Phantom Limbs

Something needed to be done. 50 years ago Britain’s publicly financed rail network lost £104 million. If that doesn’t sound too awful then consider that it today’s money it accounts for £1.9 billion; 36% of the Department of Transport’s current annual budget.

Income had not covered costs for almost a decade. A report – The reshaping of British Railways – was written. Maps were drawn. Then 2400 stations and 5000 miles of track were closed. The closures were more heartfelt the more attractive a station name appeared in the national psyche. No longer could passengers alight at Wainhill Crossing Halt or Allhallows-on-Sea. To many the report became known as the Beeching Axe, after its author Dr Richard Beeching.

The aim of the cull was to save Britain’s trunk routes. The report pointed out that 30% of the network was used by only 1% of passengers and freight, while half of the 7000 stations contributed just 2% of income.

It wasn’t the first time this policy had been instigated. 3400 miles of track were closed in the post war period, including the line in my old haunt of Harborne, Birmingham, which closed in 1934. (The station sign is saved in the local library and various viaducts still exist as Harborne walkway). In the same period car mileage was increasing 10% a year and the first motorways opening.

Jumping forward 50 years more people use the rail network than ever before, and one third of commuters don’t even own a car. The argument over the necessity of Beeching’s cuts will continue, though for me the fact they failed to stop cash haemorrhaging from the railways suggests it wasn’t the right course of action. Seeing passenger numbers growing almost guarantees (for the moment at least) The reshaping of British Railways to be considered at best myopic.

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