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The age of the train has returnned - but Dr Beeching did us no favours.


When in 1961 it was announced that Dr Richard Beeching, the technical director for ICI, was to be appointed as the first chairman of the newly-created British Railways Board, there was a widespread fear that massive cuts were likely. Since 1948, when the railway system had been nationalised, there had been annual losses.

In 1955 a report, Modernistation and Re-Equipment of British Railways, had set out a plan of investment to modernise the system.

As is now recognised, the quest for modernity meant that efficient steam trains were scrapped in favour of the new diesel locomotives which were still being developed (and failing).

Besides, increasing car ownership and major road-building, most particularly motorways, were seen as the way forward.

Dr Beeching was hired because his experience at ICI would enable him to oversee the transition to a more modern system.

On March 27, 1963, Dr Beeching produced what has now become his infamous two-part report, The Reshaping of British Railways, which recommended the closure of 5,000 miles of track and a third of the 7,000 stations and the loss of 70,000 jobs.

There are many reasons for what has become the demonisation of Dr Beeching but, significantly, even before the publication of his report, some 3,000 miles of track has been closed.

But what is damning about Beeching's report is that the research upon which it was based was carried out in a single week. Even more amazing, Beeching carried out his research at just 34 stations - less than 0.5 per cent of the total.

Beeching was simply doing what was believed to be economically expedient - to radically reduce a system that was outdated and had suffered decades of underinvestment.

His brief was explicitly to ensure that the railways system stopped making losses as quickly as possible - he did not concern himself with the socio-economics of a system of transport that many in rural areas had come to depend on.

A footnote to Beeching is that he produced a second report in 1965, Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, which suggested even more cuts to what he believed to still be a bloated network and, recommended that of the 7,500 miles of trunk railway only 3,000 miles should be invested in to be developed in the future.

This was too much for Harold Wilson who chose to dismiss the report and Beeching was effectively dismissed and went back to ICI to become eternally damned as the 'axe-man' of British railways.

However, the cuts to British railways continued.

So, history aside, what do we learn from this? Beeching was a man of his time who took the brunt of the outrage of those who believed that he had attacked a national institution.

However, as many critics of Beeching acknowledge, British railways in the 1960s undoubtedly needed reorganisation but in a way that more carefully considered what would be essential in the future.

There are many essential decisions that need to be taken on our infrastructure such as how we can guarantee that we have sufficient ability to create energy which will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and the need to rely on importing it.

This is a decision that the government could be brave about and make clear its intention to go ahead with building nuclear power stations. If nothing else it would tell overseas operators that its insistence on an internal rate of return of 10 per cent is far too high.

What Beeching demonstrates is that decisions made on spurious data for purely economic gain can lead to a myopic obsession with believing that shortterm solutions will suffice.

The fact that passenger numbers are now comparable to the levels last seen in the 1920s would seem to show that the "age of the train" has returned.

There is an argument that the love affair with the car is over; they are expensive and, besides, the road system is too clogged.

Significantly, as Professor David Begg, chief executive of Transport Times explains, the largest increase in rail passengers is among young people.

Using railways to move freight and reduce the phenomenal number of trucks on our motorways might seem fanciful but as anyone who travels on our motorways will attest, something needs to be done.

Railways offer a solution to a range of problems and investment in building them will help in reviving the economy.

What would Dr Beeching have made of that? Dr Steven McCabe is director of research degrees for Birmingham City Business School


Railway axe man: Dr Richard Beeching
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Title Annotation:Letters
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 14, 2013
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