The Beeching Axe is an informal name for the British Government's attempt in the 1960s to reduce the cost of running British Railways, the nationalised railway system in the United Kingdom. The name is that of the main author of The Reshaping of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching. Although this report also proposed new modes of freight service and the modernisation of trunk passenger routes, it is remembered for recommending wholesale closure of what it considered little-used and unprofitable railway lines, the removal of stopping passenger trains and closure of local stations on other lines which remained open.
The report was a reaction to significant losses which had begun in the 1950s as the expansion in road transport began to attract passengers and goods from the railways; losses which continued to bedevil British Railways despite the introduction of the railway modernisation plan of 1955. Beeching proposed that only drastic action would save the railways from increasing losses in the future.
However, successive governments were more keen on cost-saving rather than elements of the report requiring investment. More than 4,000 miles of railway and 3,000 stations closed in the decade following the report, a reduction of 25 per cent of route miles and 50 per cent of stations. To this day in railway circles and among older people, particularly in parts of the country that suffered most from cuts, Beeching's name is still synonymous with mass closure of railways and loss of many local services.
Although Dr Beeching is commonly associated with railway closures, a significant number of lines had actually closed before the 1960s.
After growing rapidly in the 19th century, the British railway system reached its height in the years immediately before the First World War. In 1913 there were 23,440 route miles of railway.
After the war, the railways began to face competition from other modes of transport such as buses, cars, road haulage and air travel. Due to this, a modest number of railway lines were closed during the 1920 and 1930s. Most of these early closures were of short suburban lines which had fallen victim to competition to buses and trams which offered a more frequent service. An example of this was the Harborne Line in Birmingham, which closed to passengers in 1934.
Also, a number of lines had been built by rival companies between the same places to compete with each other. With the grouping of railway companies in 1923, many of these duplicating lines became redundant and were closed. In total 1,264 miles of railway were closed to passengers between 1923 and 1939.
With the onset of World War II, the railways gained a reprieve as they became essential to the war effort and were heavily used. By the time the railways were nationalised in 1948, they were in a substantially worn down condition, as little maintenance or investment was carried out during the war.
By the early 1950s, railway closures began again. The British Transport Commission (BTC) created the 'Branch Lines Committee' in 1949, with a remit to close the least used branch lines. Many of the most minor and little used lines were closed during this period. However some secondary cross country lines were closed as well such as the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway in East Anglia, which was closed in 1959. In total 3,318 miles of railway were closed between 1948 and 1962.
Traffic on the railways remained fairly steady during the 1950s, however the economics of the railway network steadily deteriorated. This was largely due to costs such as labour rising faster than income. Fares and freight charges were repeatedly frozen by the government in an attempt to control inflation and please the electorate.
The result was that by 1955 income no longer covered operating costs, and the situation steadily worsened. Much of the money spent on the modernisation plan had been borrowed, and much was wasted. By the early 1960s the railways were in financial crisis. Operating losses increased to £68m in 1960, £87m in 1961, £104m in 1962 (more than £1 billion in 2005 money). The BTC could no longer pay interest on borrowed money, which worsened the financial problem. The government lost patience and looked for radical solutions. In tune with the mood of the early 1960s, the transport minister in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government was Ernest Marples, director of a road-construction company (his two-thirds shareholding was divested to his wife while he was a minister to avoid potential conflict of interests). Marples believed the future of transport lay with roads, that railways were a relic of the Victorian past.
An advisory group known as the Stedeford Committee after its chairman, Sir Ivan Stedeford set up to report on the state of British transport and provide recommendations. Also on the committee was Richard Beeching, at the time technical director of ICI. He was later, in 1961, appointed chairman of the new British Railways Board. Stedeford and Beeching clashed on matters related to the latter's proposals to prune the rail infrastructure. In spite of questions in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was never published and the proposals for the future of the railways that came to be known as the Beeching Plan were adopted by the government, resulting in the closure of a third of the rail network and the scrapping of a third of a million freight wagons.
Beeching believed railways should be a business and not a public service, and that if parts of the railway system did not pay their way — like some rural branch lines — they should close. His reasoning was that once closed, the remaining system would be restored to profitability.
When Beeching was chairman of British Railways he initiated a study of traffic flows on all the railway lines in the country.
This study took place during the week ending 23 April 1962, two weeks after Easter, and concluded that 30 per cent of miles carried just 1 per cent of passengers and freight, and half of all stations contributed just 2 per cent of income.
The "The Reshaping of British Railways" report (or Beeching I report) of 27 March, 1963 proposed that of Britain's 18,000 miles (29 000 km) of railway, 6,000 miles (9 700 km) of mostly rural branch and cross-country lines should close. Further, many other rail lines should be kept open for freight only, and many lesser-used stations should close on lines that were to be kept open. The report was accepted by the Government.
At the time, the controversial report was called the "Beeching Bombshell" or the "Beeching Axe" by the press. It sparked an outcry from communities that would lose their rail services, many of which (especially in the case of rural communities) had no other public transport.
The government argued that many services could be provided more cheaply by buses, and promised that abandoned rail services would have their places taken by bus services.
A significant part of the report proposed that British Rail electrify some major main lines and adopt containerised freight traffic instead of outdated and uneconomic wagon-load traffic. Some of those plans were eventually adopted, however, such as the creation of the Freightliner concept and further electrification of the West Coast Main Line from Crewe to Glasgow in 1974. Additionally the staff terms and conditions were improved over time.
