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Two girls in the 1960s view East Grinstead station

Oh! Dr Beeching!

Forty years ago this year the Golden Age of Steam, already tarnished, already slowing, was finally consigned to a railway siding forever.

The reforms of Dr Richard Beeching transformed Britain's rail network, closing 2000 stations and tearing up 5000 miles of track. To many Beeching was the axe man who ruined the railways and at the time he was wielding the axe he was living in East Grinstead.

The man called upon to modernise the railways was not a Government minister. He was an executive at chemical company ICI, called in by the Transport Secretary of the time, Ernest Maples.

Even after forty years, the railway reforms of 1968 still provoke fierce debate.

Dr Richard Beeching

Dr Richard Beeching


Unlike the rest of the country Sussex and Surrey dodged the worst of the Beeching Axe. He realised that many suburban lines - although small - carried thousands of office workers in and out of London and just about paid their way. What he didn’t like were rural services carrying a handful of passengers to visit relatives or go shopping. They were for the chop. 

One such service was the seven miles of track linking Uckfield to the coast and efforts to reopen the line are still being made, forty years on. "When the line was cut in 1969 the effect was catastrophic," says campaigner Brian Hart.

"Uckfield has tripled in size since the line was shut.  Crowborough has doubled. These are big towns in the middle of Sussex. We really do need to get this railway back to people can go to Brighton, Eastbourne and Newhaven for shopping, for work, for school, for college – all these things that we do elsewhere in the South."

East Grinstead

Somewhat ironically, Dr Beeching made particularly dramatic cuts to his home station of East Grinstead. Pre-1968 the station was the hub for lines going to all four points of the compass. The only line which remains today is the one connecting the town to London - the same line Beeching took to work every day.

Despite this radical change there are some in East Grinstead who think if Richard Beeching as a hero.

Simon Kerr is the local tourism officer: "Without his closure of the railway the town centre would be thundering and shattering with trucks, cars, buses driving around all over the place but of course it all went on over which is now our bypass, previously site of one of the railways that he closed." 

Beeching's Tracks

Rail expert Christian Wolmar believes that even though Beeching slashed hundreds of services, modernisation was inevitable: "It’s important not to look at Beeching as just an axe-man." he says. "What he saw as the future of the railway was high speed rapid travel between towns so I think he would have been very pleased to have seen the Ashford to St Pancras service that’s starting in 2009."

Wolmar's willing to admit though, that Beeching made a mistake at Uckfield: "Beeching was dead right saying not many people used that line to travel between the little villages along it. He was wrong to say people didn’t want that sort of railway which would connect them with both the South Coast and places further afield."

26 Oct 2008 16:25 BBC One - Edwina Currie journeys across London and the South East to examine the legacy of Doctor Beeching, one of the most notorious men in British railway history. She meets the people and places affected by his cuts and discovers how, forty years later, they have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. (London, South East only)

last updated: 24/10/2008 at 15:47
created: 24/10/2008

You are in: Southern Counties > History > Sussex History > Oh! Dr Beeching!

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