Beeching Axe

From Academic Kids

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Many railway lines were closed as a result of the Beeching Axe

The Beeching Axe was an informal name for the British government's attempt in the 1960s to control the spiralling cost of running the British railway system by closing what it considered to be "little-used" and unprofitable railway lines.



The Beeching Axe was a reaction to the failed railway modernisation plan ( of the 1950s, which spent huge amounts of money on buying new equipment such as new diesel and electric locomotives without first examining the railways' role, what was actually going to be needed, or the implications of changing old-fashioned working practices and tackling the problem of chronic overmanning. The result was the railway system's finances plunging deeply into the red.

In tune with the mood of the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan's Conservative government with pro-road transport minister Ernest Marples believed that the future of transport lay with roads, and that railways were a relic of the Victorian past with little future. Many people believe that Marples' view was not totally unconnected to his previous role as a director of a major road-construction company.

In 1961 the Conservative government appointed Dr Richard Beeching (1913-1985) as the chairman of British Railways, with a brief to cut the spiralling losses.

Dr Beeching believed the railway system should be run like a business not a public service, and that if parts of the railway system that didn't pay their way—like some rural branch lines—were closed then the remaining core of the system could be restored to profitability.

He made a study of traffic on all the railway lines in the country and concluded that 80% of the traffic was carried on just 20% of the network, with much of the rest of the system carrying little traffic and operating at a loss.

In his report "The Reshaping of British Railways" ( issued on March 27, 1963, he proposed a massive closure program. At the time the report was called the "Beeching Bombshell" or the "Beeching Axe" by the press and was hugely controversial. It sparked outcry and outrage from many communities that would lose their rail services - many of which, especially in the case of rural communities, provided the sole means of public transport.

The government argued that many of the rail services could be provided more cheaply by buses, and promised that any abandoned rail services would have their place taken by a replacement bus service, although this policy proved unsuccessful.

The report proposed that 6,000 miles of Britain's then 18,000 miles of railway system be closed (mostly rural branch and cross country lines) and that many other rail lines should lose their passenger services and be kept open for freight only. In addition, many lesser-used stations would close on lines that were to be kept open. The report was accepted by the government.

A significant part of the Beeching Plan also proposed that British Rail electrify some major main lines and adopt containerised freight traffic instead of the outdated and uneconomic wagon-load traffic. In general, politicians jumped at the money-saving parts of the plan and were less enthusiastic about the parts which cost money. Some of those plans were adopted, however, such as the electrification of the West Coast Main Line.

The mileage of the British railway system at its peak in 1950 was around 21,000 miles.

Contrary to popular belief, Beeching did not start the rail closures, as a number of rail closures had occurred during the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1963 around 3000 miles of track had already been closed, but post-Beeching the process was speeded up and dramatically expanded.

Rail closures by year

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The remains of Rugby Central Station on the former Great Central Railway, one of many closed under the Beeching Axe
  • Pre-Beeching closures
    • 1950....150 miles closed
    • 1951....275 miles closed
    • 1952....300 miles closed
    • 1953....275 miles closed
    • 1954 to 1957....500 miles closed
    • 1958....150 miles closed
    • 1959....350 miles closed
    • 1960....175 miles closed
    • 1961....150 miles closed
    • 1962....780 miles closed
  • Post Beeching closures
    • 1963....324 miles closed
    • 1964....1,058 miles closed
    • 1965....600 miles closed
    • 1966....750 miles closed
    • 1967....300 miles closed
    • 1968....400 miles closed
    • 1969....250 miles closed
    • 1970....275 miles closed
    • 1971....23 miles closed
    • 1972....50 miles closed
    • 1973....35 miles closed
    • 1974....0 miles closed

Not all of the railway lines listed for closure were closed; some were kept open for a variety of reasons, including political manoeuvering. For example, the railway lines through the Scottish Highlands, although not cost-efficient by Beeching's definition, were kept open due in part to pressure from the powerful Highland lobby. Other lines may have been kept open because they passed through marginal constituencies. In addition, some lines listed for closure were kept open because the local roads weren't capable of absorbing the traffic that would be transferred from the railway if it closed. As a result, there are still a fair number of rural railway lines still in existence on the British Railway system although far fewer than there were before Beeching.

Overall, 2128 stations were closed on lines that were kept open. As well as minor railway lines, a few major intercity railway lines were closed as well, most notably the Great Central Railway which linked London to the north of England.

Beeching II

In 1964 Dr. Beeching issued a second, less-well-known, report [1] ( "The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes", widely known as "Beeching II", which went even further than the first report.

The report singled out lines that were believed to be worthy of continued large-scale investment, and, although it did not explicitly say so, implied that any lines not singled out for investment would eventually be closed.

