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Richard Beeching

Richard Beeching, Baron Beeching (21 April 1913 - 23 March 1985), commonly known as Doctor Beeching, was chairman of British Railways and a physicist and engineer. He became infamous in Britain in the early-1960s for his report "The Reshaping of British Railways", popularly known as the Beeching Axe, which led to far-reaching changes in the railway network. Just over 4,000 route miles were cut on cost and efficiency grounds as a result of the report, leaving Britain with 13,721 miles of railway lines in 1966. A further 2,000 miles were to be lost by the end of the 1960s.

Early years

Beeching was born in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, the second of four brothers. His father was a reporter with the Kent Messenger, his mother a schoolteacher and his maternal grandfather a dockyard worker. Shortly after his birth, Beeching's family moved to Maidstone where his brothers Kenneth (who was killed in the Second World War) and John were born. All four Beeching boys attended the local Church of England primary school, Maidstone All Saints, before winning scholarships to Maidstone Grammar School where Richard was a prefect. Beeching and his elder brother Geoffrey went on to the Imperial College of Science & Technology in London where both read physics and took First Class honours degrees. His younger brothers both attended Downing College, Cambridge.

Beeching stayed on at Imperial College where he undertook a research Ph.D under the supervision of Sir George Thomson. He continued in research until 1943, first at the Fuel Research Station in Greenwich in 1936 and then, the following year, with the Mond Nickel Laboratories in London where he was appointed senior physicist carrying out research in the fields of physics, metallurgy and mechanical engineering.

In 1938 he married Ella Margaret Tiley whom he had known since his schooldays and to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. They had no children and initially set up home in Solihull. During the Second World War Beeching, on the recommendation of a Dr. Sykes at Firth Brown Steels, was loaned by Mond Nickel to the Ministry of Supply at the age of 29 where he worked in their Armament Design and Research Departments at Fort Halstead. His first post was with the Shell Design Section where he had a rank equivalent to that of army captain. Whilst with Armament Design, Beeching worked under the Department's Superintendent and Chief Engineer, Sir Frank Smith, a former Chief Engineer with Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).

After the war Smith returned to ICI as Technical Director and was replaced as Chief Engineer of Armament Design by Sir Steuart Mitchell who promoted Beeching, then 33 years old, to the post of Deputy Chief Engineer with a rank equivalent to that of Brigadier. Beeching continued his work with armaments, particularly anti-aircraft weaponry and small arms. In 1948 he joined ICI as Personal Technical Assistant to Sir Frank Smith where he remained for around 18 months, working on the production lines for various products such as zip fasteners, paints and leathercloth with a view to improving efficiency and reducing production costs. He was then appointed to the Terylene Council, and subsequently to the board of ICI Fibres Division. In 1953 he went to Canada as vice-president of ICI (Canada) Ltd and given overall responsibility for a terylene plant in Ontario; he returned after two years to become chairman of ICI Metals Division on the recommendation of Sir Frank Smith. In 1957 he was appointed to the ICI board as Technical Director, and for a short time also served as Development Director.

Stedeford Committee

Sir Frank Smith, who had retired in 1959, was asked by the Conservative Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, to become a member of an advisory group on the financial state of the British Transport Commission to be chaired by Sir Ivan Stedeford. Smith declined but recommended Beeching in his place, a suggestion which Marples accepted. Stedeford and Beeching clashed on a number of issues connected with Beeching's proposal to drastically prune Britain's rail infrastructure. In spite of questions being asked in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was not published until much later.

Government appointment

British Rail Chairman

On 15 March, 1961 Marples announced in the House of Commons that Beeching would be the first Chairman of the British Railways Board as from 1 June. The Board was the successor to the British Transport Commission which was broken up by the Transport Act 1962. Beeching would receive the same yearly salary that he was earning at I.C.I., the controversial sum of £24,000 (£367,000 in today's money), £10,000 more than Sir Brian Robertson, the last chairman of the British Transport Commission, and two-and-a-half times higher than the salary of any head of a nationalised industry at the time. Beeching was given a leave of absence for five years by ICI in order to carry out this task.

