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Beeching report

Rail

Dr Richard Beeching through his 1963 report The reshaping of British Railways is popularly regarded as the man who destroyed Britain's railway heritage. The report prompted the closure of thousands of miles of line and stations as the loss making nationalised railway fought to stave off bankruptcy.

But re-examination of the report more than a third of a century on shows Beeching's work to have been a devastatingly penetrating analysis of what had become a transport dinosaur.

The railway's exclusive use of a high cost track system gives great benefits in moving dense traffic at high speed with reliability and safety, said Beeching. Conversely, where dense flows of traffic could not be developed on the system as it existed it would be necessary 'to decide what changes are necessary to put matters right'.

'One third of the route mileage carries only 1% of the total passenger miles,' reported Beeching. 'Similarly one third of the mileage carries only 1% of the freight ton miles of British Railways.' His calculations showed that the cost simply of maintaining this third of the railway was between four and five times the receipts it earned.

Beeching argued that increasing the fares to a more economic level would simply drive traffic away from the railway. Similarly, halving the fares would have reduced the income but stood little chance of more than doubling the traffic and improving the situation.

The problem with many lines was that they were predominately rural where rail travel had become a less attractive option than road.

Use, or more correctly, lack of use, of the rolling stock was pinpointed as hugely wasteful.

The railway owned 18,500 coaches, of which only 5,500 were in year round service. Some 2,000 were kept for summer service on holiday trains and were used for less than 10 journeys. Another 2,100 were being repaired.

Similar conditions prevailed with goods wagons, of which there were a staggering 941,543 on the railway on 1 January 1962. Average turn-round time had been steadily increasing and was 12.51 days.

This high figure was partly due to the fact that collieries did not store coal on site, but loaded it straight on to wagons. These were held in colliery sidings for an average of two days, acting as temporary, and free, storage facilities.

Even worse was the wagon and part wagon load freight business. This was highly bureaucratic and involved extensive manhandling of goods. Marshalling was also complex and slow.

Beeching's recommendation was to develop liner trains which would carry containerised traffic between a limited number of road/rail depots at high speed and to the Channel Tunnel - which was treated as a very serious proposal in his report.

Steam hauled trains were shown to be very expensive compared with diesel multiple units, costing 15 shillings a mile as against four to six shillings.

Overall in 1962 British Railways was earning £474.7M with operating costs of £561.6M and debt charges of £49M, a deficit of £135.9M.

Beeching set about closing 2,363 stations and halts plus 5,000 route miles of British Rail's 17,800 mile system. While not every line cited for closure by Beeching was shut, others have since been closed so that, on privatisation of Railtrack in 1996, only 10,000 miles remained.

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