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Beeching - 'mad axe man' or visionary railway moderniser? Man who closed hundreds of lines claimed it was 'surgery, not mad chopping'.


The 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial episodes in railway history occurs later this month. Dr Richard Beeching authorised the re-shaping of Britain's Railways bringing to an end the golden age of steam and throwing 67,000 railway workers on to the dole. He has long been demonised by many - but does he deserve to be? JUSTINE HALIFAX reports DR RICHARD Beeching probably had the biggest impact on the nation's railways since George and Robert Stephenson invented the Rocket.

He has often been portrayed as an axe-wielding tyrant who closed as many railways as he could, wiped out the universally-loved steam engines and left communites across the UK with no access to trains.

Some people still believe that, had he not struck in the 1960s, many of the lines he closed would still be operating.

Others suggest that his infamous report of 1963, The Reshaping of British Railways, which became one of the seminal documents of railway history, was based on inadequate research.

He studied traffic flows on all railway lines identifying them as good, bad, or indifferent.

His analysis of passenger services showed that the least used 50 per cent of UK railway stations contributed only two per cent of passenger revenues and one third of route miles carried just one per cent of the passengers.

But it would later transpire he had gathered his information over just one week. He was also criticised for adopting an overly-simplistic analysis of the economics of the routes by failing to recognise how the branches contributed traffic to the core network. Others suggest that if only the Government had waited until the introduction of modern signalling and unmanned stations, then the huge reduction in operating costs would surely have merited the retention of many of the services Beeching axed.

One Beeching critic said: "I'd love to stick him on just about any of our motorway overbridges on a typical Friday afternoon and show him just what he's responsible for.

"What arrogance and shortsightedness.

Then I'd take him to any of our revitalised preserved lines on just about any weekend of the year and show him what initiative and endeavour can produce.

"And finally, I'd read Thomas the Tank engine to him until he began to cry with remorse."

But perhaps it is a mistake to pass judgement long after the event without considering carefully the circumstances at the time. Ian Hislop suggests that history has been somewhat unkind to "Britain's most hated civil servant" by forgetting that he proposed a much better bus service that ministers never delivered, and that in some ways he was used to do their "dirty work for them."

It could be argued that Beeching streamlined the network in a way that ultimately helped ensure its survival until today, an era in which passenger numbers are at their highest for many years.

Beeching himself was unrepentant over his role in the closures. Indeed, in 1965, he announced the second stage of his reorganisation in which he concluded that of the 7,500 miles of trunk railway throughout Britain, only 3,000 miles should "be selected for future development" and invested in.

Underpinning this proposal was his belief that there was too much duplication in the railway network.

These proposals, however, were rejected by the Government.

Dr Beeching returned early to ICI, the company he chaired and from which he had been seconded.

It is matter of debate whether he left by mutual arrangement with the Government or was sacked.

Dr Beeching said his brief was that "the industry must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be remodelled to meet current needs, and the modernisation plan must be adapted to this shape."

He later insisted: "I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping."

DR BEECHING -THE MAN ||Chairman of British Rail Dr Richard Beeching was also a physicist and engineer. || He lived for a time with his wife, Ella, in Solihull. || When he was appointed chairman of British Railways in 1961 his PS24,000 salary was hugely controversial and equivalent to PS367,000 today. || That was PS14,000 more that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and twoa-half times higher than the salary of any head of a nationalised industry at the time.

| The Beatles considered Lord Beeching when they were trying to find someone would could sort out the business affairs of their company Apple Corps || The effect of the 'Beeching Axe' on a smal station was the subject of Oh, Doctor Beeching! a TV sitcom by David Croft and Richard Spendlove which ran from 1995-97.

Flanders and Swann commemorated the loss of branch lines and stations in 1964 in their song Slow Train.

Several ex-railway sites are named after Beeching including Beeching's Close, in the Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe, which was served by a rail line from Rugby.

He was later appointed 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 including Birmingham. || He died in March, 1985

THE LINES THAT ESCAPED THE AXE INITIALLY, Harold Wilson's Labour government continued with the policy of closing uneconomic lines, although it came under increasing pressure from backbenchers.

In 1966, a White Paper on Transport Policy identified economic utility, rather than commercial viability, as the major objective of railway policy.

This resulted in a revised railway network plan with 3,000 miles of additional track surviving Beeching's scheme.

Following a policy review in 1967, the Transport Act of 1968 made provision for major capital reconstruction on the railways and deficit relief.

Certain routes that fulfilled an important function but were not financially viable were subsidised, and the carriage of freight by road and rail integrated under the National Freight Corporation.


Prime Minister: Harold Wilson.

History: The disused Alton railway station in Staffordshire, closed in the Beeching era.

The axe man cometh: Dr Richard Beeching, who reshaped the nation's railway network.

Irony: Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Railways, reopens the Dart Valley Railway, South Devon Railway, on May 21, 1969.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 19, 2013
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