Posted 6th July 2020 | 6 Comments

Monday essay: misplaced enthusiasm?

The Department for Transport is now considering no fewer than 50 suggestions for railways or stations to be reopened. MPs and local authorities have bid for a share of the second round of the Restoring Your Railway ‘Ideas Fund’, and their ideas will be considered by a panel which includes Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy. But Sim Harris wonders how many of these proposals have a chance of reaching even the first station on their long journeys to revival.

THE whole idea of reopening railways would have seemed bizarre less than 60 years ago. This was when Dr Richard Beeching, armed with his notorious axe, was stalking the long corridors of the former Great Central hotel at Marylebone – the HQ of the British Railways Board. His job was actually an impossible one: ‘to make the railways pay’.

The architects of this fantasy ignored the realities of the transport business, which is that the real money is in goods. The railways had a virtual monopoly on anything but purely local freight traffic for many decades, but this happy time (for them) began to fade when the demands of the First World War placed tremendous strain on the companies, so that the system emerged after the war in a run-down state, poised to lose increasing amounts of freight business to the roads, where the newly-liberated internal combustion engine was about to break out of its chains.

Therefore the Grouping, in 1923, when well over 100 railway companies became just four. This should have led to what we would now call ‘economies of scale’ and undoubtedly did, but it was not enough. The new road haulage industry was unconstrained, unlike the railways, and could bid for all the best traffic while turning down the rest.

The railways complained that lorries could take the lucrative loads from town to town, leaving the railways to return the empty packing cases. The railways were ‘common carriers’ with no choice about this, and their goods charges had been tightly regulated since the 1880s.

The depression of the early 1930s added to their woes, and the decline in coal traffic during that decade was another blow, which hit the LNER particularly hard. Well might that company crow (rightly) about the merits of its Gresley A4s and the showpiece, record-breaking run of Mallard in 1938. Good copy for newspapers, but very little money in the bank. LNER shareholders were the worst off among the Big Four, and no dividends were paid on their ordinary shares for year after year.

The Second World War repeated the body blows of the First, and although the railways were lauded for their vital contribution to the war effort and the bravery of their staffs, their reward was compulsory nationalisation in 1948.

The vision of ‘integrated transport’ set out in the 1947 Transport Act was fatally derailed by the financial realities. In partlcular, the Labour government had replaced railway shares with interest-bearing British Transport Stock, leaving the railways and the rest of the British Transport Commission to pay the interest. Having been bought out against their will, the railways were now having to pay for the sale.

The final straw which ended railway profits was another Transport Act, passed by the Conservatives in 1953, which removed most of the restrictions on the road haulage industry and reprivatised it.

Dwindling railway profits became losses in the mid-1950s, and there was no turning back. By 1960, with railway deficits soaring, the government began to seek a solution. The result, the following year, was the appointment of Beeching, and we know what happened after that.

Unfortunately, Beeching was convinced that there was a profitable railway, wrapped in a suffocating network of unprofitable lines.

So, the ‘loss-makers’ were speedily axed. As Beeching was wrong the deficits continued, although admittedly at a slightly lower level for a while. The resulting cost to the nation of a rapidly contracting industry and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs was never calculated.

More than half a century later, there has been a fundamental change of heart. Railways are now virtuous once again – green, efficient and vital to the national economy.

So the DfT is looking to ‘reverse’ Beeching, and the 50 proposals now being considered may be a small step on that journey.

It is worth remembering that Beeching was not entirely wrong (he also created container trains of the modern style and did much to modernise the railways, not least by introducing the double arrow logo and the brand name ‘British Rail’). Some of the lines he recommended for closure should probably never have been built and were no loss to the nation, although mourned by enthusiasts.

The list of 50 now to be considered by the panel convened by the DfT would make interesting reading, but perhaps we should be aware of misplaced enthusiasm. Railway enthusiasts love railways, but they are not always that bothered by realities.

The late lamented MP Robert Adley could sometimes blur the distinction between supporting railways as a form of transport and being a railway enthusiast (in other words, someone who is ‘into trains’).

For example, he regretted the replacement of a large gantry of semaphore signals at Southampton with colour lights on the grounds that it ‘lent character, colour and individuality to the railway scene’. It may have done, but semaphores are inefficient and need a lot of expensive staff. Someone enthusiastic about the industry would surely welcome modernisation. (Heaven knows what Mr Adley would have thought of ETCS, which abolishes lineside signals entirely.)

One paper produced by a enthusiastic rail users’ group a few years ago also blurred this distinction. It proposed the restoration of a particular junction as part of an improvement in services and underlined its point by including a photograph of a steam-hauled goods train negotiating that junction in 1955. An archive picture was possibly justified, but the caption, which carefully set out the number of the locomotive (clearly visible on the smokebox door in any case), the locomotive type and the purpose and destination of the freight train was not. The authors of that document had let their enthusiasm run away with them, although the officials of the Department for Transport have no reason to be interested in the details of a probably long-scrapped locomotive.

A similar misconception occasionally leads to claims that heritage railways have ‘shown how to reopen railways’. As tourist attractions and centres of preservation, yes. As modern railways and therefore forms of transport, no. As Mr Adley also pointed out, the ‘real railway’ cannot rely on hordes of volunteers, some of whom may also own various items of the railway’s rolling stock. Neither, we may add, can it run trains more or less when it chooses.

Let us hope that few of the 50 proposals now in the hands of the DfT make similar errors, or they may be doomed to come off the track at a very early stage.

The latest print edition of Railnews was published on 2 July. This and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    Talking about postwar nationalisations, there was "British Road Services", a state near monopoly of road freight , which in practice was a bit of a disaster.

