It’s been fifty years since the Beeching report came out recommending closure of large swathes of the British railway network. Forty years since the last major closures took place. Over 5,000 route miles were closed along with over 2,000 stations. A handful of lines recommended for closure were reprieved but some others that weren’t on the initial list were also closed. At the time it seemed to be part of an inexorable run-down of a transport mode that had had its day. The Beeching report wasn’t all negative of course; it recommended wide-spread electrification of remaining main lines and proposed a revolution in freight transportation with the introduction of intermodal container trains and merry-go-round coal trains serving collieries and power stations. But it’s the closures we remember. 

Since that time the demographics of this country have changed enormously. Booming cities – particularly London – have caused extra demand for property and rising prices have forced an increasingly wealthy and car-owning population to look further afield for places to live. They’ve moved out beyond the green belts into rural suburbs where they could have a garage, a garden and a spare room. Better roads have improved the daily commute and once small insignificant towns and villages in the Home Counties have turned into sprawling dormitory settlements. As the baby-boomers had their children in the late sixties and seventies the population multiplied and our towns and cities grew. Changing lifestyles see those children living alone well into their thirties before settling down whilst their parents increasingly separate and boost the demand for housing further. Yes there has been immigration as well. In short there are over 50% more households today than there were in 1963 and most of that increase has been accommodated in housing stock built on green-field land. Almost every part of Britain has been affected by this but some places much more than others. 

Society is changing too. When I was growing up there was only one thing every seventeen year-old wanted to own; one rite of passage to adulthood. We worked every hour we could and squirrelled away as much money as possible with one objective: our first car. In my case it was a 1978 Austin Allegro in Royal Blue with rusty patches. I painted the wheels pink (yes really). It was my pride and joy but it failed its MOT before I could make much use of it and I was saving again. Things are different now. Ask a teenager what they want and you’re more likely to be told about the latest fad of technology. Less often will a car be first on the list. For them the cost of insurance is absolutely prohibitive and the attraction of technology is greater – technology they can’t use whilst they’re driving of course… and that’s where the train comes in. 

We have, I believe, now passed what is referred to as “peak car” where the greatest number of cars was in regular use. Insurance and fuel costs make car travel ever more expensive for most people and with fewer teenagers even bothering to learn to drive it’s likely that road use will diminish steadily. 

And let’s be honest. Today’s railway is really rather good. We can pick faults – it’s a British national hobby picking faults with our railway: trains are dirty with noisy under floor engines; they’re late and unreliable in adverse weather; they’re overcrowded; they’re expensive. When there are no problems they’re also fast, frequent and convenient; much more so than back in the sixties. I remember reading an account by a railway photographer who having taken a picture of an express train, dismantled his camera, got in the car and drove several miles up country roads, reassembled his camera and waited to take a picture of the same express train. Trains are much quicker than that these days; even the slow ones. Many of those lines had three or four trains a day; they were pulled by beautiful but grossly inefficient steam engines; they had unheated, unlit carriages and at least three crew members facilitating the conveyance of small number of passengers. We love riding on those trains now but imagine if you had to do it daily? It’s no wonder our parents rushed out and bought their Ford Anglias. Today we generally find our trains run at least hourly and even a 1980’s Sprinter train offers a standard of warmth and comfort way in excess of those wooden carriages. 

So where to now? That’s a literal as well as a metaphorical question as I believe we’re on the verge of a “Beeching roll-back”. We’ll never return to the whole network that Dr Beeching inherited. The majority of the closures were warranted. They included pointless duplications and wildly optimistic branch lines; vestiges of completely unregulated nineteenth century private-enterprise and competition. Many have been totally obliterated by subsequent development. However the social and geographical changes i’ve outlined will bring immense pressure to provide better public transport in certain areas. Some of these will involve reopening rail routes – particularly in south-east England – where line closures which seemed entirely justified back in 1963 but subsequent percentage population growth in three figures would probably now merit a half-hourly service to London; towns such as Cranleigh and Hailsham. Elsewhere there are country towns which have long stagnated since their railway closed and which will now be looking with apprehension towards the post peak-car era. In Galashiels in the Scottish Borders things are already changing. 

The Borders Railway scheme is a great psychological step forward for the cause of railway reopening. Reopened railways have been joining the network sporadically for twenty years. However up until now they’ve either been in high population density areas on unobstructed track beds or heritage lines opened gradually by valiant groups of enthusiasts. The Borders Line is different. It involves rebuilding thirty miles of track to a relatively small town through open countryside with little intermediate population. At the same time it has required the removal of numerous properties including a block of flats and the realignment of A roads. These were things which were absolutely unthinkable even ten years ago. Now it’s all changed. When this route is added to the national network and seen to be successful, other towns will begin to realise that if Galashiels can have thirty miles of track, then they can justify ten – and the trains will start to return.

 

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