Oh Doctor Beeching! – How we could use that capacity today – part 2

Beeching Report 1963 - cover

Beeching Report 1963 – cover

Oh Doctor Beeching! We needed that capacity

The second part of Alan Marshall’s guest blog looks at how much rail the UK has lost, despite passenger numbers continuing to rise.

HISTORY shows that as car ownership became more popular in the early and middle years of the 20th Century — and railways were unable to compete for freight with road hauliers because of their ‘common carrier’ legal obligations, which were only lifted in 1957 — politicians of all colours, and their civil servants, sought to reduce the size of the rail system considerably.

Closures of branch lines

Closures of branch lines and stations had started in a small way after the ‘grouping’ of the railways into four large private companies in 1923. That year, trains carried 1,319 million passengers, almost as many as last year — but on a network comprising 19,585 route miles, almost DOUBLE the size of the present system.

In 1948, when the ‘Big Four’ private railways were nationalised and when London last staged the Olympic Games, the number of passengers fell to 996 million, and the trend of closures gradually continued in subsequent years as the number of passengers went on declining.

But railway closures increased considerably after 1955.  This date may be significant, for in that year the railways were shut down totally for two weeks by a strike by ASLEF train drivers and firemen, which caused many people to stop using trains.

Before that strike, between 1948 and 1954, 459 route miles of railway had been closed — but after the strike, between 1956 and 1963, almost four times as many route miles, 1,756, were shut down.

Dr Beeching’s report went much further

However, Dr Beeching’s ‘Reshaping’ report in 1963 (see cover above and the first of 18 pages listing all the stations to be closed, below) went much further, identifying 2,363 stations and around a further 5,000 miles of lines for closure, representing 55% of all stations and 30% of the route miles then remaining.

Only the first page of 18 pages of stations marked for closure

Only the first page of 18 pages of stations marked for closure

Presenting Beeching’s proposals to Parliament, Transport Minister Ernest Marples said: “The report offers a firm prospect of an efficient and modern railway system handling those traffics technically best suited to rail. Reductions in the present subsidy of about £150 million will release economic resources which can be better used in the national interest elsewhere.”

At current money values, 1963’s £150 million support for British Rail is now worth £2.7 billion — so today’s privatised rail network (before Sir Roy McNulty’s proposed 30% cost reductions by 2020) is costing taxpayers almost twice as much as the much larger pre-Beeching system 50 years ago!

*     *     *

During the two years 1964-65, 1,072 more route miles were closed, and during the next five years, under Harold Wilson’s first two governments, no less than a further 5,224 route miles were closed — despite threats by Labour before the 1964 and 1966 general elections to reverse Beeching’s plans.

Britain’s rail network halved

Thus, between 1948 and 1970, a total of 9,511 route miles of Britain’s rail network were shut down — two thirds, 6,296 miles, in only six years, from 1964 to 1970.

By 2010 the system remaining under Network Rail’s control comprised just 9,803 route miles — little more than half of those in use at nationalisation in 1948.

Passenger figures 1923-2013 - courtesy of Railnews

Passenger figures 1923-2013 – courtesy of Railnews

The 1948 network carried 996 million passengers, and the chart (alongside) prepared for the current edition of RAILNEWS (www.railnews.co.uk) shows how passenger numbers continued to decline thereafter.

From an artificially high point in 1945, with a record 1,371 million passengers due to troops returning home from World War II, the number of journeys fell rapidly.  There was a slight upturn after the 1955 drivers’ and firemen’s strike, but then numbers fell steadily, as the motorway system developed, until BR introduced InterCity 125 High Speed Trains in the late-1970s.

Upward momentum

But the upward momentum was lost again in 1982 when the industry sustained another two-week national strike by ASLEF drivers — and recorded its lowest-ever figure of just 602 million passengers.

Since then, however — except for a hiatus in the early 1990s, which coincided with an economic recession and when little marketing of train services was undertaken because rail managers were focused on implementing the Conservative government’s complex privatisation plans — passenger numbers have risen inexorably, year on year … even during the present double-dip recession.

Passenger numbers rising year on year

Last year, 1,355 million passenger journeys were made, 7% more than the previous year. Therefore, compared to 1948, 40% more passengers were carried on only half the route mileage. This is an incredible improvement in the productivity of the network, but also explains why there are many calls now for more capacity to cope with growing and expected future demand.

If the trend continues at the rate recorded over previous years (6% per annum) some 1,400 million trips will be made this year — the highest ever.   And that number could reach well over 1,600 million by 2015 … and 2,250 million by 2020!

The north-south axis — linking eight of Britain’s largest city regions (and around 25% of our total population, which is now expected to grow to record levels by 2027, especially in cities) — remains the most problematic area today. It is where the greatest Beeching-inspired rationalisation of trunk routes occurred after 1965.  And it is where the need for substantial new capacity is most evident — which HS2 can provide by releasing essential capacity back to the existing network for more commuter and regional passenger services, and larger and additional freight trains.

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2 Responses to Oh Doctor Beeching! – How we could use that capacity today – part 2

  1. Pingback: Conservative Transport | Edinburgh Eye

  2. Nicholas Sumner says:

    Yes, we need that capacity so instead of spending the money going North/South a little quicker, how about it’s spent at the periphery and take a load of traffic off the roads in the country side. Reconnect the smaller market towns. Now that would reinvigorate the British countryside. Not getting to and from London faster.

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