The devastation of the rail network that began in the 1960s was not an accident. It was a conscious decision to move away from a state-owned industry to private profit. And led by a transport minister whose family ran a road-construction company..
In the 1950s and 1960s, politicians of both major parties scuppered a historic opportunity to develop an integrated transport system coordinating roads and railways, opting instead to embark on a massive development of motorways and trunk roads while decimating the comprehensive rail network.
At its zenith in 1913 Britain’s railway system had 23,440 route miles. During the 1920s and 1930s a modest number of railway lines totaling 1,264 track miles were closed – mostly marginal country branch lines and short suburban lines facing competition from buses or trams.
With the onset of World War II, the railways became essential to the war effort and were heavily used. After 1945, despite much talk of modernisation, the government baulked at such spending on an “obsolete form of transport”. When the railways were nationalised in 1948, they were in a substantially worn down condition, as little maintenance or investment was carried out during the war.
Railway closures began again with 3,318 miles of railway closed between 1948 and 1962. In the 1950s the expansion in personal cars and road haulage began to attract passengers and goods from the railways. In an attempt to catch up, in 1955 the British Transport Commission unveiled a Modernisation Plan, which proposed to spend more than £1,240 million (£24.2 billion in today’s money) on modernising the railways, replacing steam with diesel and electric locomotives.
The plan promised to win back traffic and restore the railways to profit by 1962. But though traffic on the railways remained fairly steady during the 1950s, costs rose faster than income as fares and freight charges were repeatedly frozen by governments. By the early 1960s the railways were in financial crisis with operating losses rising to £104 million in 1962. The BTC could no longer pay interest on borrowed money.
“Beeching’s Axe”, the popular name given to the Tory Government’s drastic reduction in our nationalised railway lines and services, fell in the 1960s. Beeching saw railways as a business, not a public service or essential infrastructure. If parts of the system did not pay their way (such as rural branch lines) they should close. His 1961 Report recommended wholesale closure of railway lines, removal of stopping passenger trains and closure of local stations on other lines that remained open. During the next decade, route miles were reduced by 25 per cent and 50 per cent of stations closed, together with the scrapping of a third of a million freight wagons. Tellingly, one of his first acts was to close railway workshops where rolling stock and locomotives were made and repaired.
Though Beeching advocated rail investment, successive governments were keener on the cost-saving elements of the report. Wilson’s 1964 Labour government reneged on its election campaign promise to halt rail closures – continuing them at a faster rate than before until the end of the decade. Beeching’s Axe sparked an outcry from communities especially rural ones that would lose their rail services, many of which had no other public transport. Not all the recommended closures were implemented; a number of lines were kept open for political reasons, for example the Far North Line and the West Highland Line in Scotland.
The government argued that many services could be provided more cheaply by buses. But the replacement bus services were far slower and less convenient than the train services they were meant to replace – extremely unpopular with the public. Most of them only lasted a few years before closure due to a lack of patronage.
‘Route miles were reduced by 25 per cent and 50 per cent of stations closed.’
Towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that rail closures were not producing the promised savings or bringing the rail system out of deficit, and were unlikely ever to do so. Many of the branch lines had acted as feeders to the main lines: their closure made main lines increasingly vulnerable. The process just encouraged more car usage. Likewise the railways' ability to transport goods and freight “door to door” was dramatically reduced. The development of the motorway network, the advent of containerisation and improvements in road haulage vehicles gave long-distance road transport an advantage.
Also, many of the closed lines had run at only a small deficit, whereas the busiest commuter routes had always lost the greatest amount of money, but it would have been more impractical and politically dangerous to close them.
Motorways and trunk roads
The attitude to road transport was entirely different. During the Second World War, Britain’s badly congested roads had been identified for post-war reconstruction. The 1949 Special Roads Act eventually led to motorways appearing all over the country. A Tory government then denationalised road transport, putting 24,000 lorries back into the hands of private hauliers.
Ernest Marples, from 1959 to 1964 the transport minister in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government and also a director of a road-construction company (his two-thirds shareholding divested to his wife while he was a minister), masterminded the motorway expansion programme.
Interestingly, it was Marples who also appointed Beeching to head British Railways. In December 1959 the first section of the M1 opened to traffic and inaugurated the 1960s motorway mania that added a thousand miles of motorway by the end of the decade. So the person ultimately responsible for closing the railways was also getting the contracts to build the roads that would have to replace them.
Why did it happen?
Setting aside Marples’s personal interests, capitalism was simply serving its class interests, as rail trade unions were relatively strong compared to those in the road haulage industry.
The successful 1955 rail dispute lingered in our rulers’ minds. So private companies involved in road haulage and road construction were enriched, while the state-owned rail industry with its notions of service and safety was undermined.