The Unexpected Cultural Significance of Dr Richard Beeching

I doubt that Dr Richard Beeching expected to have quite the cultural impact on Britain that he actually did. A balding, slightly portly figure with a neat little moustache, I’m sure he didn’t expect to be quite so well-remembered as he still is. Yet through his actions, he elicited a cultural response that means he has become embedded in the collective consciousness. He saw himself, I think, as a technocratic manager of large industrial concerns, and surely not as a source of inspiration for films, television series, and music. That, however, was what he became.

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Beeching was the man the government brought in to save British Railways from itself. It had wasted millions on its catastrophic Modernisation Plan, and anyway, as far as the government was concerned the future was in cars and motorways, not railways, a relic from the previous century. His solution as chairman of British Railways was to close down a good third of the railway network, to the consternation of the many affected communities on those closed lines, and earning himself a lifetime of antipathy.

As long time readers will know, the truth of Beeching’s cuts was much more complicated than the legacy he has earned as British Railways’ axe-wielder. Many branch lines had already closed in the years leading up to his 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways. Many closed in the years after he left British Railways in 1965, though not to the extent he had proposed in a second stage report, too drastic for political acceptability. Successive governments could have stopped the closures after he left without loss of face, but chose not to. Many of his closures have turned out to be strategic errors, but many of the lines he closed were financial basket cases which were never going to survive without enormous subsidy, and for little benefit. He pushed British Rail towards a more modern and sustainable way of operating, and he initiated its search for a new corporate identity.

But he was at the heart of the closure programme, and now remains indelibly associated with it, so he gets all the blame for the mistakes and none of the credit for the things which went right.

One of the ways in which he endures in the public consciousness is through the proliferation of roads carrying his name, usually where they have been built over a closed railway, or near to a long-redundant railway station.

Beeching Way, Alford, Lincolnshire. The road replaced a railway, and left stranded Alford railway station. © Copyright Richard Hoare and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Via this geograph page
Beechings Way, Alford, Lincolnshire. The road name explains why what looks like a railway station is sitting in the middle of an industrial estate. The car park behind the station used to be part of a railway line, closed by Dr Beeching, leaving Alford railway station as an isolated relic. © Copyright Richard Hoare and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Via this geograph page

You can trace Beeching’s impact across the country through such roads, with names like Beeching Road, Beeching Way, and Beeching Avenue. There’s a lovely story, possibly apocryphal, about the road built over the closed railway in East Grinstead, Beeching’s home town; you can’t say he wouldn’t take his own medicine, though I don’t think he was a regular local train user. As the old railway/new road ran in a cutting, locals apparently wanted to call it Beeching Cut as a protest against the railway’s closure. It ended up being called Beeching Way.

You can still trace the routes Britain’s lost railways took across the country through online maps with satellite imagery, guided by roads named ‘Beeching’ and the characteristic double rows of trees running through the countryside and slicing through other, older, features. These are the physical analogues of the pyschic scars left by the mass closure of local railway lines in the middle of the 20th Century, lines of communities judged unworthy of retention on the railway network, condemned to isolation, their links to ports, cities, leisure facilities and job opportunities severed. They are lines of negative space; places where something isn’t.

For things that aren’t even there, they can to this day stir incredible resentment, and agitation for their reinstatement. Like keloid scarring they itch at the edge of our collective awareness, demanding our attention. Sometimes reinstatement even happens, as with the Borders Railway which reopened in Scotland late last year and which is currently exceeding all expectations for passenger numbers. Other closed lines have been reimagined as long distance cycle routes by cycling charity Sustrans, which has also used them as the longest outdoor art gallery you could possibly imagine, installing artworks at regular intervals.

© Copyright Steve Fareham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Via this geograph page
Cast iron sheep artwork on National Cycle Network route 66 near Cleckheaton, on a closed railway line between Dewsbury and Halifax. © Copyright Steve Fareham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Via this geograph page

But I was reminded over Christmas last year that Beeching’s legacy extends much further into British culture than road names and the opportunity to install outdoor artworks. Although I do like an outdoor artwork…

What about the 1953 Ealing comedy film The Titfield Thunderbolt? Screened last Christmas Day by the BBC, it’s the ultimate British riposte to branch line railway closures and delivered in quintessentially British style, i.e. through the medium of gentle comedy and an idealised vision of British life. It involves a local community banding together to save its threatened branch line, even if it involves ‘borrowing’ an antique steam locomotive and re-using an old railway carriage converted to a dwelling to do so. And a bishop lends a hand to ensure the line passes its Ministry of Transport inspection, because well, it’s an Ealing comedy. In the process the predations of the evil bus operators are also seen off. No multi-modal integrated public transport offer here.

