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You are in: Wear > History > Local History > The Beeching axe

Dr. Richard Beeching (Getty images)

Dr. Richard Beeching

The Beeching axe

How did the Beeching axe affect Wearside and County Durham? Alex Nelson looks back and explains it wasn't all as negative as you may think.

Dr. Richard Beeching (1913-85), a physicist and engineer, was chairman of the British Railways Board from June 1961 to June 1965.

At that time the railways were losing money heavily (£42m in 1960 alone), as car ownership quickly rose after the war. 

Alex Nelson

Alex Nelson

In 1960 only one household in nine had a car. The government, which controlled the nationalised railway, wanted to bring in new blood to British Railways to stem the losses. At the time Beeching's salary was a jaw-dropping £24,000 (now around £370,000).

Sometimes known ironically as "the good doctor", Beeching produced a report in 1963 called "The Reshaping of Britain's Railways", which planned the closure of many lines and stations and a huge reduction in staff numbers.

70,000 jobs to be cut?

Just over 4,000 route miles were to be cut on cost and efficiency grounds, leaving Britain with 13,721 miles of railway lines by 1966.

Beeching cannot be blamed for all the closures, as a further 2,000 miles were closed by 1970, and still more in the 1970s.

Locally that included lines such as Durham to Sunderland via Shiney Row, which entered Durham over a fine viaduct, which it is hoped will reopen as a footpath over the River Wear.

This line is now used by the Metro system between South Hylton and Sunderland. 

Also closed in 1964 was the Durham to Bishop Auckland line. A road now uses Newton Cap viaduct.

Chester-le-Street was slated for closure which is why it features in the Flanders and Swann song, but was saved. Ferryhill closed instead, though the main line itself was earmarked for further investment.

Dr. Richard Beeching (Getty images)

Dr. Richard Beeching on a platform

Beeching's reshaping plan called for the shedding of 70,000 jobs and about one-third of the 7,000 stations.

There are now about 2,500 stations on the fairly stable national network.

Beeching Way

The plans were controversial, but were due to save some £110m a year and bring the railways back into profit. 

Beeching himself was unrepentant about his role in the closures: "I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping," he said.

Not all of Beeching's plans were negative.

It was he who realised the importance of the InterCity network and invested in fast diesel locomotives for the main line, and the first containerised trains taking containers to and from the ports were introduced under Beeching. 

But a second report in 1965 proposed closing around half of what was left, including closure of the Newcastle to Edinburgh route which would be unthinkable today.

Newcastle - Sunderland - Middlesbrough was also proposed for closure in an attempt to reduce duplication of routes. 

Nationally, the route mileage of 17,500 miles at the end of 1962 fell to approximately 14,900 in 1965, and the number of stations fell from 6,800 to 4,300. There were post-Beeching closures too, including the Leamside line from Pelaw to Tursdale via Fencehouses.

Beeching himself lived in East Grinstead in East Sussex where the railway from London now terminates, although there were once two through routes to the south. 

A deep cutting used by the railway was converted into the A22 relief road and locals wanted to call the road Beeching Cut. It was deemed more appropriate to call it Beeching Way.

last updated: 28/10/2008 at 15:36
created: 24/10/2008

You are in: Wear > History > Local History > The Beeching axe

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