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Beeching 50 years on: NCE readers' revivals

As a physicist, Dr Richard, later Baron, Beeching, would have known all about forces. A lot of force and pressure was exerted on him when he was entrusted with rescuing a railway that was itself going off the rails just after mid-century.

It was a railway experiencing spiralling losses of £300,000 a day by 1961. The good doctor duly wielded his axe, cutting over 6,400km of line by 1966 on an efficiency and cost basis.

The Beeching Report, officially titled “The Reshaping of British Railways”, was seen by many as an act of wanton butchery, but the man himself was unrepentant: “I suppose I’ll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping.” The Beeching Scalpel then, maybe?

In the interests of fairness, it is perhaps important to point out that Beeching did bring about a raft of savings for the railway. He was picked precisely for the technocratic, hardheaded approach he could bring to the task. As a scientist and engineer, he was swayed by numbers and logic, not emotion. He did the job he was asked to do.

Freight revolution

A less publicised positive of his report was his revolutionising of the freight rail system in the country, something still recognised by those in the sector today.

“Beeching is a much maligned figure for what he did to passenger rail services,” says Freight on Rail manager Phillipa Edmunds, who adds: “It’s easy to forget that he dramatically modernised freight, with containerisation and the promotion of rail for long-distance haulage. It’s a system which has served the industry well and allowed it to thrive. One of Beeching’s legacies is a rail freight sector that can transport goods in a cost-effective way, helping tackle road congestion and reduce the environmental and social impact of haulage.”

Passenger revival

Even so, on the passenger side, there has been a shift back to the railways. 50 years on passenger numbers are on the up, with 1.3bn journeys being made per year. Routes and services are becoming more and more congested, so much so Network Rail managing director of infrastructure projects Simon Kirby has said that he wants to add 180,000 extra seats on peak time services to meet this demand.

“In terms of growth, there are more train journeys now in the UK than ever before, and the projection is that these will grow,” Kirby told delegates at the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award Summit last month.

As such, investment in the railway is also spiking, with large projects such as Thameslink and Crossrail, alongside station redevelopments such as Birmingham New Street, looking to modernise the network and future-proof it for the expected growth over the coming decades. With this is in mind, NCE thought it was a good time to re-examine the Beeching Cuts and ask its readers for suggestions on how they would roll back some of the routes affected before.

As might be expected from a readership of engineers, the suggestions were well-reasoned, thoughtful and, prima facie, inherently plausible. Many had taken into account the logistics and stark reality of putting back together disused, denuded and, in places, removed track, as well as bringing to bear the more emotive rationales too.

The Grand Central Line reopening is seen as a vital freight link to Europe, due to its continental gauge. Others, such as the Midland Main Line and Okehampton-Bere Alston line, offer alternative routes to those affected by congestion or a problematic location. The Arundel Chord and Skipton-Colne link options have been considered in great detail, with the important factor being a potentially massive benefit for a relatively small outlay.

Perhaps the one idea put forward with a hint of romance and nostalgia is the Cockermouth-Keswick- Penrith route in the Lake District. This would reduce congestion on the roads going into the area, delivering tourists there without recourse to their cars. This would reduce pollution of both the fume and noise variety in the region, helping to maintain a spot of clear natural beauty.

In an era that is leaning towards both speed (High Speed 2) and capacity (Thameslink among others) it is perhaps time to not only consider brand new projects that need starting from the ground up, with all their associated costs, but perhaps build on what was there before, to complement what we have and will have. Some of the possibilities put forward would require relatively little to get them moving again, and do raise the question of whether new feasibility studies should take place.

So, what do you think of these proposals, and what would you suggest should be rolled back from the Beeching Cuts? Emails to nce.editorial@nce.co.uk

Beeching revivals

Beeching revivals

Beeching Cuts – NCE readers’ revivals

The Skipton-Colne link should be put back, says Andy Shackleton, liaison officer of SELRAP, a rail action partnership that wants to join up this small bit of line to form a trans-Pennine route.

“It is 18.5km of track that would provide the lowest level trans-Pennine route between the Humber & West Coast ports, between Preston and the West Coast Main Line and Leeds and the cities of Yorkshire. It is also an alternative to the heavily graded and trafficked Huddersfield & Calder Valley trans-Pennine routes, and also avoids the already congested lines in Manchester,” says the group’s site.

It has no funding currently, but lots of backing from MPs, locals and celebrities. It is said the track bed is fairly intact, and would not be excessively costly to restore.

John Acton believes the Great Central Main Line is a route that should be reused. This is because it has a continental loading gauge, and thus could be a big freight route from London via Rugby, Leicester and Sheffield, even extending as for north as Manchester and Liverpool. It opened in 1899 and linked Marylebone and Sheffield, and was closed between 1966 and 1969 on the recommendations of the Beeching Report.

Building the Arundel Chord at the Arundel junction near Lyminster would represent a build of less than 1km of track in clear land. It would provide an alternative London-Brighton route could eventually take in Gatwick, Dorking and Horsham on a loop. Also, a Brighton-Milton Keynes route might well be viable, suggests Roger Dyer.

The Midland Main Line should be reinstated to a fuller length, says Brian Maddison. It would provide an alternative route to Manchester and there is a stretch of only 12km closed between Rowsley and Buxton that would need to be put back to make the route viable. A lot of infrastructure is still in place. This would also tie into the electrification of the Midland Main Line and would also provide an alternative London-Manchester route. Would take some congestion off West Coast Main Line. Beeching had Manchester trains cut during the late 1960s.

The Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith railway was put forward to be reinstated as a modern railway by Cedric Martindale. This proposed project already has a bond issue out, and also has county council support. It is said it would reduce traffic congestion in the Lake District. The British Rail Property Board also cancelled plans to demolish the Mosedale Viaduct in 1997 due to any potential reopening. Much of the track is now a cycle path.

The Okehampton-Bere Alston link, currently dismantled, would make sense to be put back, avers Deryk Simpson of Bolton. This would serve an area of Devon devoid of railway service. It would also open another Exeter to Plymouth route – the existing line between the two runs along the sea wall at Dawlish and in bad weather this line gets disrupted. Beeching just missed Okehampton in his first round of cuts, with the line to Bude cut back to there, but full passenger services there ceased in 1972. It still runs some heritage services.

Readers' comments (1)

  • What we really need is for the likes of ICE to campaign for the same technocratic, hard-headed approach to reinstatements that Beeching allegedly (though I suspect not as much as you might hope) had to closures. We should undertake a systematic, comprehensive study at national level to identify the population centres without a service, the regional economic centres that should form the commuting hubs and the strategic links between population centres necessary to build both connectivity and resilience into the system.

    Only when we’ve done the work to enable government to make informed choices do we involve politics. We can decide as a nation what size of town we will accept does not merit a connection to the national network and put a programme together to methodically reconnect those that do. The cut-off line can move down to encompass smaller places in line with funding over time. At the same time we should endeavour to connect as many communities as possible to their nearest major economic hubs and ensure that we have good quality connections between those hubs. Wider network resilience would result from the work above but in some cases would need to be considered as stand-alone projects.

    Of course there will be some relatively easy wins to pick out as far as priorities go, but we must have a basic strategy in mind. At the moment all we have are a series of piecemeal campaigns for local schemes with very little strategic overview. These are in the main worthy of our support but should not be the way an advanced economy plans its major infrastructure.

    Over to you ICE…..

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