At its peak in 1950, British Railway's system was around 21,000 miles (33 800 km) and 6,000 stations. By 1975, the system had shrunk to 12,000 miles (19 300 km) of track and 2,000 stations; it has remained roughly this size thereafter.
Closures of unremunerative lines had been ongoing throughout the 20th century. Numbers increased in the 1950s, as the Branchline Committee of BR also looked for uncontentious duplicated lines as candidates for closure. Approximately 3,000 miles (4800 km) of line had already been closed between nationalisation and the publication of Beeching's report. After publication, however, the closure process was accelerated markedly.
|Year||Total length closed|
|1954 to 1957|
|Beeching report published|
Some lines not recommended for closure were eventually closed, such as the Woodhead Line between Manchester and Sheffield in 1981, after the freight traffic, on which it had relied, declined.
Essentially, it proposed all lines other than inter-city routes and important commuter lines around cities had little future and should close. The map on the right shows that if the report had been implemented, the railway would have been cut to 7,000 miles (11,260 km), leaving Britain with little more than a skeletal system. Several parts of the country, including much of Wales, Northern Scotland, Yorkshire, East Anglia and the South West of England, would have been left largely devoid of railways. The entire East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle was included for closure, which would have left the West Coast route via Carlisle as England's only rail link with Glasgow and Edinburgh and what little would be left of the Scottish rail network beyond.
The report was seen as a step too far and was rejected by the Labour government. Dr Beeching himself resigned in 1965. Although politicians were responsible for rail closures, Dr Beeching's name has become synonymous with them ever since.
In 1965, Barbara Castle was appointed transport minister and she decided that at least 11,000 route miles (17,700 km) would be needed for the foreseeable future and that the railway system should be stabilised at around this size.
Towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that rail closures were not producing the promised savings or bringing the rail system out of deficit, and were unlikely ever to do so. Mrs. Castle also stipulated that some rail services that could not pay their way but had a valuable social role should be subsidised. However, by the time the legislation allowing this was introduced into the 1968 Transport Act, (Section 39 of this Act made provision for a subsidy to be paid by the Treasury for a three year period) many of the services and railway lines that would have qualified and benefited from these subsidies, had already been closed or removed, thus lessening the impact of the legislation. Nevertheless, a number of branch lines were saved by this legislation.
Another reason for Beeching plan's not achieving any great savings is that many of the closed lines only ran at a small deficit, some lines such as the Sunderland to West Hartlepool line cost only £291 per mile to operate, and so closing them made little difference to the overall deficit. Perhaps ironically, the busiest commuter routes have always lost the greatest amount of money, but even Beeching realised it would be a political and practical "disaster" to close these.
The use of light railway concepts, already in use on some branch lines at the time of the report, was ignored by Beeching. Such concepts have since been successfully utilised by British Rail and its successors on lesser-used lines that survived the axe (such as the line from Ipswich to Lowestoft which survives as a "basic railway"). Indeed there is little in the Beeching report regarding general economies (in administration costs, working practices and so on). For example, a number of the stations which were closed (such as those on the Mansfield line, above) were fully staffed eighteen hours a day, served by steam trains which Beeching notes cost much more to run than the new diesel units and ran on lines which were controlled by multiple ancient signalboxes (again fully staffed, often throughout the day).
In retrospect, many of the specific Beeching closures can be seen as very short-sighted, in that the routes would now be heavily used or even important trunk routes. The Settle to Carlisle line was threatened with closure, reprieved and now handles more traffic (both passenger and freight) than any time in its history. The Great Central Main Line, the last trunk route built in Britain until the opening of High Speed 1 in 2007, was intended to provide a link to the north of England with a proposed Channel Tunnel. It was built to the wider Continental loading gauge and constructed to the same standards as a modern high speed line, with no level crossings and curves and gradients kept to an absolute minimum. This line closed in stages between 1966 and 1969 after just 60 years of service. 28 years later the Channel Tunnel opened (with initial construction beginning only 5 years after the GCML closed). Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1, there has been discussion about 'High Speed 2' linking the tunnel to the North of England. Much of the GCML route has been levelled or built on (see below).
One of the last major railway closures (and possibly one of the most controversial) resulting from the Beeching Axe was of the 98-mile long (158 km) Waverley Route main line between Carlisle, Hawick and Edinburgh, in 1969; plans have since been made in 2006 with the approval of the Scottish Parliament to re-open a significant section of this line. With a few exceptions, after the early 1970s proposals to close other lines were met with vociferous public opposition and were quietly shelved; this opposition stemmed from the public's experience of the many line closures during the main years of the cuts in the mid and late 1960s. Today, Britain's railways, like nearly every other railway system in the world, still run at a deficit and require subsidies.
Single tracking has caused problems. Traffic on the single-tracked Golden Valley Line between Cheltenham and Swindon and the Cotswold Line between Oxford and Worcester has increased to a point where redoubling is being considered. On the Cotswold line, there are now double the trains trying to run on the single track than in the 1960s after singling. As well as this, punctuality and reliability is worse on single lines; delays are added to delays where trains have to wait for a passing train to clear the single section. Finally, journey times are extended as waiting time and catch up time is added to the timetable. A journey from London to Worcester takes much longer now.
In addition a small but significant number of closed stations have reopened, and passenger services been restored on lines where they had been removed. Many of these were in the urban metropolitan counties where Passenger Transport Executives have a role in promoting local passenger rail use.
The line from Eastleigh to Chandlers Ford has been reverted to a passenger route after previously being freight only.
Several lines have also reopened as heritage railways.