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29 October 2014
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Network TV Week 40

Feature


Railway cuttings...

  Ian Hislop tracks the Beeching Report and its impact
Ian Hislop tracks the Beeching Report and its impact

Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails
Thursday 2 October on BBC FOUR

Programme copy


The notorious Beeching Report of 1963 led to the closure of many of Britain's railway lines and stations. In Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails on BBC Four, Ian considers whether the report's author, Dr Richard Beeching, was a kind of Genghis Khan with a slide rule, ruthlessly axing swathes of the rail network in the name of progress, or simply the fall guy for something that had to happen?

 

Programme Information asks Ian about the Beeching Report and its impact.

 

It sounds a very British story – one of those battles between romance and economics that economics usually wins in the end. Is that a fair assessment?

 

Yes, it is a very British story. We assume that the conflict between pruning down a much-loved public service while trying to keep the essence of Britishness is a modern battle – but it isn't. Calling in someone like Beeching to swing the axe – and then assessing what's been lost and what's been gained – was happening 45 years ago, and is still happening now with services like the Post Office and the NHS.

 

John Betjeman said that railways offered an amazing service which was essentially British, while Beeching said lines had to close. The film explores the history of railways, Beeching's role and examines why our landscape looks like it does.

 

Do you have a particular passion for the railways, are you a steam enthusiast?

 

I'm a commuter, which means you normally dislike rail travel, but I do like trains. I made a series for the BBC called Great Railways Journeys – India East To West a few years ago. I took a train to India and had a wonderful time... so I am an enthusiast and I like steam trains, too.

 

What kind of man was Richard Beeching? Has history been kind to him?

 

I think history has been unkind to him. He is seen as an all-purpose "bogey man" style figure. He was quite a brusque man, convinced of his own rightness, who was slightly used by the government of the day – the film assesses whether he really was a "bogey man" and looks at the impact his decisions had.

 

Forty-five years on, has the Beeching report been vindicated?

 

No, I don't think so. The methodology that was used wasn't entirely right – it didn't take into account the human factor sufficiently and too many lines were shut. We are now re-opening some lines, but it took the country a long time to recover.

 

The decision was clearly unpopular at the time, what were the immediate consequences of the shutdown?

 

We lost a vast amount of railways. As a result, the move towards using cars and motorways was accelerated.

 

What happened to the enormous amount of material that was disposed of, 2,000 stations for a start, is there much left to see?

 

All over the country there are lots of ghost stations and platforms. Disused lines are often used as cycleways and paths for walkers, too.

 

Was there an alternative? Had Britain left things as they were, would it have been delaying the inevitable?

 

There was a period when the railways worked, but it did get to the point where the government needed to take action as the railways were in a chaotic state, lines were being duplicated and so on. I just don't think the right action was taken though – too much was cut.

 

Is there a case to be made for the re-expansion of our railway system?

 

Yes, bits of the Beeching Report went too far. With congestion problems on the roads, rising fuel costs etc, we could be using the railway lines as an alternative mode of transport.



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