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Back to Beeching
Thursday 27 February, 20:00 - 20:30
With the publication, in 1963, of The Re-Shaping of British Railways Britain's transport system would never be the same.


Listen to programme 1

Listen to programme 2

On 5 March, Radio 4 Interactive hosted a live chat with the presenter of the Back to Beeching programmes, BBC Transport Correspondent Alan Whitehouse, and Professor Colin Dival of the Institute of Railway Studies. The transcript is below

R4 Host
Hello and welcome to BBC Radio 4 Interactive. BBC Transport Correspondent Alan Whitehouse and Professor Colin Divall of the Institute of Railway Studies are taking your questions now.he Robin Hood Line between Nottingham and Mansfield.

Question P.D. Scott - many stations are not where people need to get to - putting stations here would bring passengers in.

Answer - Alan Whitehouse
This is absolutely right.There are two problems. The first is that closing existing stations costs time and money. And secondly, opening new stations costs even more money. And money is something that is now in short supply.

Question Paul Adams - has research been done on demographics of the UK to see which lines are used more?

Answer - Alan Whitehouse
Yes. Jonathan Tyler whose voice you heard in the programme has done work in this field. It indicates that more effort should be put into getting rail services between major towns and cities up to the same standard. For example, Leeds has excellent connections with London but the stragetic rail authority has just announced that the only train of the day between Leeds and Glasgow is to be axed. There is no logical reason for this.

Question Stuart - surely we are going to make the same mistakes as 40 years ago. These lines should be for public service, not profit.

Answer - Prof Colin Divall
I agree that railway services should not primarily be provided for profit. Railways have historically in this country had to do two jobs for much of their existence. In the nineteenth century they were run for private profit but many lines were in effect also operated as a public service and made losses. The issue has always been what balance to strike between profit in monetary terms and the wider less tangible benefits to be had whether these were economic social or environmental.. so it's never been a question or one or the other. What we must decide now as a society... is how much money we are prepared to spend through taxation to gain those intangible benefits that we all gain from.

Question Funky Scot - was there any particular part of the country hit hardest by these cuts?

Answer - Prof Colin Divall
Generally speaking, the Beeching era cuts hit those parts of the country where either there were low levels of population - rural areas like Lincolnshire, parts of the West Country, the far north of Scotland, etc... or those parts of the country such as the north of England, say in the West Riding where intensive competition between railway companies in the nineteenth century left a legacy of many railways doing essentially the same job. Beeching removed many of those lines which were seen at the time as duplicates.

Question Ted 1: Could closures be avoided if area wide road user charging was brought in across the country as Ian Begg et al recommend ?

Answer - Prof Alan Whitehouse
Yes they could... The problem is that many of the costs of road use are paid up front - ie insurance, car purchase and road fund license. So, actual use of a car appears to be relatively cheap - you are only paying for the cost of the fuel on the day. All public transport including railways have to load all their charges onto the single journey. Road charging would compel car users to pay more of their costs per journey. That would make them think more carefully about the cost of each journey...

Question Beckmajf: Given the reluctance of the SRA & DoT to comment on your programme, Do you believe the SRA is a worthy level of bureaucracy?

Answer - Prof Alan Whitehouse
The stragetic rail authority is worth having. Think about the confusion that reigned before there was a central body governing the rail network. The current plans to rescue the west coast mainline modernisation would not have been possible without some form of centralised control to - for example - organise an alternative Manchester London service via Derby... There are many other examples. But we were disappointed that they would not take part in our programme.

Question sam-k : In retrospect, were any of the Beaching cuts really effective and did any achieve what they set out to achieve?

Answer - Prof Colin Divall
I think one has to answer this question in two parts looking at the overall effect of the Beeching cuts and then thinking about individual line closures. The withdrawl of passanger services which were started by the beeching report made the headlines in the 1960s... But they were only a small part of the re-organisation of the railways. Beeching himself did not believe that most money would be save by withdrawing trains. Nevertheless he thought the savings were worth having and because I said in the programme he did not get the support that he wanted from government those savings, he believed, were not as great as they could be. As far as particular line closures are concerned, it is often very difficult to decide whether or not they succeeded in savnig the sorts of sums that were claimed - partly because many of the historical records are not available.

