Wednesday 27 March 2013

Fifty Years On

Mick Whelan writes:

Ernest Marples was the Conservative transport minister who commissioned Dr Richard Beeching to write his 1963 report in favour of slashing Britain's railway network. Beeching's brief left little doubt as to what it was to conclude. The railway was to be made into a profitable business and "must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be modelled to meet current needs." It was plain from the outset that the notion of rail as a public service was not to be a consideration. Beeching's report was to justify savaging the country's rail network.

Quite apart from instigating this railway vandalism, Marples was an unsavoury character. When Harold Macmillan appointed him minister of transport he owned 80 per cent of Marples Ridgway, a road-building company. Even Tories could see this was a conflict of interests, and he said he'd sell his shares. In fact, he didn't until after his firm was awarded, by his department, the tender to build the Hammersmith flyover - rejecting a lower tender in the process. To be fair, he did later sell his shares in the road building company. He sold them to Ruth Marples, his wife.

When Lord Denning investigated the Profumo affair he told Macmillan that Marples was a regular visitor of prostitutes - and in 1975 he was revealed as a tax-dodger when he scooted off abroad to escape paying his dues, using a company he owned in Liechtenstein. So we're dealing with a pretty unpleasant man.

But even these crimes paled into insignificance when, as the Conservative minister of transport, he appointed Beeching as chairman of British Railways with the mission of destroying Britain's rail network. Beeching, with his business background at ICI and no experience in the rail industry, was observed to have his head very deep in the trough even in his early days as a "public servant." He demanded a salary considerably more than the prime minister, and he got it.

It seemed a large amount of money - but, in their terms, he earned it. He did his master's bidding. The report he wrote led to 4,000 miles of track being torn up almost immediately, and a further 2,000 destroyed by the end of the 1960s. Quite a coup for a transport minister with business interests in constructing roads.

Beeching called the report his master required Reshaping Of British Railways, which is almost as large an affront to the English language as its contents were to the railways. It was a breathtaking distortion. By "reshaping" he actually meant vandalising, destroying and obliterating. It's like saying that the allies "reshaped" Cologne towards the end of the second world war.

The "Beeching axe" is discussed today as if it were an attack on railways. In fact it was more than that. It was an assault on public transport as a whole. It was the victory of the individual in a self-contained tin box over collective travel - it is part of the Tory dream of the end of social society. It is a concrete vision of what Thatcher envisaged when she said: "There is no such thing as society - there are individual men and women, and there are families." 

Individuals sit in cars, remote from their kind. Trains provide travel where people interact, exchange and socialise. Public transport is anathema to the right. So who better placed and motivated to destroy it than a combination of a government minister with a vested interest and an overpaid sycophantic lap dog installed as the head of British Rail? Yet to label Beeching as the single evil character in this mugging of public transport is misleading. He was by no means the "lone gunman." He was a piece in the jigsaw, part of what Richard Faulkner in his recent book Holding The Line defines as a conspiracy.

There were the self-interested grasping managers who crop up everywhere, prepared to toe whatever line their paymasters invent - administrators lacking imagination, loyalty or morality. There were the councils, like Blackpool, that shoved aside the railway on which its prosperity had been based in favour of building a motorway into the town. There are always hands ready to get grubby in exchange for money or position.

Beeching's cuts robbed remote areas of any train service and made them reliant on the car. Then the British car industry disappeared and that reliance was exported. The opportunities for future growth, including the attractiveness of rail as a tourist attraction, were crushed as the rails were hacked up and the locos smashed. Beeching buried his dead lines.

This short-term thinking continues today in franchising. Now 15-year franchises are touted as the solution to providing efficient rail services. It is ludicrous. Railway planning has to be considered for generations ahead. The only thing that can be done in a hurry is destruction - which is so often regretted later. We would be a cleaner, more efficient and socially accessible country if branch lines had not been turned into scrap.

The real tragedy is how slowly we learn from experience. Rail, and that includes rail freight, has a central part to play in any thriving green economy. But instead of planning now to hand on a national integrated rail network to a future generation, the government concentrates on linking a handful of main cities on a north-south axis, while whole regions are ignored.

HS2 should be a start, running the whole length of the country, with building beginning in the north and the south and meeting in the middle, while providing the backbone of a network that reaches out to provide reliable rail to the whole country.

Beeching, Marples and the other vandals made this difficult, but despite them rail doesn't just remain, it grows, to all our benefit - social, environmental and commercial. In the last three months of last year, over 385 million passenger journeys took place on our railways. I see that as 770 million fingers raised in celebration of the fact that ultimately Beeching failed. 

The same newspaper editorialises:

The 50th anniversary of the Beeching report throws up many lessons for the present and future. There can be few people now who do not regard the plan to abolish almost one-third of the rail network, including 6,000 miles of railway line and 2,000 stations, as an utter disaster. Dr Beeching's medicine not only came close to killing the patient, it ripped the heart out of hundreds of local communities, destroyed 100,000 jobs and turned many surviving stations into unsafe spaces.

One purpose, we were told at the time, was to stop wasting so much public money "subsidising" an inefficient and bureaucratic nationalised industry. The reality was that for most of its history under nationalisation, the British Railways Board had been making a gross surplus - but was crippled by the cost of replacing clapped-out infrastructure and rolling stock inherited from the private railway magnates.

While the remaining network benefited from Beeching's modernisation proposals, our society still suffers today from the legacy of his giant act of vandalism. Many rural communities have withered or died, motorways and trunk roads have stamped their giant carbon footprint across the landscape of Britain and the surviving railway network struggles to meet the growing demand for safer, cleaner and quicker travel.

So what are the lessons for today?

First, that when the crumbling industry was taken out of the hands of greedy private monopolies in 1948, it was an act of capitalist nationalisation rather than one of progressive or democratic nationalisation. The railway industry was rescued in order to serve the interests of the capitalist economy as a whole.

Many of those appointed to the new management boards were ex-directors in the rail and other industries. Workers and their trade union representatives were excluded from policy-making bodies altogether. Compensation paid to the old private shareholders continued for up to 40 years after vesting day, a financial millstone around the neck of British Rail. Overcharged passengers and the public purse financed a massive programme of modernisation, ripening the industry for a return to the profiteers in 1993.

Secondly, the Beeching report was largely implemented because strategic planning in the public sector was subordinated to the short-term interests of capitalist profit. The road-building, road haulage and motor vehicle corporations and their suppliers piled up the profits as roads replaced railways. Tory transport minister Ernest Marples controlled motorway builders Marples Ridgway through his wife's shareholding. He had appointed Dr Beeching to chair the British Railways Board and later fled the country to avoid taxes and lawsuits.

Today there is no strategic planning worth the name in any major industry. All are run in the interests of giant shareholders who put profits before any wider economic, social or environmental considerations.

The results are plain to see: underinvestment in key industries such as gas and water; a fragmented railway system in which public money subsidises the profits of most train operating companies and will pay for badly needed infrastructure development; and a dysfunctional banking system rescued by bail-outs of public cash that make the subsidies to the old nationalised industries look like petty cash. 

The failure of the rail unions in 1963 to unite in action against Beeching was an unmitigated disaster. Today we need the unity of those unions and of the wider labour movement to tell the Labour Party leadership: don't just moan about re-privatisation of the East Coast main line and the Air Rescue service - boldly put the case for economic planning based on progressive, democratic public ownership.

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