Dr Beeching is always blamed for scrapping Britain’s branch lines, and March 15, 2013, will be the 50th anniversary of his infamous report. In fact, more stations were closed before the 1963 report than he closed as BR chairman, but the report still made grim reading.
In the West Country, the list included the much-loved Somerset & Dorset line from Bath to Bournemouth, the Cheddar Valley line to Wells and Shepton Mallet and the Stroud Valley where an ‘auto train’ served the valley from Chalford to Stonehouse and then ran fast to Gloucester.
Throughout the country there was a sense of shock and anger at the size of the cuts and at the lack of public consultation, with no way to challenge the policy. Although many lines did lose money, the figures used to justify closures could not even be discussed by objectors. The policy not only changed people’s lives, but offended their sense of fairness. It all looked a like a conspiracy – and indeed it was.
The Transport Secretary Ernest Marples was the founder of the road building firm Marples Ridgway which had secured a number of Government contracts for road building, including the M4 Chiswick Flyover. On becoming a minister, he had duly sold all his shares in the company, but what he did not tell the House of Commons was that the purchaser was his wife.
Later, he was investigated for tax evasion by the Inland Revenue, and in 1975, just as they were about to move in, he escaped (by train) to France where he lived the remainder of his life as a tax exile.
Marples was a Conservative minister, but his Labour successor, Tom Fraser, ducked the opportunity to reverse the policy, as had been promised in the Labour manifesto. Indeed, in a secret Cabinet paper he recommended that “we should stand firm” against the pressure to halt the closure programme pending a review.
Cabinet papers from the period, marked ‘Secret’, confirm that the government set out deliberately to shrink the size of the rail network, and rail investment was constantly cut. The money saved gave the Department of Transport the funds they needed for an increased road programme.
The savings should have turned BR from loss to profit, but this did not happen, and, scandalously, there was no check to see just how much the branch line closures saved.
BR had concluded as early as 1966 that the contraction of the network was not going to solve its financial problems, but the civil servants were still set on finding the holy grail of the ‘profitable core’ of the railway, ignoring the fact that it runs as a network and as you cut back the branches, the trunk too withers and dies. Plans for further pruning were developed, varying from an 8,500-mile network to one of 3,500 at various times, compared with today’s 10,250 route miles.
The infamous 1982 Serpell Report was perhaps the worst. Serpell was a civil servant who had worked with Beeching in 1960. His own report was extensively leaked and vilified, and with good reason. He presented a series of ‘options’, the worst of which would have left just 1,650 route miles of railway. Bristol would have had its link with London, but railways to Bath, Trowbridge, Salisbury and Taunton would all have disappeared.
It seems unbelievable today that as recently as 1982, such an incoherent proposal could have been considered, let alone published.
From this turbulent period in the history of our railways, some lines were saved. The West Somerset Railway took over the Taunton to Minehead line in 1976 and turned it into England’s longest heritage railway and one of the West’s principal tourist attractions. The Severn Beach line was saved but became very run down until the Severnside Community Rail Partnership breathed new life into it five years ago. Now it is one of the fastest growing lines in the country. Stations opened since Beeching, such as Bristol Parkway, Tiverton Parkway and Worle have brought a new generation of rail commuters.
Today’s local lines are thriving and the problem is now one of overcrowding, rather than empty trains. Nevertheless, it is important to record the massive disinvestment in Britain’s rail network in the 1960s and 70s which lies at the root of many of today’s transport problems.