Question Jedd: Are the costs of running the railways in Britain inflated by excessive hierarchy and consultancy costs since the fragmented privatisation?

Answer - Alan Whitehouse
There's absolutely no doubt that this is the case.. The stategic rail authority is raking its collective brains to find a way of bringing costs down - so far without success.

Question Peter Morgan: Would rail re-nationalisation secure the future of rural feeder lines?

Answer - Alan Whitehouse
Not necessarily. What really matters is the cost of running rural lines... That has ballooned under privatisation for a variety of reasons... What really matters now is to get the cost of running branch lines back under control... The current state of affairs where on some lines a ten pound subsidary for every one pound taken in fares is simply unsustainable.

Question Mick: Why did they close the great central when it was the only uk railway with a European loading gauge and linked the industrial north with the south and today could have linked in with the channel tunnel?

Answer - Prof Colin Divall
Great Central is an interesting case because today some 40 years after it was closed it is easy to point to the use that would be made of it... if it were still open. .. The fact that it was built at all in the very late19th / early20th century is testiment to the entreprenuerial vision to some railway managers and directors of the time... Indeed some of those railway managers saw the Great Central as connecting with a channel tunnel, the idea of which had been around for a long time... However, by the 1960s it was arguable that the Great Central did very little in terms of providing domestic railways services that could not be done using other railways... It is very difficult to predict what will be needed in 40 years time and I am reluctant as a historican to condemn those who failed in the 1960s in conceiving that in the early 21st century that we would have a channel tunnel to which the ex-Great Central might have connected.
Alan WhitehouseI would like to add - the real mistake was not in closing lines like the Great Central, but in failing to protect the line of route. Many closed lines have had the track bed built over or sold off. It should have been retained for possible future use.

Question Western: Are there any railway people left in the management of the railways?

Answer - Alan Whitehouse
There are some but not enough... Privatisation caused many middle and senior managers to leave the industry... Their expertise has still not been replaced.

Final Question Flangedwheel: Was the end result of the line abandoments an acceleration of the shift away from railways and toward motor cars?

Answer - Prof Colin Divall
I'm not sure that the abandonment of the railways did speed up the switch to the car to any marked degree.. The Beeching closures took place at a time by which very many people had already bought cars and were using them.. I'm sure that there were some people who were forced to buy cars because their local railway station closed but I suspect that many if not all of them would probably have bought a car in any case within a few years... A car has never been just a means of transport for many people. It is desirable in itself.
Alan Whitehouse Britain's big mistake in transport policy has been not to give a people a choice... In continental europe car ownership is higher but usage is lower, because major towns and cities have better transport systems so people chose to use the bus, tram or railway for the peak time journey into work.. Too many people in Britain do not have that choice - for them it's either the car or an unreliable or inconvenient public transport. If we had public transport of the same quality as Europe, more people would use it.

Selected Reading

Beeching: Champion of the Railway?
by R H N Hardy,
Ian Allan, 1989

The Great Railway Conspiracy
by David Henshaw
Leading Edge, 1991

British Rail after Beeching
by G. Freeman Allen
Ian Allan, 1966

British Rail - The first 25 years
by Michael R. Bonavia
David & Charles, 1981

British Railways 1948 - 73
by T.R Gourvish
Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1986

Listen Live
Audio Help

a photograph of Dr Richard Beeching.


Read a brief biography of Dr Richard Beeching.



Alan Whitehouse is BBC North's transport correspondent, a job he has held for the last 11 years. He has been reporting on transport issues for over 20 years and has won four journalism awards for his transport reporting.


Go to 1 - Beeching's Legacy
Go to 2 - Bleak future for forgotten tracks


Do you agree with Richard Harding's opinions on Beeching?

Alan Whitehouse and Colin Divall, Professor of Railway Studies at the University of York and British Rail management trainee and supervisor in the 1980s, will be hosting a live web chat after the second programme on Thursday 6 March.

You will be able to read a transcript of the webchat shortly.

Historic rail cuts loom once more - from BBC News Online
Rail Future campaign group
Network Rail
National Railway Museum
GB Rail - Rail enthusiasts site
Heritage railway enthusiasts site
Industrial Railway Society
Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT)
Railway Register - database of rail-related websites

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