MANY people remember 1963 as the year of the Beatles. But 50 years ago this month it was Cliff Richard and The Shadows at the top of the hit parade while newspaper headlines featured woe about the railways with the “Beeching axe” poised over thousands of stations.
It was Cliff’s refrain of Summer Holiday from the film that lightened the mood of those queuing at a small shop in Edinburgh’s Castle Street to buy an unlikely bestseller.
Copies of The Reshaping of British Railways were hurried from the back shop to meet demand at the Scottish outlet for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, which on 27 March, 1963, published for the British Railways Board (BRB) the two-part document that remains notorious by its unofficial title – the Beeching Report.
The report’s author was Dr Richard Beeching, chairman of the BRB. The news headlines of 1963 were also to feature such names as John Profumo and Christine Keeler, but it is Richard Beeching’s that still remains in the collective memory when railways are mentioned. As a 16-year-old schoolboy I joined the rush on 27 March 1963, clutching the then expensive purchase price of £1 in the form of two ten-shilling notes.
The report had been much trailed so the main interest that day was in just exactly which stations were recommended for the chop. More than 2,100 stations were put up for closure among 34 pages of services facing the axe, including 20 pages listing individual stations and halts. For Scotland, the story was particularly bleak, with that blade being sharpened for lines from Inverness to Wick, Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh, most tracks in North-east Scotland, both routes to Stranraer, every station in the Borders, the Strathmore line through Forfar, which formed a key part of the most direct route between Glasgow and Aberdeen, and the popular scenic line through Callander. Some stations listed had already closed, including Peebles, which had lost its trains the previous autumn – Wendy Wood of the Scottish Patriots proved remarkably prescient then, at least for some other routes, when she forecast that “a Scottish Parliament will reopen the stations again”.
Eventually, some stations were saved and are still to be found on the railway map. But not all. The most immediate significant reprieves were Inverness to Wick and Thurso, Ayr to Stranraer, Glasgow to East Kilbride and Edinburgh to Glasgow via Shotts. But it took a second closure threat before the Kyle line was eventually reprieved. Some stations that closed have rejoined the railway network, beginning with the local Edinburgh station of Kingsknowe more than 40 years ago and later including Bridge of Allan, Falkirk Camelon, Gretna Green and Larkhall among others.
Some station closures that pre-dated the Beeching era have since been reinstated, notably Bathgate and, more recently, intermediate places between there and Airdrie. Some stations that never existed before have opened including Wallyford on the Edinburgh/North Berwick route and Brunstane between Edinburgh Waverley and Newcraighall, a service never dreamed of in the Beeching years. Other significant places in Scotland, however, remain off the railway map. The planned reopening of part of the Waverley Route fills some of the gap through the Borders but such important Scottish towns as Hawick, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Forfar and Callander remain devoid of trains.
When stations have reopened, the tendency has been for passenger numbers to hit record highs far in excess of forecasts. This indicates how woefully inadequate were the decision-making processes that led to those closures.
But something strange happened to me. That schoolboy who joined the HMSO queue came away with a more positive impression of the report than anything that was conveyed in the gloom and doom headlines. That’s because I read the actual report before I read the newspapers. In the 1960s, I had travelled on closure-threatened trains that were very busy with large numbers of passengers going to Corstorphine, Fraserburgh and Hawick. But I had also been on virtually empty trains that should surely have been withdrawn long before Dr Beeching arrived on the scene. These were the exceptions, though, and I still remember trains elsewhere that faced the axe in spite of being full.
It was clear at the time that some closures were inevitable. Indeed the process had been going on for years, notably as long ago as 1930 when the London and North Eastern Railway closed some wayside calls on main lines. The aim then, as among some of the closure plans within Beeching’s report, was to clear the tracks for fast through trains while passengers at little-used stations in between were switched to the roads. This streamlining would make sense if it cleared the way for better services for the majority of passengers. But, unfortunately, the 1963 report’s closure recommendations went much further than that.
Nevertheless, the report’s pages actually contained a vigorous defence of the potential of the railways. It recommended huge improvements for freight, planning new types of train that would revolutionise transport of those elements of goods traffic for which rail was still best suited. And on at least some main lines it cleared the way for further improvements for long-distance passengers – in spite of almost getting that subject wrong.
Liner trains for freight containers are of major significance to the railways of the 21st century, having been proposed in Beeching. And the report’s “merry-go-round” coal trains to power stations are also vital today, although coal features less in power generation with the closure this month of Cockenzie power station in East Lothian after 46 years.
Politicians were demanding an end to financial losses on the nationalised railway, and Ministry of Transport officials were mad keen to get rid of rail lines to clear the way for new roads. Knowing this, the professional railway managers behind the report realised that the only way they would get the positive recommendations through was by including them in a report that otherwise appeared to be negative. To my early reading of the report – reinforced when I fished my original copy out of a drawer to research this article – the significant point was that Dr Beeching insisted that closures were not enough to sort out railway finances. The positive recommendations had to be taken on board too. In fact, closures represented an expected net saving of only £18 million a year out of much more than £100 million of improvement.
The report left the door open for civil servants and their political masters to keep at least some closure-threatened stations open for the wider public benefit trains could offer the economy. But who was listening? Certainly not those who destroyed priceless assets represented by railway rights of way, in some cases years after the closures themselves. Restoring trains to at least part of the Borders is costing a lot more than it need have, because of decisions taken in the 1970s, 80s and even the 90s on the disposal of land.
The report got the future of cross-Border passenger travel badly wrong, forecasting a decline in Scotland/London daytime trains but a big enough increase in Sleeper travel to require more overnight trains – the reverse of what actually happened. Beeching later went on to propose the downgrading of the East Coast main line north of Newcastle, but the closure of some intermediate stations on that route, and on the West Coast main line actually cleared the way for 125mph trains, which have since revolutionised inter-city travel.
The Tories were associated with closures in the public mind because the report was published under a Conservative government that prepared for it with the Transport Act of 1962. Michael Clark Hutchison, the Tory MP for Edinburgh South, abstained from the vote on that, and therefore had a clean conscience when he complained against closures that went ahead under Labour from 1965.
There were up sides. Researching 30th anniversary information for The Scotsman among newly released official documents in 1993, I came upon notes proving that an anonymous civil servant had fought furiously against closures in the 1960s. He helped save some Highland routes, but not others. His initials were “FS” and it was a journalistic joy to reveal the previously anonymous hero as Frank Spaven, whose son David’s recent book Waverley Route, the Life, Death and Rebirth of the Borders Railway (Argyll Publishing) has revealed more secrets behind the closure of a line that should surely never have shut north of Hawick.
As a young journalist covering the 1969 closure of the Waverley route I was accused of dancing on the line’s grave, just for turning up at Hawick by rail for the last time. That criticism still hurts. Hawick was one of the places I journeyed to in earlier years on a train so popular it was standing room only. It gave me huge pleasure 30 years later to be a railway manager involved in preparations for that railway’s partial reopening and it will be with joy that I travel by train to Galashiels and beyond within the next couple of years or so.
Now, rail travel is booming and a Scottish Parliament can reopen some lines. Few other than Wendy Wood would have expected that when I was a teenager.
• Allan McLean, a former transport correspondent for The Scotsman,was communications manager for Scotland and North England with Virgin Trains from 1998 until retirement last year. He is a chartered fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.