At that time the Government was seeking outside talent and fresh blood to sort out the huge problems of the railway network.

There was widespread concern at the time that, despite substantial investment in the 1955 Modernisation Plan, the railways continued to haemorrhage losses - from £15.6m in 1956 to £42m in 1960. Passenger and goods traffic was also declining in the face of increased competition from the roads; by 1960, one in nine families owned a car. It would be Beeching's task to find a way to returning the industry to profitability as soon as possible.

First Beeching Report

On 27 March, 1963, Beeching published his report on the future of the railways. Entitled "The Reshaping of British Railways", he called for the closure of one-third of the country's 7,000 railway stations. Passenger services would be withdrawn from around 5,000 route miles accounting for an annual train mileage of 68 million and yielding, according to Beeching, a net saving of £18m per year. The reshaping would also involve the shedding of around 70,000 British Railways jobs over three years. Beeching forecast that his changes would result in an improvement in British Railway's accounts of between £115m and £147m. The cut-backs would include the scrapping of a third of a million goods wagons, much as Stedeford had foreseen and fought against. See Gourvish (link below)

Unsurprisingly, Beeching's plans were hugely controversial not only with trade unions, but with the Labour opposition and railway-using public. Beeching was undeterred and argued that too many lines were running at a loss, and that his brief to shape a profitable railway made cuts a logical starting point. As one author puts it, Beeching "was expected to produce quick solutions to problems that were deep-seated and not susceptible to purely intellectual analysis. For his part, Beeching was unrepentant about his role in the closures: "I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping.

Beeching was nevertheless instrumental in modernising many aspects of the railway network, particularly a greater emphasis on block trains which did not require expensive and time-consuming shunting en route.

Second Beeching Report

On 16 February, 1965, Beeching announced the second stage of his reorganisation of the railways. The report set out his conclusion that of the 7,500 miles of trunk railway throughout Britain, only 3,000 miles "should be selected for future development" and invested in. This policy would result in traffic through Britain being routed through nine selected lines. Traffic to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland would be routed through the Great Central Railway and Carlisle and Glasgow; traffic to the north-east would be concentrated on the line through the East Coast Main Line; and traffic to Wales and the West Country would go on the Great Western Main Line, then to Swansea and Plymouth. Underpinning Beeching's proposals was his belief that there was still too much duplication in the railway network. Of the 7,500 miles of trunk route, 3,700 miles involves a choice between two routes, 700 miles a choice of three, and over a further 700 miles a choice of four.

These proposals were rejected by the government which put an early end to his secondment from ICI to whence he returned in June 1965. It is a matter of debate whether Beeching left by mutual arrangement with the government or if he was sacked. Frank Cousins, the Labour Minister of Technology, revealed to the House of Commons in November, 1965 that Beeching had been dismissed by Tom Fraser. Beeching denied this, pointing out that he had returned early to ICI as he would not have had enough time to undertake an in-depth transport study before the formal end of his secondment from ICI.

Later years

Upon returning to ICI, Beeching was appointed liaison director for the agricultural division and organisation and services director. He later rose to become Deputy Chairman from 1966-68. In the 1965 birthday honours he was made a life peer as Baron Beeching, of East Grinstead in the county of Sussex, and in the same year he became a director of Lloyds Bank. In 1966 he was appointed as chairman of the Royal Commission to examine assizes and quarter sessions, and eventually proposed a mass reorganisation of the court system involving the setting-up of regional courts in cities such as Cardiff, Birmingham and Leeds. The following year he became chairman of Associated Electrical Industries, a role he also held with Redland from 1970-77 and Furness Withy from 1973-75.

The Beatles considered Lord Beeching when they were trying to find someone who could sort out the business affairs of their company Apple Corps.