    One doesn't need to be on the right politically to witness that this form of economic organisation only really seems to work in wartime type situations. The '45 government, though, was trying the concept pretty much for the first time, whereas we , in 2020 can look back at previous experience in hindsight.

    If all the "hidden" costs and benefits were to be fed into the market system , we might witness transport generally becoming more useful and efficient, which may or may not involve reopenings of some closures. Beeching , it seems, was only doing a narrow financial profit and loss exercise.

  • Gareth Marston, Newtown (Powys)

    Sim- my point about what did a community do for the intervening 60 years still stands - railways were about economic development in the 19th century (we pretend that roads will do the same now but they have none of the transformative effect that the railways did)- most rural lines were built by local subscription not by entrepreneurs or extractive capitalists. They were built for the wider benefit of the communities they served not the profit/loss balance sheet of the railway company. The Railway and Canal Traffic Acts enshrined this - the railways were effectively used as an unpaid tool of Government macroeconomic policy where profit from mineral carriage cross subsidised a national network. The model became out of date and successive Governments refused to do anything about it until a certain Mr Marples was appointed Transport Minister and wanted the railway modernisation money for road building.

  • king arthur, buckley

    I agree with the point about the risk of nostalgia taking precedent over the realities of modern rail transport, but is writing a detailed caption underneath an image included with a report really a crime?

    It's standard practice to include a background section in reports of this nature, which will naturally include a summary of the line's history, especially if there is a question over why it was ever closed in the first place (as is quite often the case). The archive image and its associated text is really nothing more than the author being thorough.

    [It is unwise to include enthusiast-related details in a report for transport planners. They really are allergic to people who are 'into trains', suspecting that their motives are not sufficiently business-like. Similarly, British Rail is said to have been reluctant to employ people who were self-confessed 'train spotters'.--Ed.]

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley

    Beeching will always be synonymous with closure. Perhaps his era should really be assosiated with accelerating inevitable changes in the rail industry that were already underway in reaction to the changed market conditions of the day. The closure of unremunerative routes can be traced back pre WW2 when the Big Four companies ran the network. Under the unified ownership of BR pruning of duplicate routes and concentration of key passenger and freight flows on core routes was already being progressed. Investment was directed at the Intercity passenger network & the rationalised block and container freight workings that are today's legacy of Beeching that should be applauded.

    The 1968 Transport Act reset the agenda regarding the 'loss making' network by providing a definition of the social value of rail services. However the term subsidy would always be equated with economic inefficiency. Peter Paker as BR Chairman attempted to redefine the relationship of the social network in terms of a business contract in order to try and avoid the the stigma that subsidy implied.

    The closures of the 1960's were probably inevitable. Did they go too far probably. That lines have been reopened or restored in the half century plus since Beeching's reports refect changed political & social attitudes to rail in meeting transport demands.

    Faced with economic & financial reality probably many of the 50 proposals submitted to DfT will fail to make the grade. Those proposals looking to prepurpose exiting freight only lines may at last get approved. However, and this is a big however, the longterm affects of the current health crisis on both short & long term travel demand makes any forecasting rather problematic. The parallel political imperative to prioitise infrastructure spending may however be the catalist to see some schemes succeed in getting the green light.

  • Gareth Marston, Newtown (Powys)

    "Some of the lines he recommended for closure should probably never have been built and were no loss to the nation, although mourned by enthusiasts"

    I always answer this piece of perceived wisdom by citing my Great Grandfather he was born in 1851 the nearest railway arrived the year after about 12 miles away - a whole days trip to go there and back not pleasant in winter. In 1861 another line arrived a bit closer 5 miles away. In 1901 he was the Head Ostler for a hotel who advertised there omnibus met every train at the towns station, in that year a new branch line was started on to a nearby valley using the Light Railway Act of 1896.. When he took out his state pension in 1921 at the age of 70 he had spent his entire life working with horses and in a steam railway world. The motor vehicle was a novelty in the later years of his working life.

    In the 1850's/1860's Was there a crystal ball that said you should never build a railway as the motor vehicle will rock up in about 60 years? (and what do you for the intervening 60 years by the way?) No there wasn't so why does the standard narrative behave as though the wicked Victorians deliberately did something that was avoidable? Is this failure to properly explain the history/development a deliberate misrepresentation to justify closure and to knock back reopening calls? Almost certainly.

    To have a proper debate about reopening we need to ditch the subjective narrative of the 1960's and look objectively.

    [To be as objective as possible, there really is no doubt that the later lines were less viable and in some cases unnecessary. Some were built by companies competing for a territory, while others were promoted by small towns anxious for a connection to the nearest main line (such ventures were usually surrendered to the main line company within a few years, often at a considerable loss to local shareholders). Few could have predicted the internal combustion engine in 1860 but that was not the case after 1900, and yet country lines continued to be built until the 1920s. As for the lines you mention in connection with your Great Grandfather, I would expect that the line opened in 1852 is likely to be still there, the 1861 arrival is also possibly still open, but that the last addition built as a Light Railway from 1901 has long since been lifted and all but forgotten. The Victorians weren't wicked, though -- they were enthusiastic entrepreneurs.--Ed.]

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    Most of the lines that went were either taken over by 'Enthusiasts' - if they ran along a pleasant river (Dart and Severn Valley) or other picturesque view, or they built houses, roads and factories on them. Some were taken over as Cycle Tracks. Very few could make any sort of financial profit unless a big new Housing Development was proposed beside the line. The new owners are not going to give up their possessions without a big fight and huge compensation. If some of the Track beds had been left untouched then there might be a possibility of re-opening but not now.