Last Trains: Dr Beeching and the Death of Rural England, by Charles Loft, Biteback, RRP£20, 320 pages
The great publishing house of HarperCollins (proprietor: R Murdoch), is not known for sentimentality or antiquarianism, so when it reissues an ancient government report, it must be an unusual occasion.
Next Wednesday, March 27, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways, known as the Beeching Report after its progenitor Dr Richard Beeching, then chairman of British Railways. The occasion may be marked in other ways than this reissue, but will not be much celebrated, especially in the 2,000-odd towns and villages that lost their rail service as a result.
By far the most affecting part of the report is the melancholy prose-poem of places whose trains were to be axed (“Abbey Town, Acrow Halt, Acton Central ... Yeovil Town, Yetminster, Yorton”). By a fluke, three of that random six escaped execution – Acton Central positively thrives – but the majority of condemned lines and stations did go, along with many not on the original list.
Beeching is now a half-remembered folk-villain, as the over-emotive subtitle of Charles Loft’s book suggests. That was not his reputation at the time – except among passengers who regularly used Abbey Town, Acrow Halt etc. The point was that their numbers were often tiny and invariably diminishing. Much of the press coverage was adoring: here at last was the man to sort out Britain’s shambolic railways.
He was a strange object of either love or hate. Beeching, a scientist by training, a chief accountant by temperament, had a rather un-British indifference to trains. His central point was sound: that if government wanted to retain lossmaking lines for political or social purposes, it should subsidise them overtly. Otherwise, his remedy had what was called “remorseless logic”.
It was certainly without remorse, and maybe even logical, but Beeching was better at analysing what should have been done decades earlier than anticipating the future. He assumed that trains could never outpace planes between London and Scotland – actually, if and when the planned high-speed route crosses the border, Britain’s internal aviation network will wither. He overestimated the role of freight and underestimated that of passengers. He catastrophically wrote off peripheral urban lines.
This would have been fine if closing a railway had been like axing an air link or a bus route, which are easy to bring back. But it wasn’t, partly because each route needs a dedicated infrastructure – but also because of bloody-mindedness by Beeching’s underlings, who ripped up redundant lines at the first opportunity, and stupidity by politicians, who allowed many old routes to be built over.
The railway’s role in 21st-century Britain is far more significant than Beeching envisaged. But restoring routes is unbelievably tortuous. The old Oxford-Cambridge line was so little used in the 1960s that when I dropped my glove on to the track one wintry day at Oxford station, the driver moved the train to retrieve it. Now this route would make a big difference, but its reopening is proceeding at about an inch a year.
Everyone with an opinion on this subject (practically every British male from middle age upwards) should read the report. And Loft, a historian and policy adviser, is a good guide. His descriptions of local save-our-train battles can get a bit mind-numbing but are full of gold nuggets, as with the East Kent line from Shepherdswell to Wingham, where in 1948 the Railway Executive in London could name all five regular passengers.
Loft’s great strength is his judiciousness. He understands the political processes and assesses them fair-mindedly. And his verdict will, I suspect, hold up better than any of Beeching’s judgments: if Britain had spent less energy working out how to run trains, and more actually running them, we would have been much better served.
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist and author of ‘Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain’ (Pan)