Essentially it proposed that all railway lines other than major inter-city routes and important commuter lines around big cities had little future and should eventually close. If the report had been implemented the railway system would have been cut to just 7,000 miles, leaving Britain with little more than a skeletal railway system with large parts of the country entirely devoid of railways.

The report was rejected by the government and Dr. Beeching resigned in 1965. Although politicians were ultimately responsible for the rail closures, Dr. Beeching's name has become synonymous with them ever since.

Changing attitudes and policies

In 1964 a new Labour government was elected with prime minister Harold Wilson. During the election campaign, Labour promised to halt the rail closures if elected. But once elected they quickly backtracked on this promise and the closures continued until the end of the decade.

However in 1965 Barbara Castle was appointed transport minister, and she began to look at the county's transport problems as a whole. Mrs Castle decided that at least 11,000 route miles of "basic railway" would be needed for the foreseeable future and that the railway system should be stabilised at around this size.

Towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that the rail closures were not producing the promised savings or bringing the rail system out of deficit and were unlikely ever to do so.

Barbara Castle stipulated that some rail services that could not pay their way but had a valuable social role should be subsidised. However, by the time the legislation allowing this was introduced in 1968 many such services and railway lines that would have qualified for subsidies had already been closed or removed, lessening the impact of the legislation. A number of branch lines were nevertheless saved by this legislation.


The closures failed in their central purpose of restoring the railways to profitability, with the promised savings failing to materialise. By abolishing a third of the rail network, Beeching only managed to scrape up a saving of just 7m. Overall losses were in excess of 100m. The losses were mainly because the branch lines acted as feeders to the main lines, and this feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed—in turn meaning less traffic for and worsening the finances of the main lines. The assumption at the time was that car owners would drive to the nearest railhead (which was usually the junction where the closed branch line would otherwise have taken them) and journey onwards by train, but in practice having once left home in their cars, they used them for the whole journey.

The policy of replacing rail services with buses also failed. Most of the replacement bus services were far slower and less convenient than the train services they replaced, and proved unpopular with the public. Most of the replacement bus services only lasted a few years before being scrapped due to lack of usage, effectively leaving large parts of the country without any effective public transport.

The closures were brought to a halt in the early 1970s when it became apparent that they weren't achieving anything useful, that the benefit of the small amount of money saved by closing railways was outweighed by the pollution and congestion caused by increasing reliance on cars which followed, and by the general public's hatred of the cuts.

The last major railway closure to occur was of a 80-mile-long main line between Carlisle and Edinburgh called the Waverley Route, which closed in 1969; plans have since been made to re-open this line. Today Britain's railways, like nearly every other railway system in the world, still run at a deficit.

In the early 1980s under the government of Margaret Thatcher the spectre of more Beeching-style cuts was for a short while raised again. In 1983 a civil servant called Sir David Serpell, who had worked with Dr Beeching, made the "Serpell Report" ( which called for more rail closures. It was met with fierce resistance from many quarters, and the report was quickly abandoned.

Many commentators now agree that the Beeching plan went far too far. Although supporters of Beeching claim that some of the closures were justifiable, with hindsight many of Beeching's cuts have been viewed as foolish and short-sighted, and many are now being bitterly regretted.

Supporters of the Beeching cuts claim that they were a necessary emergency response to save the railway network from financial disaster, and that if they hadn't taken place, a far bigger programme of cuts would have been necessary later on.

One of the major criticisms made of the Beeching report was that it failed to take into account future trends like population growth and greater demand for travel. So for instance the population of many of the towns which had their railways closed in the 1960s has grown significantly since, leaving the towns more in need of their rail links than before. Unfortunately the trackbeds of many closed railways have been built over so it would be difficult to re-open.

In total, in 1955 the British railway system had 20,000 miles of track and 6000 stations. By 1975 the system had shrunk to 12,000 miles of track and 2000 stations, roughly the same size it is today (2003).


Since the Beeching era, a modest number of the closures have been reversed. Notable amongst these is the Robin Hood Line in Nottinghamshire between Nottingham and Worksop via Mansfield which re-opened in the early 1990s. Previously Mansfield had been the largest town in Britain to have no rail link.

Also, in the West Midlands a new Birmingham Snow Hill station was opened in 1987 to replace the earlier Snow Hill station which had been closed and demolished in the early 1970s. The tunnel underneath Birmingham city centre which served the station was also re-opened along with the line towards Kidderminster and Worcester. The former line from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton has been re-opened as the Midland Metro tram system.

In Scotland, a 35-mile stretch of the former Waverley Route between Edinburgh and Galashiels may well be re-opened by 2008 if funding is approved. The closure of the line in 1969 left the Scottish Borders area without any rail links.

In addition to this quite a number of closed stations have re-opened, and passenger services restored on lines where they had been removed. Several lines have also reopened as heritage railways - see List of British heritage and private railways.


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