current affairs sustainability transport

Britain’s trains: Let’s undo the Beeching legacy

Last week, the British government lowered the price of petrol, and put £100 million towards fixing potholes on the roads. Falling back on car culture is a tried and tested way of boosting the economy, although in the past it was geared towards the car industry,rather than just driving them about.

It’s not a growth strategy with legs, so to speak. Oil prices are only really going one way in the longer term, and that’s up. We don’t have the infrastructure to switch wholesale to electric cars, and personal motorised transport may turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. In twenty or thirty years time, the idea that everybody needs their own car might seem rather dated.

Instead of wasting money on a technology that is utterly dependent on a rapidly depleting resource, we’d do better looking at public transport. A good place to start might be the Beeching Report, the legacy of another time when we threw our weight behind the automobile to boost the economy.

Richard Beeching was the chairman of British Rail in the early sixties. It was a tricky time for trains. Ordinary people could afford cars by the 1950s, and there was increasing competition from road haulage. By the time Beeching took office in 1961 the railways were making a loss, and he was commissioned to cut the cost of the national rail network. He did this by producing an infamous report in which he called for the closure of hundreds of stations and thousands of miles of track. It was controversial, but the plan pressed ahead. Although the closures were not as extensive as Beeching himself proposed, a quarter of the rail network and half Britain’s stations closed.

Because of the ‘Beeching Axe’, a trip to Oxford from my home would take an hour by car, or two and a half by train. All the east-west connections have closed, and you have to go all the way into London, across town and out the other side. Luton to Oxford is 45 miles by car, and about 85 by train. It’s also the reason why, if you’re cycling the beautiful cycle path between St Albans and Welwyn Garden City, you’ll pass mysterious overgrown train platforms in the hedgerows.

Now, the rail network needed reform, and cuts to some services may well have been unavoidable if they were no longer profitable. But it was also a matter of strategy, a deliberate choice. Trains were a Victorian invention, and this was the century of the car. It’s also worth noting that the Conservative Transport Minister at the time had previously been the head of a road construction company.

In an era of climate change and oil depletion, the Beeching programme looks short sighted, but it probably made sense at the time – unlike last week’s oil gamble, which makes no sense at all. But given that the oil price is going to push the price of transport to breaking point in coming years, isn’t it time to re-consider the railways? Not least because road haulage is one of the UK’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions, and rail freight is more efficient.

We don’t have to replace every last obscure branch line, just the ones that would be financially viable. And we don’t need to build rail necessarily. There are more options than there were in the 1960s, from light rail to trams to guided busways.

Speaking of which, Luton is home to one such scheme. A new busway is being installed along the route of a disused railway line between Luton and Dunstable. In my mind, it ought to go all the way to Milton Keynes before it becomes truly useful, but it’s still great news. Unfortunately I appear to be the only person in the town who thinks so – the plan has been opposed for years, mainly because it’s expensive. It is, but it’s not nearly as expensive as building new roads in a post-peak oil age.

Interestingly, the Lib Dem manifesto for last year’s election recognised a rail renaissance as a serious option. Their proposal was to “switch traffic from road to rail by investing in local rail improvements, such as opening closed rail lines and adding extra tracks, paid for by cutting the major roads budget.” That’s just what we need – a reversal of strategy from roads back to rail. Unfortunately that’s not something that made it past the coalition agreement, but at least somebody is thinking about it.

So that’s the challenge – can we undo Beeching? That would be the kind of bold leadership I’d like to see on Britain’s transport needs. How about we start by mapping the disused railway lines, and comparing them with car traffic on the routes they would serve.


  1. I’m not sure why a (current) lack of infrastructure means we can’t switch wholesale to electric vehicles? We lacked infrastructure when petrol-fuelled cars came along and we managed to build a network of filling stations.

    Local rail networks are a great idea but, like buses, are not a door to door solution so would need to be combined with low carbon personal transport, especially in an ageing population.

    You also argue that “only the financially viable” routes need be opened up. At a guess, that would mean most of them would remain shut. Local routes in rural areas are unlikely to generate sufficient revenue to cover running costs, let alone pay back the costs of rebuilding the network.

    The final issue is that you are argue for a reversal from roads to rail funding yet if you think about the practicalities of that you are effectively asking the government to reassign budget now for rail projects that will take years to complete. In the meantime road users (who include cyclists and electric car drivers) will suffer worsening quality. What’s going to fill the gap?

    Bear in mind that rail is currently already subsidised by about 50% so each ticket we buy is roughly half price! Considering that many routes are stuffed to the rafters with people, I tend to think that we have enough trouble maintaining the existing rail network without expanding it!

    Having said all that, I think rail is a vital part of a low carbon future and should be used for longer journeys (including international journeys) wherever possible so I do support your aims. I just think the theory doesn’t match up to reality.

    1. The problem is not electric capacity per se, but low carbon electricity. The energy return on energy invested is much lower for renewables than it is for gas or coal power stations. Unless we run our electric cars on coal, we can’t expand our energy infrastructure enough to meet all our current needs and the transport network too. Nuclear could do it, but not in time.

      Yes, I think we can shift money away from roads and onto rail – but you don’t have to do it all at once. You’d lay out a timetable, which would allow local authorities to plan. And the main thing is to delay the building or expanding of new roads, not skimping on maintenance.

      And sure, rail is expensive, but we don’t have to go with heavy rail. Busways, trams and light rail are much cheaper, and I reckon the future lies with those. We’d also be building on existing tracks, and many of them weren’t taken up and could be renovated. In other places the track is gone but the land is cleared, so either way it’s not as expensive as brand new lines.

  2. Many rail routes closed, eg in West Norfolk, and in NE Essex are still in rural areas, so one assumes it would be cheaper to re-instate these now, before the areas become concrete jungles. These lines are still sorely needed by today’s residents. The routes would also would be useful for transport of agricultural crops and transport of heavy materials. The areas cross very windy areas, so there would be the opportunity for using wind-power generation in the proximity of the rail lines. The guided bus between Cambridge and Huntingdon has proved so excessively expensive I am thinking that rail transport could be more flexible, useful and a better long-term investment.

    1. Good point about using it for freight – getting lorries off the roads and freight back onto the railways ought to be a big part of our vision for 21st century rail.

  3. Transport systems where originally designed and installed by engineers/designers, then in the 60/70’s financiers took over to take us to where we are today – there appears to be no straightforward answer to simple transport systems and even airports have closed (Plymouth, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Stoke on Trent (Meir)). Electric power seems to be the future providing the energy for transport for whatever is adopted long term. I am a railway supporter but the days of small branch lines in rural areas seems to have gone.

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