Necessary or evil?: Beeching’s cuts to Britain’s railways in the 1960s

For over 50 years, Dr. Richard Beeching has commonly been viewed as the man who led to the decimation of Britain’s railways in the 1960s. However, is this interpretation doing Beeching a disservice – was he the man to save the nation’s rail networks, or to cut away a part of our history and national heritage?

In the inter-war years, Britain’s railways lost over 1,300 miles of track which served unprofitable lines and stations. These lines were closed by the privately owned railway companies, and not British Railways, meaning that the closures were based on cost efficiency above anything else. The demand for rail traffic brought about by the Second World War caused a momentary pause in the cuts, but inevitably, closures continued after the war. Therefore, it was not just the Beeching Report which caused the closure of rail track.

Between 1948, when the railways were nationalised, and the Beeching Report’s publication in 1963, a further 3,000 miles of track were decommissioned. The British Transport Commission had put its ‘Modernisation Plan’ into action in 1955, but this failed to re-inject the railways with the life they desperately needed. The post-war years saw the rise of car ownership, as well as goods haulage increasingly becoming the jobs of lorries, meaning that the railways were losing custom from passengers and commerce alike. To many, the railways were beginning to become somewhat obsolete.

A stretch of the M1 motorway in the late 1950s. In 1959, the M1 became Britain’s first full-length motorway, at first spanning five counties. It could be said that the growth of Britain’s roads, particularly the motorways, marked the beginning of the end for the old railway network. Source: Sabre Roads

Around the time of the Modernisation Plan, Beeching was brought in by British Railways as a respected businessmen and economist, with the hope of reviving the railway’s fortunes. At this point in time, British Railways was haemorrhaging a whopping £100 million per year, and Beeching’s task was simple: stem the railway’s losses and form a plan where the railways were a viable cog in Britain’s national transport network. The obvious solutions were to cut unprofitable lines from the country’s rail networks, and as we have seen, this was nothing new and Beeching would not have been the first to do this.

At the time of the Beeching Report – which was issued on 27 March 1963 – controversy surrounded the methods with which Beeching’s team gathered the data which they used to decide the fate of 2,363 railway stations. These stations, along with over 5,000 miles of track, were marked for closure in the report. Although it may appear Beeching was simply wielding the axe and chopping wherever he could, this was the first time ever that the railways had been collectively reviewed and shaped as a nationalised industry.

Following the report’s publication, the fate of the stations and lines was left to the government. In some cases, stations which had been named in the report remained in operation; in others, stations not even mentioned in the report faced closure. One of the Beeching Report’s main features was the recommendation of the closure of rural lines to allow the main rail links prosper, meaning that key freight routes and inter-city links could be prioritised.

A map of Britain illustrating the railway lines open before (1963) and after (1984) ‘Beeching’s axe’ had done its damage. As you can see,  the majority of lines which remained open served as links between major towns, cities and industrial hotspots. Source: Earthbound

There are a number of ways that we could view the consequences of the Beeching cuts today. One could be that the loss of local rail services has cut off a fond and romantic period of Britain’s transportation history, but on the other hand, it could be said that the cuts allowed the railways to survive as a viable transport option for passengers and freight alike.

Many of the stations closed as a result of the Beeching cuts today stand as museums to remind later generations of the steam era, when train transportation ruled supreme. Taking this view, one could argue that it was the affordable car and the expansion of Britain’s road network which killed of thousands of stations and miles of track, not Beeching’s axe.

Also, it could be said that by the time of the Beeching Report, Britain’s railways were already well outdated and needed some form of revival. The rail network’s rebranding as ‘British Rail’ in the 1960s was intended to inject new life into the railways in an era when interest and demand for them was dwindling. Considering this fact, was Beeching simply working with an eye on damage limitation?

Maldon East and Heybridge station, Essex. This is a prime example of a decommissioned station, which provides an excellent example of early Victorian architecture in its station. It was this kind of rural and little-used stations and lines which were the first to be hit by the Beeching cuts of the mid-1960s. Source: Disused Stations

During the 2019 election campaign, Boris Johnson promised a £500 million cash injection into the railways in what he called a ‘Beeching Reversal’. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that many communities “still live with the scars” of the closures recommended in the Beeching Report, and that the Conservative Party intended to “undo the damage” caused by the report by restoring many local stations and lines to their former glory. The managing editor of Rail magazine called this promise “distraction politics”; therefore, the intention to amend Beeching’s errors is likely to be nothing more than superficial.

Hindsight is the historian’s greatest asset, and this is certainly true when discussing the Beeching Report and the subsequent cuts. Whether the cuts were unneeded and damaging, or necessary and a lifeline for the railways will be the question that goes begging an answer for many years to come. However much the era of the local railway line and station sits romantically in the mind, the closure of Britain’s unprofitable sections of railway in the 1960s would seem to have been a necessary evil.

By Miles Clayton

Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!