The positive impact of Dr Beeching

Most freight trains now are container trains. Containers are also carried by ships and lorries, so the contents do not have to be disturbed on the journey.
Most freight trains now are container trains. Containers are also carried by ships and lorries, so the contents do not have to be disturbed on the journey.

Railways were built for freight. When the first railways were built the promoters were astonished when people wanted to use them.

The network grew throughout the Victorian era. Many lines were built that never had a hope of commercial success, but were socially valuable.

During the First World War the railways were taken over by the Government. They were in a bad way at the end so Winston Churchill suggested they be nationalised and run at a loss for the good of the economy, as happens in many other countries.

Instead, they were grouped into four broadly geographical areas, and it was after the Second World War that nationalisation became inevitable.

In the 1960s Dr Beeching was given the task of concentrating the minds of the managers on what they did best. It is unlikely that he, or anybody else, believed that the railways could be made to pay, but there were things that could be done.

It is often thought that Dr Beeching was negative, closing lines and stations, but his positive suggestions resulted in InterCity express trains and high density ‘commuter’ services, while his most dramatic change was to create bulk-load freight services, Freightliners, using containers. These have been really successful.

With the closure of coal mines and steel works, much of the bulk goods traffic disappeared, leaving resources for other traffic. Another loss was the closure of the Alcan works, but successes have included the conveyance of Edinburgh’s waste to landfill near Dunbar.

Freight trains are typically hauled by heavy diesel locomotives. Because critical parts of their journeys are not electrified, they are unable to take advantage of long stretches of electrified main lines by using electric locomotives so there is pressure for lines such as the Tyne Valley to be electrified.

Although it is recognised that developments such as hydrogen fuel cells will replace diesel engines, it is a red herring to stop wired electrification because it will be some time before such alternatives are available and it is committing the railways to continue the use of diesels. This is unfortunate when another arm of government is taking action in respect of road vehicles.

The closure of lines and stations in the 1960s and early 1970s under the ‘Beeching Plan’ (the last was Haltwhistle to Alston in 1976) has been recognised to have been overdone and there has been pressure to re-open many. While a railway can be closed quickly, it takes years of hard effort by communities to have it restored.

The Borders Railway occupies part of the former Waverley route from Edinburgh to Carlisle and was re-opened in 2015. Campaign for Borders Rail’s ultimate objective is to secure the restoration of the whole route, with Hawick, the largest town in the Scottish Borders, an urgent next stage.

One of the main planks of the argument for the section from Hawick to Carlisle is the potential for timber traffic from Newcastleton as Kielder Forest trees are maturing.

The restoration of the route would provide additional capacity, linking the Central Belt to England. A major marshalling yard, under-utilised at Millerhill, is in pole position to take advantage.

The value of alternative routes has been brought into sharp focus when lines have suffered from landslips, flooding, etc. To this end, it would be visionary to include in the campaign the restoration of the link from St Boswells to Tweedmouth, enabling a vulnerable part of the East Coast Main Line to be avoided.

This should be seen as an essential part of the Waverley redevelopment and certainly not as an alternative to the main route.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?, priced £14.95, post paid and signed, also Experiments in Public Transport Operation at £11.95. Order at