The real reasons why Beeching closed the Strawberry Line
Half a century after the line closed Harry Mottram takes a conspiritorial look at the complex policies behind the rail cuts
Dodgy Government officials, out of touch technocrats, road transport lobbyists and politicians without vision were the real reasons why the Beeching axe was wielded. Although the rail network was leaking cash at an alarming rate in the late 1950s little investment was being made by the Conservative Government of the time. A lack of vision at the top as to how the system could be reinvented led to one conclusion: to slash costs by closing lines. Road was the future.
The man appointed to do the job of compiling a report on how the cuts were to be made was Dr Beeching - who has since become a hate figure over the years - and he wasn’t particularly popular when his report was put into action. But the Macmillan and Wilson Governments largely enacted his ideas while the regimes that followed into the 1970s and 1980s continued to think like he did: that the railways were a problem - not part of the solution to our transport system.
How things have changed. Now politicians outbid each other over how many new railways they will build - with branchlines being reopened and former stations restored - although sadly most of Beeching’s cuts cannot be reversed.
The evidence against the industrial vandalism of 1963 is now overwhelming. Bit by bit, book by book, the case for rural railways has been compiled. For instance, while 68,000 people lost their jobs during the railway cuts of the 1960s - some people got very rich. Namely Ernest Marples the minister in charge of transport. It may seem
odd to us looking back - but the Government’s man in charge of railways had considerable financial interest in the construction firm Marples Ridgway who picked up contract after contract in building Britain’s new motorways. Marples tried to side step any criticism by getting rid of his shares in the firm - by giving them to his wife.
His side-kick Parliamentary Secretary John Hay said the train network was “laid down for horse-and-cart delivery and collection” and according to David Henshaw’s book The Great Railway Conspiracy was deeply in hock with the road transport lobby. In May 1960 Hay spoke at the Road Haulage Association Annual Dinner where he openly told the powerful business lobby of the plans to curtail rail in favour of road haulage - and build more roads to cater for the mass increase in car sales. The fact roads had also been built for horse and carts didn’t seem to matter.
Beeching was an executive and manager from ICI. He had a reputation for reorganisation and making savings in large companies - and yet a man with no knowledge or experience of transport was given the job of cutting the rail network down to size. The reason was simple - the public and backbench MPs wouldn’t accept the Minister of Transport’s recommendations - but they might take the word of a captain of industry. And of course he would take all the flak - which he did.
Ian Hislop said in his BBC documentary on Beeching: “He was very useful to politicians. We think that bringing in someone from industry to dismantle a public service is a new idea but it’s not, it was done very well in the 60s.”
Another reason why the cuts went through was the lack of organised opposition. In Why Does Policy Change?: Lessons from British Transport Policy 1945-99, by Dr Geoffrey Dudley, Geoffrey Dudley, Jeremy Richardson the authors chart the valiant attempts by the National Council for Inland Transport in their attempts to unpick the case for cuts. There were public enquiries but these were largely exercises in window dressing - but in the 1970s an environmental lobby had arisen and into the late 1980s and 1990s powerful groups could oppose new roads or unwanted development. In the early 1960s the Government could still impose its inflexible will over such matters.
The cuts began and the public were not keen - along with many politicians on both sides of the House of Commons. The reason why so many branchlines did survive was due to the happy coincidence they ran through marginal constituencies. The line through the centre of Wales was saved because it chugged through marginal constituencies according to Robin McKie of The Observer, and it seems when the Labour Government was elected in 1964 Barbara Castle as Transport Secretary saved the St Ives line for sentimental reasons. The Labour leader Harold Wilson had pledged to halt the closures but once in office slavishly continued with the cuts - because just as the case is now - cutting the deficit was the mantra. And the nation’s love affair with the motor car was blossoming. Building new motorways and bypasses were needed as the number of cars increased.
We have charted before the change of tune in Government circles since 1963. In Somerset there’s serious talk of reopening some stations and even branch lines. The Portishead to Bristol line will reopen in the next five years according to MP Liam Fox; the Oxford to Cambridge line is another possibility for reopening; while Wellington Station is looking set to again sell tickets according to the Somerset County Gazette.
Which brings us up to date. Let’s give the last word to someone not even around in the 1960s. On the 18th of September actor Shane Morgan stages a one man show directed by Andy Burden at Bath’s Rondo Theatre entitled The Misunderstood Dr Beeching which he describes as a Wikipedic evening of storytelling, fact finding and legend building about the man often referred to as being Britain’s Most Hated Civil Servant. Born long after the romance of steam trains and rural railways ended - beloved by John Betjeman - Shane still has strong views about the affair.
He said: “I think the cuts were hasty and naive. Some were inevitable as cost effective measures but the result was more shock and awe rather than carefully considered trims. It was also laden with agenda and neither governments had the guts to tackle the real problem - the advancement of technology. This country was at the forefront of invention. Where it falls behind the rest of the world is progress.”
It may seem an unlikely subject to dramatise - and the reason is simple: Andy Burden thinks Morgan looks like Dr Beeching. He said, “After the initial hurt and humiliation, I took the high ground and researched the era. The more I read, the more I was drawn in and so began the journey.”
A journey it seems that has filled Shane with a sense of the wrongs handed down to successive generations by that ill-thought out decision. Shane said: “As a result of gross mismanagement over the decades (and the axe is included in that) we are paying over the odds for a mediocre service. It is still cheaper to drive. The service remains one of the worst in the developed world.”
For details of the show see the theatre pages. Pictured are Yatton station in 1960, actor Shane Morgan and above Dr Beeching.
Strawberry Line Times September 2013
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