Legacy

Beeching's findings have been reviewed in two books by his contemporaries, both of which are required reading for a reasonable assessment of his achievements. R.H.N (Dick) Hardy: Beeching - Champion of the Railway (1989) ISBN 0-7110-1855-3 and Gerard Fiennes: I Tried to Run a Railway (1967) ISBN 0-7110-0447-1. Neither book is in print at the time of writing (2006). Both are broadly sympathetic to Beeching's basic analysis and the proposed solution. On the other hand, Hardy points out Beeching's political naivete (see below) in transitioning from private to public industry. Similarly Fiennes notes that because a given passenger service was producing a loss did not mean that it must always do so in future. It can reasonably be argued that too many routes were run in a traditional fashion unchanged from Edwardian Britain, whereas radical changes in operating procedures would have greatly reduced the losses generated. Beeching allegedly made no attempt to quantify what such savings could have yielded, nor which lines could have survived had practices been changed.

The political aspects of the Beeching Report remain controversial. The report was commissioned by a Conservative government with strong ties to the road construction lobby. However, the report's findings were enthusiastically endorsed and implemented by the subsequent Labour administrations which were heavily dependent for funds from unions associated with road industry associations. The general reduction of Britain's railway mileage was probably inevitable, but the speed with which the two Labour governments of 1964 and 1966 pursued the report's recommendations was not. Beeching seemingly failed to realise that history would portray him as the 'axeman', even though the Secretary of State for Transport was (and still is) the only person who can actually authorise abandonment of railway passenger services in the UK.

Trivia

There is a pub called Lord Beechings at the end of the Cambrian Railway at Aberystwyth, which until its refurbishment by SA Brain & Company Ltd was decorated with various railway memorabilia, in particular regarding the Aberystwyth - London and Aberystwyth - Carmarthen service, which he axed. It was previously called The Railway.

The road Beechings Way at Alford, Lincolnshire, is so named to commemorate the loss of the formerly adjacent station and line (formerly from Grimsby to London, via Louth and Peterborough) under the Beeching Axe.

The road 'Beeching Drive' in Lowestoft, Suffolk, located on the site of the former Lowestoft North station is also so named. Coincidentally, a smaller pedestrianised area in the vicinity is known as 'Stevenson's Walk'.

There is a cul-de-sac in the Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe [about seven miles south of Leicester city centre] aptly named Beeching's Close. The village was served by a line between Leicester and Rugby, closed under the Beeching Axe. The gardens of the houses on the west side of the close meet with the boundary of the old line.

East Grinstead, where Beeching lived, was formerly served by a railway line from Tunbridge Wells (West) to Three Bridges, a line which was closed under the Beeching Axe. To the East of the current East Grinstead station, the line passed through a deep cutting. This cutting currently forms part of the A22 relief road through East Grinstead. Due to the depth of the cutting, locals wanted to call the road "Beeching Cut", but as this was deemed politically incorrect, it was instead called 'Beeching Way'.

The effect of the Beeching Axe on a small station was the subject of Oh, Doctor Beeching!, a television sitcom by David Croft and Richard Spendlove from 1995 to 1997. A popular Flanagan and Allen song became the theme song which ran:

"Oh! Dr. Beeching, what have you done?
There once were lots of trains to catch, but soon there will be none!
I'll have to buy a bike, 'cause I can't afford a car.
Oh! Dr. Beeching! What a naughty man you are!"

Note: This is based on the once-well-known and railway-related ditty

"Oh! Mr porter, what can I do!
I wanted to go to Birmingham and they took me on to Crewe.
Take me back to London as quickly as you can
Oh Mr porter what a silly girl I am!"

Flanders and Swann commemorated the loss of the branch lines and small country stations in 1964 in their song "Slow Train"; another song which remembers Dr. Beeching is The Beeching Report, a song against the Beeching Axe, recorded by the post-rock group iLiKETRAiNS.

References

External links

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