out in full, Wales would have been almost totally devoid of railways. In the South West of England, the plan almost was carried out in full, and the system was ruthlessly cut.
Beeching has been accused of employing a flawed methodology: he picked out stations as “little-used” because of low ticket sales from them, ignoring the number of tickets from elsewhere to those stations. He also mistakenly believed that closing branch lines would not affect the main line services into which they fed — believing that intending passengers would drive to the main station and continue their journey by train. In practice, most people simply drove all the way.
He also failed to pick up on an interesting phenomenon of public transport: The People Who Will Not Use Buses. Car drivers can be quite easily tempted to get out of their vehicles and use a train or tram, but will not consider a bus under any circumstances. Hence the buses which replaced the closed railways went unused.
There was speculation that privatisation would usher in a new era of Beeching closures, but that hasn’t happened to a great extent. In fact, when the Department for Transport commissioned a “review” of the Northern franchise, some quarters were surprised when the report’s authors concluded that, although most train services operated at a loss, the franchise was efficiently run and cutting back services would not save money.
That said, the luckless inhabitants of Etruria (closed 2005) and Norton Bridge (all services replaced by buses since 2004) haven’t benefited too much.
Ironically, many of the routes closed under the Beeching axe would be invaluable transport links now. With fuel prices continuing to increase, it looks like the era of unfettered access to cars could be coming to an end, and the existence of a viable national public transport system could be vital to the long-term economic well-being of this country. However, considering the mess we’re in at the moment (with the Tory Government’s horrendously botched privatisations, and Labour actually managing to make things WORSE), don’t hold your breath. Because you’d DIE OF ASPHYXIATION.