Oh Doctor Beeching! – How we could use that capacity today – part 1

Oh Doctor Beeching! 

Almost 50 years on from the Beeching cuts, Railnews Editorial Director Alan Marshall examines the impact of those closures and the repercussions for today’s travellers in the first of a two-part post.

Beeching Report 1963 - cover

Beeching Report 1963 – cover

Oh, Dr Beeching — you closed a lot of railway capacity we could be using today – by Alan Marshall, Editorial Director, Railnews Ltd

NEXT year will be the 50th anniversary of Dr Beeching’s (in)famous report, ‘The Reshaping of British Railways.’

Beeching’s plan is best remembered for the closures of branch lines and stations … and a BBC TV comedy series called ‘Oh, Dr Beeching!’ starring the ‘Hi-de-hi’ team (see photo below) filmed on the Severn Valley Railway, between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth … now preserved, but one of the early casualties — although quite a number of other lines and/or stations have re-opened on the national network since the Beeching closures.

Dr Richard (later Lord) Beeching had been seconded from industrial giant ICI by Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, to become the first Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961.

Beeching’s impact

However, probably Beeching’s greatest long-term impact on the rail system actually came from his second report — on Trunk Route Rationalisation, in 1965.  This led to significant closures of main lines, or other capacity reductions, particularly along the north-south axis — where the greatest problems exist today.

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One of Ernest Marples’ early duties as Minister of Transport was to open the first stage of the M1 Motorway — with which his family construction company, Marples, Ridgway, had been involved.  The M1 paralleled the West Coast Main Line south of Rugby and the Great Central line northwards to South Yorkshire.

Marples, Ridgway also built the final southern section of the M1 into London, alongside the Midland Main Line, from Hendon to the North Circular Road (closed last year after an intense fire beneath it), and the M4 Hammersmith and Chiswick flyovers (which have been involved in closures this year, ahead of the Olympic Games, for major repairs after cracks were discovered).

BBC TV's Oh Dr Beeching!

BBC TV’s Oh Dr Beeching!

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Beeching cuts

In 1965 Beeching proposed that, of the 7,500 route miles then classified as trunk lines, only 3,000 should be “selected for future development.” Beeching’s view was that too many routes were duplicated, and in consequence of his plans: –

• All north-south passenger and freight traffic was concentrated on either the West Coast Main Line (then being electrified from London as far as Liverpool and Manchester, completed in 1966) or the East Coast Main Line.

• The Great Central line — the last trunk route to be built into London, which opened in 1899, passing through what is now the Chilterns’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty  (AONB) — was closed to passengers and freight in stages from 1966 to 1969 between Aylesbury and Sheffield, including stations at Brackley, Woodford Halse, Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham and Chesterfield.

• The Midland Main Line ceased to serve Manchester and was severed north of Matlock, Derbyshire.

• After completion of electrification via Birmingham in 1967, all services between the West Midlands and London were transferred to the WCML.

• The former Great Western direct route to Birmingham and Wolverhampton, also built through what is now the Chilterns AONB and opened in 1911, was partially reduced to single line (since restored to double track by Chiltern Railways) and in major urban areas, such as the approaches to London and Birmingham, was (and still is) reduced from four to two tracks.

Snow Hill station closed

• Birmingham’s Snow Hill station was subsequently closed (finally reopening to through services some 20 years later) and the link between the GWR Chiltern line and the WCML from Leamington Spa to Coventry was reduced to single track, while the Coventry avoiding line between Kenilworth and Berkswell was closed entirely and became a public bridle way.  The section between Burton Green (where it passes HS2 opponent Jerry Marshall’s property) and Berkswell is now proposed to form part of the route of HS2.

As well as these and other closures, and track simplifications, significant terminal capacity was also lost after 1965 due to the closure of major stations in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham, much of it irreplaceably.  For example, Nottingham Victoria station is now the site of the Victoria Shopping Centre.

All this closure of track and terminal capacity is now coming back to haunt the industry (and politicians) as they grapple with ever-increasing demands — both from passengers and freight operators — along the same north-south axis.

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