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