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Fifty years on: how Beeching Report changed the face of Britain's railway system

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 27, 2013

Comments (2) Today is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Beeching Report, which recommended the closure of countless British rail lines, including many in Cornwall and Devon. Simon Parker spoke to an author and train enthusiast whose new book charts the changes.

Had his parents not taken him on holiday to Cornwall when he was a lad, Julian Holland's fledgling interest in trains might never have developed into a life-long passion.

Today, he is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on Britain's rail system, having published a small library's worth of books on the subject. This week heralds the publication of Dr Beeching's Axe: 50 Years On, a blow by blow account of the lines closed forever during the 1960s.

"We had a holiday down in Perranporth just after I'd started trainspotting in the late-1950s and for me the journey there and back was by far the best bit," he said. "I spent the whole time standing up in the corridor with my head out the window. It's a wonder I didn't blind my eyes with smuts. I had a grubby little notebook in my hand and wrote down the numbers of dozens of engines. It was incredibly exciting. I was already hooked on trains, but that trip settled it."

More than half a century on from that life-changing journey, Julian is no less excited at the sight of a GWR classic, an early diesel or a lovingly restored station. His initial enthusiasm was fuelled by his surroundings. As a young lad he was surrounded by railways. Across the road from the family home in Gloucester was an ex-Midland Railway line, behind was the branch line to Gloucester Docks and in the attic was an O-gauge clockwork railway built by his father.

Imagine his shock, then, when Dr Richard Beeching announced that swathes of his beloved network were to be ripped up and closed down.

"Wednesday March 27, 1963, was not a good day for me," he said. "I had double physics followed by PE before disappearing off to the art room for a bit of skiving. Out of the corner of my eye I kept a lookout for the daily train of coal empties that would struggle up from Gloucester's Bristol Road gasworks to Tuffley Junction. Even by this date it was still virtually all steam. Little did I know that within a few years this wondrous railway scene would be swept away forever."

On that same day a hundred miles away to the east, British Railways Board chairman, Dr Richard Beeching, was giving a news conference in the Charing Cross Hotel on his report on the future of the railways. Entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, it was available from Her Majesty's Stationery Office for the princely sum of a shilling (5p). The closure of "uneconomic" railway lines was not a new phenomenon and in fact had been gathering pace since 1948 when the post-war rundown railways were nationalised. Around 3,000 miles of track had already gone by the time of the Beeching Report, slashed under the auspices of the 1955 Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways.

"Of course, Britain's railways had been a steady drain on the taxpayer since nationalisation in 1948 – but so had the armed forces, the police and the NHS and we don't expect them to make a profit, let alone break even," said Julian. "The steady drift of passengers and freight to road transport, coupled with a worn out system, out-of-date working practices, over-manning and strikes, had by 1961 brought about an £87 million annual working deficit for British Railways."

Two years later The Beeching Report recommended the closure of 5,000 miles of railway and the closing of a third of the stations. What shocked observers as much as the report's contents was that the extent and detail of the massive cuts had been compiled on the basis of statistics gathered from a survey lasting just one week.

"Thus was the fate of our railways sealed," said Julian. "With motorway-loving Ernest Marples as Conservative Minister of Transport, the destruction of Britain's railways moved into top gear."

By 1968 standard gauge steam traction had been eradicated from British Railways and another 3,500 route miles closed. Closures continued until the mid-1970s when the system stabilised to more or less what exists today. In total around 4,500 route miles, 2,500 stations and 67,700 jobs were lost.

"In more recent and enlightened times, with gridlock imminent on Britain's road network, a few of these closed railways have been reopened," said Julian.

"But we will never be able to regain all that was destroyed in the frenzied destruction that took place following the publication of the Beeching Report.

"What is even more maddening is that today's so-called 'privatised' railways cost the taxpayer much, much more in real terms than poor old BR did in 1963."

Dr Beeching's Axe: 50 Years On by Julian Holland is published by David & Charles at £18.99. Expertly designed and profusely illustrated with photographs, it tells the story of each of the lost lines.

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  • jimjams2011  |  March 28 2013, 12:45AM

    Gutted the newquay perranporth to st agnes trsin has gone! They should reopenot! What beeching did was destroy economies! The closin of the helston linr was daft too

  • TheGeofflane  |  March 27 2013, 1:27PM

    What Dr.Beeching achieved for the Tories, Mrs. Thatcher took much further, leading to the chaos we have today. If you can, fly. It's cheaper. The rest of us use the bus.

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