Express Digest

QUENTIN LETTS: Dad was right about Dr Beeching

Beeching’s cuts, which are nowadays a by-word for managerial and political short-termism, closed stations with such romantic names as Yarde Halt and Arthog

As Transport Secretary Chris Grayling spoke to the House of Commons yesterday, I thought of my dear, late father. How he would have barked with ‘told you so’ laughter.

Mr Grayling was making a statement about rail policy. He announced that the Government intends to reopen some of the railway lines which were closed in the Sixties in the infamous ‘Beeching cuts’.

Edinburgh to Carlisle, Oxford to Cambridge, Ashington to Newcastle and Okehampton to Exeter routes could be among those revived, along with Bristol suburban services and a freight line in Birmingham.

They and numerous others, along with more than 2,000 stations, were chopped after a 1963 cost-saving proposal by the then chairman of British Rail, Richard Beeching.


Beeching’s cuts, which are nowadays a by-word for managerial and political short-termism, closed stations with such romantic names as Yarde Halt and Arthog.

Rural areas were left without public transport links. But far worse was the fact that millions of passengers, and vast amounts of freight, were forced on to the roads. The quantities have only grown — to breaking point.

Now, at enormous expense, some of Beeching’s savagery may be reversed — if (and these are big ifs) the land can be acquired, the old bridges rebuilt and the tunnels re-burrowed.

In other words, after half a century Whitehall has finally admitted that it was wrong. Old-fashioned steam locomotives were never exactly speedy, but officialdom, when it knows it has made a calamitous mistake, moves even more slowly.

Beeching’s name was one my father found hard to utter without contempt. He had an inkling ministry bean-counters knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing except their own pension pots.

As Transport Secretary Chris Grayling spoke to the House of Commons yesterday, I thought of my dear, late father. How he would have barked with ‘told you so’ laughter

He felt Beeching was wrong to write off so much of our country. Perhaps that’s why I named Beeching as one of the 50 People Who Bu**ered Up Britain in a book nearly ten years ago.

The line connecting our home town of Cirencester to London (via Kemble Junction) was one of those axed. It ran along the bottom of a field at the boarding school my parents ran.

At the end of term, scores of my father’s schoolboys would lug their trunks down to Cirencester’s station to head home. They waved their hankies out of the windows like something from The Railway Children as they chugged past the old place a few minutes later.

Once Cirencester station closed, the boys used to travel home by car. It was less romantic — and it created more road traffic and pollution.

Cirencester station is now a roundabout and a supermarket car park. The line was sold long ago for an industrial estate. For ‘Ciren’, as for too many towns which were left railway-less, Mr Grayling’s announcement yesterday comes far too late.

It should be pointed out that Cirencester is far larger than it was in the Sixties — but that ever-growing population must do without its own station.

I recall standing with my father, looking at that Cirencester line soon after it had closed — you could still see rails under the brambles and stinging nettles. My old man was close to tears. Did the stupid politicians and Dr Beeching not understand what they had done?

They had robbed Cirencester of its Victorian birthright. They had placed foolish trust in the motor car (which everyone presumed would put trains out of business for good).

Could they not have adapted the old lines and turned them into roads, so that the trains could be restored if Beeching was proved to be wrong?

Wrong he most certainly was, as Mr Grayling’s announcement made clear. Trains have never been more popular — or rather, more full. 

As a regular rail user, I know to my discomfort there are few hours in the day when the post-Beeching network is not teeming with passengers. But is that not uplifting?

Trains may be crowded but they and the stations are a great deal better than they were in British Rail days. Richard Beeching — who was, you will hardly be surprised to learn, later made Baron Beeching — lacked can-do imagination.

He could not envisage a Britain where the grip of the unions could be loosened and the railways could be privatised.

Though we all love to complain about delayed trains and ticket prices, trains have prospered since denationalisation. They are surely faster, safer, cleaner — and they have wi-fi.

Yet in the Sixties many ‘experts’ averred that trains were doomed and that the combustion engine — cars and lorries — would rule for ever.

Beeching, an ICI scientist, was hired as British Rail chairman by the Conservative Government’s Transport Secretary, Ernest Marples, in 1961.


He was told to stem the network’s losses and looked at this with a scientist’s mirthless logic. He swallowed statistics about how the population may grow or shrink in certain places and chop chop chop he went.

Bletchley station, pictured at the mid point of the Varsity Line in 1962, a route that was axed in the 60s

What he couldn’t know is that the population of Britain would, half a century later, be careering towards 70 million, putting more pressure on the roads than he could ever imagine.

Rather than raise ticket prices or get to grips with the pocket-filling rail unions, he recommended the destruction of 5,000 miles of track.

He did not seem to have much time for ordinary punters. He once observed that the reason trains and railway stations were so filthy was that the British public was dirty. Next time you are told to respect the views of an authority because it has been advised by experts or scientists, remember Beeching.

His grand philosophy — that roads should be given precedence over rail — now seems misguided. Last week the Mail reported that in ‘Gridlock Britain’ motorists are wasting hours in their vehicles, with all the ramifications that has for their stress levels, the economy and the environment.

Soaring numbers of vans delivering online purchases have contributed to gridlock.


In 2015, the average speed of traffic in the City of London was 8.1mph. A year later it was just 6.9mph. Motorways and A-roads are clogged, costing the economy an estimated £9 billion a year, and doubtless a factor in our apparently under-performing productivity.

The signal box at Elland station, which was closed down in 1962 but is planned for a comeback in West Yorkshire

Manchester is rammed in the evening rush hour. Bristol is rigid in the mornings. The M25 is a car park much of the time.

We need alternatives to road transport. I regularly hit Monday-morning traffic outside Gloucester, much of it caused by workers driving in from Newent and Ross-on-Wye — both of which lost their rail connections thanks to Beeching.

The often-empty bus lane on the road into Gloucester also clogs things up more. You don’t get bus lanes on the railway!

If that line from Gloucester to Ross-on-Wye could be rebuilt, pollution and traffic jams would be cut, regional development would get a boost , housing would be more widely spread and the Chancellor’s bugbear of productivity would improve.

Should the Department for Transport not spend the £50 billion or more it has earmarked for the High Speed 2 railway on such local lines, rather than pressing ahead with yet another central-command decision?

Who is to say that HS2 is not likely to be as rotten a mistake as Dr Beeching’s cuts? If they spent a fraction of that money on reviving some old lines, they may get Britain moving again.

Mr Grayling has at least made a start. We should thank him for that. I thank him for proving my dad correct. Somewhere in Heaven he’ll be laughing and saying ‘See? I was right!’ 


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