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Monday 4 March 2013

Beeching – They All Get Him Wrong

[Update at end of post]

Later this month, we will pass fifty years since a report called The Reshaping Of Britain’s Railways was published. Most know it as the Beeching Report, as it was produced during the period when British Railways (BR), as it was then called, was led by Richard Beeching, previously a manager at ICI who had been headhunted and installed with a very straightforward brief.
Not Beeching's friend: John Betjeman

The railways were losing money. BR had been profitable at the time of its inception following nationalisation in 1948, but from the early 50s the losses had started. By the early 60s, this situation was causing concern. Beeching was charged with ending the losses and turning the industry round. That was his sole objective, and it had been decided for him. That’s what everyone gets wrong.

So it has been no surprise to see – in the Guardian of all papers – “How Beeching got it wrong about Britain’s railways”. Readers are told “The car would replace the train, Beeching decreed”. Utter baloney. He made no comment on how folks should travel. What he did do was to show where all the losses were being made, and that many lines would have to close to stop most of those losses.

The train, deemed dirty and smoky, was earmarked for extinction” says Robin McKie in his Guardian piece. But by the time Beeching presented his report, most main line services had already gone over to diesel or electric traction (after 1963, you could find main line steam in London at just Waterloo and Marylebone). He also misses the positive impact of Beeching on the network.

Freight traffic was starting to lose money. That was not sustainable: this, after all, had always been profitable. Beeching said BR should do what it did best: then-new container trains and, otherwise, point to point traffic in full trainloads, like coal for power stations, trainload steel, and car carrier trains for manufacturers like Ford. And that is the kind of freight the railway still does today.

Beeching demonstrated that inter-city express trains were the best money earners in the passenger business, followed by commuter trains in the largest cities. That, again, is still true today. The Reshaping Of Britain’s Railways stressed this. Whether other services were retained was left up to the politicians: railwaymen were more than prepared to run them, provided someone paid.

As for the selling off of track beds and station sites, which also taxes McKie, much of that has happened since Beeching left. It was always believed in the 1960s that BR would be a case of managing decline, and, again, successive general managers were tasked with keeping costs down by whatever means. Richard Beeching didn’t write those rules: he merely showed BR how to do the very best it could.

Small wonder his managers called him “The Great And Good Doctor”.

[UPDATE 17 March 1345 hours: attempting to link Beeching to the HS2 project today, and thus broadening the argument, is Andrew "transcription error" Gilligan, who repeats the mistaken view that Beeching's report closed down parts of the rail network. It did not: these decisions were left to the politicians.

He also tries to pin the not always honest way in which costs and passenger numbers were calculated in order to make some lines look less viable than they in fact were on Beeching, but the tendency of the Railway to not always be transparent in its dealings pre-dates him by some years - and is still present today.

Then comes the HS2 angle, which Gilligan tries to compare with the 1955 Modernisation Plan. This resulted in a scattergun approach which was not always a good use of funds. But what he misses is that Beeching showed express Inter-City services were, in fact, the best use of funds in the passenger business, and that is what HS2 will be providing.

Then Gilligan talks of many first generation diesel locomotives being unreliable. This is true. But HS2 will not depend on builders previously familiar only with steam traction: the project will be able to source its trains from a mature and diverse market. Bombardier, Alstom, Siemens, CAF and even Patentes Talgo have delivered successful high speed stock, and Japanese builders will no doubt compete for this business.

It's the usual muddled thinking that results from partial knowledge and historical conventional wisdom. Pity the Telegraph can't do any better nowadays - if only they spent less time and money whining about press regulation, eh?]

1 comment:

Hywel Mallett said...

As someone who's lived in three places with closed railway lines I always felt the the Beeching cuts were a real shame.
Then a few weeks ago I read the report, and only then did I realise the size of the disparity between main lines and the branch lines.