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Britain’s politicians would be wrong to undo rail closures

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By John Kemp

“The Reshaping of British Railways”, published in 1963, made its principal author, Dr Richard Beeching, the most hated civil servant in Britain.

Beeching became so notorious his name is still invoked in an election campaign almost 60 years later, with politicians promising to reverse some of the line closures he recommended.

Beeching’s report is still blamed for the closure of hundreds of small mostly rural stations and thousands of miles of track in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beeching achieved an infamy unique for a civil servant – normally reserved for top politicians such as Anthony Eden(Suez), Neville Chamberlain (appeasement) or Thomas Cromwell (dissolution of the monasteries).

Decades after the report’s publication, the bitterness is still alive; his elimination of rural lines was fictionalised in a comedy “Oh, Doctor Beeching!” broadcast in 1995/96.

Communities that lost stations and lines as a result of the Beeching Axe have never forgiven or forgotten the rail chief who recommended the closures to the Conservative government led by Harold Macmillan.

Now another Conservative government led by Boris Johnson is pledging 500 million pounds for a Beeching Reversal Fund to re-open some of the lines and stations as it campaigns for re-election next month.

“It’s been estimated that Dr Beeching’s rail cuts of the Sixties led to the widening of the gap with London in the places that were cut off,” according to transport minister Grant Shapps.

“The fifth of the country most exposed to closures between 1950 and 1980 saw 24% less population growth than the fifth least exposed,” Shapps wrote in an article published in The Daily Telegraph on Nov 15.

“Among the consequences: house prices up in some areas, economic deprivation in others,” Shapps wrote in an article headlined “We want to banish the shadow of Dr Beeching and give communities more rail connectivity”.

But much of the blame heaped on Beeching is unfair and undoing the closures is not a cost-effective way of increasing transport connectivity for small rural communities and“forgotten towns”.

MOUNTING LOSSES

Britain built one of the world’s largest and densest rail networks during the 19th century, which grew as a result of fierce competition between small private companies to lay track and open new routes and services.

The network peaked at around 20,400 miles in the mid-1920s, but even then there were concerns about mounting losses being made by the private operators.

By the 1960s, the rail network had been nationalised, but it was in deep financial trouble, reporting losses every year between 1948 and 1962, except for a small profit in 1952.

Passenger numbers were still rising slightly, but freight had started to fall, as more commodities were transported on the improved road network (“The transport revolution from 1770”, Bagwell, 1974).

In 1962, the British Transport Commission reported the railways lost 156 million pounds ($199.62 million), the equivalent to around 3.3 billion pounds today adjusted for inflation, and losses were accelerating.

Railway administrators had been closing unprofitable branch lines and stations before the Beeching review. The network fell from 20,000 miles in 1947 to 19,000 miles in 1957 and 17,500 in 1962.

But Beeching’s urgent task was to make the network financially sustainable while reorganizing it to create new long-distance express passenger and freight services.

NETWORK OPERATION

Britain’s rail network had grown in the nineteenth century via competition and speculation, rather than central planning, so it contained a lot of redundancy and low-volume lines that were never profitable even when they first opened.

A century later, with a continued shift in population and activity from rural areas to the cities and coal-mining regions to the southeast and London, the network was even more inconsistent with passenger and freight needs.

In 1961, one-third of the total route network carried just 1% of the total passenger-miles and 1% of the total freight ton-miles, according to a traffic study commissioned by Beeching.

Half the total network accounted for just 7.5% of combined passenger and freight miles, according to the traffic study (“The Reshaping of British Railways”, British Railways Board, 1963).

Two-thirds of the stations accounted for only 6% of passenger receipts. Every class of passenger and freight service was losing money, except coal.

Beeching cited the case of the 23-mile Swaffham to Thetford branch line in East Anglia, with four intermediate stations, six trains per weekday in each direction, carrying an average of just 9 passengers.

The 42-mile rural stopping service between York and Hull, with eight intermediate stations, ran nine trains every weekday in each direction, with an average of 57 passengers.

Beeching’s solution was to close loss-making stations and lines, reduce the number of local stopping services, and free up capacity on the remaining track to run more long-distance express passenger and freight services.

Railways have high fixed capital costs compared to other forms of transport and are most suited to longer routes with high volumes of passengers and freight.

“The railways had been constructed in Victorian times when the efficiency of road transport was no match at all for the all-pervasive railway”, wrote transport historian Philip Bagwell.

“In consequence many lines were built to link small towns and villages where the amount of traffic was often insufficient to cover working expenses even in the days before motor transport.”

Stations were still so closely spaced in 1961 that they served an average radius of just 2.5 miles, according to the British Transport Commission, which was never going to generate enough passengers and freight.

In most cases, local stopping services could be more cheaply and effectively served by motor cars or public buses, and most routes already had such services at the time of the report’s publication in 1963.

Beeching may still be a hate figure for some rural communities and small towns, but it makes no economic sense to reverse most of the station and line closures.

Re-opened stations and lines would not be able to break even in most cases and would require enormous amounts of subsidy from taxpayers.

MORE BUSES

If the government wants to provide increased public transport connections in rural communities and small towns, the most cost-effective way is through a larger and more frequent bus network.

Bus routes can be subsidised to provide an essential social service at far lower cost than re-opening disused rail lines. Public subsidy of 500 million pounds would buy far more bus services than train services.

If the government wants to increase connectivity, it should increase subsidies to bus operators to boost the frequency and extent of their networks.

© Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

3 Comments
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The current (in my view slightly crazy, but anyway) structure of rail in Britain means that if a private operator thinks they can make money running a service, they should be allowed to have a go.  I guess what is being suggested here is that govt. will have some form of subsidy scheme to make it worth their while.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Demanding that a rail line make a profit is a little like demanding that the sewer network in your town make a profit. It is very cheap to make a home without water and drain pipes and a town without sewers, but large, shared benefits accrue from having them -- like increased density, more efficient use of land, and general well-being. That's why zoning laws require them. The same could be said of rail, which allows increased density, better fuel efficiency, reduced pollutants and greenhouse gases, more efficient use of land, more universal access to transportation. No transportation system is unsubsidized. Fuel taxes do not fully pay for roadways. Air fares (taxes, landing fees) do not fully pay for airports and air traffic control systems. Furthermore, this article ignores network effects. The branch and short lines may not have many passengers, but how do passengers get to the trunk and long-distance lines? The system must be considered as a system.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I remember the Beeching era very well. There can be no return to rebuild those lines with public money. Look at the costs of the new line in London and the high speed line to the north

The new Elizabeth Line is what developers and Londoners have known as Crossrail, the high-speed rail service intended to bring increased capacity to the capital's transport system.

With an initial budget of £14.8bn, the total cost has risen to £18.25bn. Originally planned to open in 2018, Crossrail continues to be delayed and, as of 8 November 2019, it is estimated to open sometime in 2021.

The cost of British train travel is too high, poor service, disruptions and delays.

After 25 years of Japanese trains there's no comparison.

The future are bio buses.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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