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5 February 2020

The ghost of Dr Richard Beeching

The ongoing battle over British railways. 

By Patrick Maguire

On 5 September 2019, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, rose to the House of Commons despatch box for the first time in his new role, to answer a question on High Speed 2 – the £100bn railway line that will connect London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. As he did so, Shapps aired a revealing grudge. “With huge respect to him,” he said, when Labour MP Jon Cryer asked if the government might consider reopening abandoned railway lines, “I curse Richard Beeching every day in this job and I entirely agree with the honourable gentleman.”

Before 31 January 2020, pro-EU civil servants loomed large in the Tory consciousness. The likes of Ivan Rogers and the late Jeremy Heywood became folk villains for Brexiteers. Now, Conservative sights are trained on a man whose government career ended in 1965: Richard Beeching, the one-time chairman of British Railways. 

Portly, moustachioed and balding, Beeching was as central to the enduring social change Britain experienced in the 1960s as the Beatles, Mary Quant and the contraceptive pill. A research physicist by profession, Beeching was in 1961 recruited by Ernest Marples, Harold Macmillan’s transport minister, to run Britain’s loss-making railways. His brief was to return them to profit. Two years later he unveiled his plan to do so: The Reshaping British of Railways, a report that redefined how a nation saw itself. 

Known as the Beeching Axe, the report posed an existential question: “How much of the railway can ultimately be made to pay?” The answer, Beeching concluded, was only 70 per cent, earmarking 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of line for closure. It concluded that many stopping services outside London cost too much in subsidies to justify. Fast intercity services on trunk routes connecting major cities and urban centres were prioritised instead. 

So began the isolation of towns and villages across Britain. Swathes of the country, including large industrial settlements such as Corby and Mansfield, were left without any passenger rail links at all. One newspaper cartoonist depicted a patient under the care of a “Dr B” at the “Marples General Hospital”. Admiring four amputated limbs, a nurse remarks: “The doctor says you will be much more efficient now.”

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Ministers like Shapps, tasked with developing infrastructure in the provinces, now want to reverse Beeching’s reforms. “Let’s banish the shadow of Beeching and restore those connections that made our country great and brought our people together,” he said in the weeks before the December 2019 general election. The government has allocated £500m to reopen routes closed by Beeching. Lines between Poulton-le-Fylde and Fleetwood, north of Blackpool, and Ashington and Blyth, in the Northumberland coalfield, are the first due for investment. It is no coincidence that all those places voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.

Did Beeching, who died in suburban obscurity in 1985, deserve to become a bogeyman? He would have hated the easy scapegoat he has become. Critics cast him as cold, analytical and heartless; a bean-counter with no regard for the subtleties of rural life. The reality was rather different: Beeching was a self-effacing, good-humoured and highly intelligent man. As a PhD student at Imperial College London in the 1930s, he had worked on early plans for an atomic bomb. Many would say his brief career in infrastructure was altogether more destructive.

Yet revisionists say Beeching is unfairly maligned. He did, after all, recommend that withdrawn rail services should be replaced by buses and warned of the upheaval to come. He noted that “changes of the magnitude of those proposed will inevitably give rise to many difficulties affecting railway staff, the travelling public, and industry”.

But the reorganisation of Britain’s railways was subject to mythmaking. Beeching’s public relations campaign, boosted by the road-building and haulage lobbies, presented the cuts as a harmless exercise in pruning underused rural lines. Pop culture offered an unwitting echo: Flanders and Swann’s 1963 song “Slow Train” spoke of ponderous pointless journeys through bucolic settings. Oh, Doctor Beeching!, the 1990s BBC sitcom about an embattled rural branch line, told a similar story.

For those whose stations fell to Beeching’s axe, the reality is bleaker. “I remember years ago listening to the Steve Wright show on Radio 1,” Eddie Fisher, a volunteer pushing for the reopening of the line at Fleetwood, told the Observer on 1 February. “A caller came on and Wright hadn’t heard of the town he came from, so he asked if it was a big place. And the way he defined ‘big’ was ‘does it have a train station?’ If you live in a place, these things matter.” 

Shapps is said to believe reversing Beeching’s cuts is the answer to the crisis of capacity on Britain’s railways, rather than HS2 – which some Tories fear will scar rural Britain just as Beeching did. Yet life has moved on since 1963: trackbeds have been sold and built over, and reviving dead lines and stations represents a task as formidable and destructive as HS2. Far from exorcising the demons of Beeching, the government may yet ensure his name haunts afflicted communities anew.

This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit