In 1963, the British government published The Reshaping of British Railways, which became more commonly known as the Beeching Report. It was the trigger for the most substantive cuts in rail service and the focal point for a huge public outcry (and probably tipped the following national election to the Labour Party, too). The British railway system (which had been “rationalized” in 1923 and then fully nationalized in 1948) was bleeding money with little or no chance to pay back the debts it was running up. The operating deficit for British Railways ratcheted up from £16.5 million in 1956 to £104 million in 1962, with no likely end in sight. The Beeching Report was the government’s attempt to address the issue once and for all. History Today linked to this summary of the report and the public’s reaction by Charles Loft from 2003:
The lasting popular view of Beeching is of a cold-blooded accountant, concerned only with finance, whose report examined the railways in a vacuum when what was needed was a study of transport as a whole. One historian has called Beeching’s appointment ‘a tragedy for the nation’ and accuses him of ‘callously’ ignoring the social consequences of closures. Another, in a work entitled The Great Railway Conspiracy, suggests that the closure programme was at least partly motivated by a deliberate anti-rail bias on the part of the Conservative government of the day.
Such suspicions have been fuelled by a number of factors. Prior to 1962 closure proposals had (in effect, although not in law) to be approved by the relevant local Transport Users’ Consultative Committee. These committees rarely exercised a veto, but their hearings provided such an effective forum for critics of railway management, and took up so much time and effort, that they deterred railway managers from a vigorous pruning of the system. In 1956 the Ministry suggested that it might be better to publish a closure programme as part of a plan à la Beeching and have ‘one big row’ about it, than to fight a series of individual battles, but the British Transport Commission decided to experiment with diesel railbuses and other economies instead. Yet by 1959 it was clear that such measures were insufficient and therefore attempts were made to accelerate the rate of closures. [. . .]
Beeching’s apparent disregard for the social consequences of closure was merely a reflection of the fact that his report was a statement of what the railways should do as a business. What they should do as a social service was for ministers to decide, as only they could weigh the resulting costs against competing demands on the Exchequer. Because Beeching had little to say about social need and there was no legislative provision for subsidising loss-making services, the idea took root that the issue had simply been ignored. However, it was always accepted that many loss-making lines would have to be retained, particularly in urban areas where it was recognised that rail performed a vital role in reducing road congestion. Of course, the point at which hardship justified a loss was bound to be open to dispute; and in cases where losses were high and hardship affected relatively few, those few were unlikely to be consoled by the logic behind the process.
The Treasury’s concern over public spending levels also led it to initiate a series of studies of long-term demand in various sectors, in order to prioritise public investment. No such study of transport had been undertaken in Whitehall since the war and an initial attempt in 1957 revealed little more than officials’ lack of information or expertise on the subject. This problem proved difficult to solve. Such expertise could not be acquired overnight, and Whitehall was unable to establish a common measure for judging investment in road and rail. Instead, transport planning quickly crystallised around a choice between investing in rail and restricting road transport, or investing in roads and leaving the railways to perform only those tasks which they could accomplish profitably. As one Treasury under-secretary put it, the growth of road traffic in the 1950s meant that ‘Whitehall is … collectively fumbling after a new policy to meet new conditions which threaten to overwhelm us – indeed they may already have done so’.
[. . .]
In comparison to the lack of transport planning that typified the mid-1950s, the Beeching era represented a high point in transport policy-making. This is not to say that the resulting policy was unequivocally correct. Better roads were needed, but motorway-building did not offer a straightforward solution to congestion, and it is easy to point to regrettable rail closures. Some lines, such as Nottingham-Mansfield, have reopened, others, such as Oxford-Cambridge, may do so in the future; and the isolation of towns such as Hawick and Louth from the rail network was an act of dubious wisdom.
If these were errors, they were not Beeching’s, but politicians’. However, ministers of transport can never hope to satisfy our demand for unlimited road space and excellent public transport, as the availability of the former increases the latter’s cost. The lasting opprobrium heaped upon the memory of Dr Beeching is testimony to this fact — and to the gulf between the images conjured up by politicians’ talk of modernisation and the pains which, in reality, it all too often involves.