Disused railway ramblings | Interested In Everything

Disclaimer: I am writing the following entirely from memory, so don’t be too harsh on me if I get the small details a bit wrong.


I’ve never really written anything with a railway theme before.  I don’t know why, as, along with astronomy, engineering design, crap old cars and Jethro Tull, it’s something that interests me quite a bit.   Two things inspired this post.  The first was a message from a friend reminding me that last week was the 55th anniversary of the publication of the Beeching Report, the second was a walk I took last weekend along what is now referred to as “Clowne Linear Park” but, a long time ago, was once called the “LD&ECR Beighton Branch”.  It’s something I’ve done many times before – it’s a nice walk and a bit of a short cut to get to my parents’ place.    To put this in some kind of context, back in the late Victorian era, the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway built a double track line from Beighton to Langwith Junction as part of a grand project that involved shifting coal from one side of the country to the other.  Very little of the proposed traffic materialised so, after a takeover by the Great Central and eventual nationalisation, it was quietly closed and the track lifted in the late 1960s.  After about 30 years of being ignored, a section of the track bed was tidied up and turned into a tree-lined path for us good folk to walk up and down.  At the time of closure, it was just another victim of Beeching’s famous axe that saw a huge chunk of our rail network disappear as rail passenger numbers dwindled and BR was losing huge amounts of money.


Fast forward to the early 21st century and there are many disgruntled rumblings about lack of rail capacity and the need to re-open lines or even build new ones.  Rail passenger numbers are at their highest since about 1960 and the system is running far over capacity.  Countless people have asked if it was necessary to lose so much infrastructure back in the 60s and received opinion is that Beeching was nought more that a hatchet man who was only interested in the bottom line.  I’ve also heard it said that the whole thing was pushed by the road transport lobby and we wouldn’t have half the congestion and pollution problems we’ve got today if our railway system was as it was in the 1950s.  I sometimes think that many people who criticise the Beeching report and the subsequent railway closures often don’t quite grasp the context and time it was produced in.  Just for the record, then, here’s my take on the whole thing:

The railway system was a product of the Victorian era and was built in a somewhat haphazard fashion.  Railway companies competed  to build lines throughout the country and the mid 19th century saw a frenzy of activity in which some investors must have lost the equivalent of millions in today’s money.  All this railway building by competing private companies threw up some peculiar situations – the prime example being the village in which I live: a small, ex-mining community that only has a population of about 8,000 (as of 2018) ending up with two (yes, two) completely different railway stations within 100 yards of each other.  In what world does that make economic sense?  With such a system, surely some rationalisation should have been on the cards.


It seemed to work fairly well for quite a long time, however.  As always, though, situations change and the railways started to show a decline long before Beeching showed up, one major factor being lack of investment due to the Second World War.  After nationalisation in 1948, the newly formed British Railways set about trying to reverse some of the wartime neglect.  As steam was still the dominant power source for the railways, BR started building more steam locomotives – not only to the pre-war designs that had proved to be so useful, but also new machines to a set of “standard” classes, showing that the engineers of this new, publicly owned venture were just as capable as Gresley, Ivatt and Bulleid had been.  A few years later, it was soon realised that BR was in dire need of investment and something needed to be done if we were to have a modern rail system suited to the second half of the 20th century.  With all this in mind, 1955 saw the birth of the modernisation plan.  This grand effort was funded by the government to the tune of something like £120 million per year over ten years, with the intention of having BR completely free of government subsidy by its completion in 1965.  That’s £120 million at 1955 prices, by the way.  So, what did the modernisation plan do?  By this time, steam was seen something of a throwback to the Victorian era that really didn’t have a place in modern Britain, so it was decided to phase out steam traction and concentrate on diesel and electric motive power.  As no-one had much experience of diesel locomotives (although the LMS had experimented with 10000 and 10001 in the late 40s), a whole load of unproven prototypes were bought, some of which were successful and some less so.  One minor quirk was that, even though steam was destined for the scrapheap by 1968, BR still continued to build steam locos up until 1960.  These machines generally had a design life of at least 30 years, so that alone seemed like economic madness.


Alongside all this, a huge amount of money was pumped into building vast, automated shunting yards where goods trains could be marshalled easily, quickly and efficiently.  The problem here, however, was that containerisation of freight was beginning to become standard practice and old style wagon load freight was on the way out.  After a few years, it was fairly obvious that all this money was being poured straight down a massive drain.  Over a billion pounds had bought some very short life steam locomotives, some dubious diesels and a load of pointless goods yards.  By the early sixties, BR were seriously in the red and the situation was getting worse.  Passenger numbers were declining and the private car was starting to become more affordable for your average family.  As more people were abandoning the railways for the convenience of their Austin Cambridges, something had to be done.


Enter Richard Beeching and his (in)famous report, “The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways”, published in March 1963.  Months of research had showed that something like 80% of rail traffic used 20% of the network and the report recommended closure of a huge swathe of under used and loss making lines.  It can be argued that the analysis behind the report was somewhat simplistic and only looked at ticket receipts for certain periods of the year, plus it completely ignored the social cost of depriving communities, particularly rural ones, of their rail links, but, with BR losing money hand over fist and no end to the losses in sight, what was the solution?  At the time, it looked as though car was king and, as passenger numbers dwindled year on year, no-one could have possibly predicted the upturn in rail travel in the early 21st century.  It’s very easy to look back and call Beeching short sighted, but what were the options?  Yes, many mistakes were made, but back in 1963, BR was a huge money pit and something had to be done.  Investment in railways should naturally be long term, but, with passenger revenue dwindling and road transport increasing, did it really make sense to keep barely-used lines and stations open on the off chance that they might be needed again half a century later?


Maybe, if the modernisation plan had allowed for steam to be run until the end of its service life, possibly around 1980, and diesel traction used as an interim step until large scale electrification could be completed, the whole thing might have been different.  Who knows?


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