Wednesday 27 March 2013

A Real Social Network

Andrew Martin writes:

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Beeching's report, The Reshaping of British Railways – which meant shrinking them by a third. The report was debated recently in London under the auspices of Campaign for Better Transport, and will be debated again tonight at the National Railway Museum in York. At the London event, Lord Adonis, Labour's last transport secretary, caused a stir by saying that if he'd held the post in 1963, he would have endorsed most of the closures. But an ex-signalman sitting next to me told me Adonis laboured under Tory accusations of being a railway romantic, and was merely trying to appear hard-headed.

I like to think that if I'd been transport secretary, I would have binned Beeching's report, recognising it as a product of that generation of men who'd had their aesthetic sense extracted in some sinister mass experiment. These men would spend their leisure hours purging their homes of such grotesqueries as high ceilings or fireplaces. If they were town planners they instigated "comprehensive redevelopments" (because their ear for language had gone as well) making way for the car, and if they became railwaymen they closed railways, also to make way for cars.

Beeching claimed that "bad traffics", mainly on branch lines, created British Rail's yearly operating loss of £86.9m, which is about £1.3bn today – less than half the current subsidy. The question of whether these lines might carry people towards more profitable ones was not explored; nor was the question of whether they might be more cheaply operated, such was the "declinist" pressure from government, civil service and BR executives. As drolly depicted in a new book, Holding the Line by Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, there was a conspiracy of officials determined – in their collective midlife crisis – to embrace what the road lobby called "the motorway of life".

How much, if any, money was saved by Beeching's cuts was also never explored; but his programme was carried out almost in full, and still more cuts were proposed, in futile pursuit of the "profitable core" of the network. Like most terrible ideas, railway retrenchment originated with the Tories and was somewhat embarrassedly continued by Labour. But the Labour-ist notion of a "social railway", essential to the health of the nation, gradually developed and Beeching's orgy was over by the early 1970s.

Today we have a privatised railway (another Tory brainwave) and a bizarre franchising circus, as we have been reminded with news that the government is to attempt yet again to find a private company capable of operating the East Coast main line. But now, passenger numbers are at their highest peacetime levels; car use has levelled off; and many Beeching closures are being expensively reversed.

His policy was little more than an act of political will, a speculation. And so here are some speculations of my own. If Beeching hadn't closed the Great Central Line (London to Sheffield and Manchester) we probably wouldn't have to spend £35bn on HS2. We wouldn't have one of the highest rates of car use in the world, with all the fatalities, pollution and noise that brings. Our national identity would have been reinforced as the land that invented railways and had the densest network.

Our tourist industry would be far healthier; post-Beeching, none of the main attractions in Somerset – Wells, Glastonbury, Burnham-on-Sea – are on the railway. My favourite seaside resort, Whitby, would have retained a direct connection with my home town of York, and I wouldn't have had to go there in the freezing (and dangerous) sidecar of my friend Mark's motorbike. Padstow, Bude, Mablethorpe, Fleetwood and Aldeburgh would still have had railway connections.

If Beeching's closures caused no serious harm, why has it now become politically impossible to close any railway? Beeching killed communities. Paul Salveson, the prophet of the Community Rail schemes that have breathed new life into many branch lines once thought moribund, says: "The village station was patronised by all classes; and there was the Station Tavern or the Railway Inn next door. It was a focus for the communities, which were linked by the line, like pearls on a string." The local railway: the Big Society on wheels.

Dr Beeching died in 1985, and I do hope there are branch lines rather than motorways where his soul resides.

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