The film also predates Beeching’s Reshaping of British Railways report by 10 years. As I mentioned earlier, branch line closures were well underway before the arrival of Beeching as British Railways chairman. Yet Beeching’s legacy is such that the film and the man are linked in the minds of many, as railway commentator and author Christian Wolmar notes in a piece about potential branch line reopenings. That’s a measure of the impact Beeching has had on the national psyche.

One piece of popular culture much more genuinely linked to Beeching is the Flanders and Swann song ‘Slow Train’. Performed as part of the duo’s 1963 revue At the Drop of Another Hat, ‘Slow Train’ is a paean to the many stations slated for closure in the Reshaping of British Railways, published earlier that same year.

I’ll travel no more from Littleton Badsey to Openshaw,

At Long Stanton I’ll stand well clear of the doors no more,

…I won’t be going again,

On the slow train.

It’s also an elegy for the way those stations were run, a mode of operation of which Dr Beeching most emphatically did not approve.

No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat

At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street

Now, pretty much every time you see a British documentary film about Dr Beeching, or lost branch lines, you can be sure that ‘Slow Train’ will be playing in the background at some point.

On the plus side, although ‘Slow Train’ mentions many stations slated for closure by the Beeching report, several received a stay of execution, including Openshaw and Chester-le-Street.

Fast forward a couple of decades and you’ll find the BBC TV comedy Oh, Dr Beeching! (1995-97), set at a branch line station (Hatley) destined for closure by Dr Beeching. From the pens of David Croft and Richard Spendlove it is of that typically British type of broad comedy set in some imagined golden past (see also earlier series Croft co-wrote including Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi! and You Rang, M’Lord?). Stereotypes and farcical misunderstandings abound as the train and station staff try to keep up the good work under the threat of Beeching’s axe. The series ended without Hatley being definitively closed, saved, or receiving a stay of execution. It was filmed on the Severn Valley Railway, itself closed in the 1960s, but earmarked for closure pre-Beeching.

And I shouldn’t overlook satirical news magazine Private Eye‘s ‘Signal Failures’ column, highlighting perceived poor service or institutional stupidity on the part of the British railway industry, which even I have to admit has from time to time the most shocking tendency to take a gun to its own foot. The column’s author is Dr B. Ching, a pseudonym which only works because the cultural memory of Beeching is so strong that the wordplay needs no explanation.

Beeching and his cuts have entered the British lexicon. To give just one recent example, the Church of England is currently facing the problem of what to do with its lesser used churches, and the Bishop of Worcester has warned against a “Dr Beeching-style” program of church closures. Without needing further explanation, people are able to use “Beeching” or “Beeching cuts” or “Beeching-style” to mean a closure programme too drastic to make complete sense, one driven more by ideology more than rationality. One which, even as the closures are being progressed, seems as though it will simply have to be reversed in part in the relatively near future, probably at a cost that will wipe out any savings made by closing those later-resuscitated parts. In all the excitement over the reinstatement of the Borders Railway I’ve yet to see how much money was saved through its closure for a little under 50 years, compared to the £294m cost of its reopening.

So why should Beeching have attained this level of cultural ingrainedness? Why him? Why his railway cuts? There is nothing equivalent to this long-standing grudge when it comes to closed canals for instance, even though many of them were desperately sad losses, and volunteers today seek to reopen lost canals just as others do with closed railways. Neither do we all seem to know the name of the chairman of the National Coal Board whose tenure set in motion the pit closures (it was Ian MacGregor), so why do we know the name of the British Railways chairman who did the same?

I think it’s because of what the Beeching cuts represent. They were a transition between two Britains, a change in which the collective transport of the railways gave way to the individualistic transport of the private car. Whatever the reality, the Beeching cuts feel  to the British as though they mark a moment we lost something, a sense of community that travelling together fostered, where little villages were linked to each other by a community hub: their railway station.

Much though many Brits are deeply sceptical of mainland Europe, there’s also a well hidden jealousy you can spot if you know what to look for, a sense that communities and families are stronger units in many mainland European countries than they are in Britain. Perhaps not coincidentally, those are also the places that didn’t rip up their railways like Beeching did, where the trams weren’t all sent to the cutters’ yards, where public transport wasn’t considered a dirty term as it was in Britain for so many years by politicians and the road-building lobby (which occasionally, as in the case of Ernest Marples, were one and the same thing).

What came after the Beeching Cuts, people travelling alone in their cars in isolated bubbles of asocial non-interaction, was the dawning of a less kind era, where we no longer looked out for our neighbours, no longer took such an active role in the vitality of our local community. It was as big a shift as the dawning of the online, connected, internet age has been over the last two decades, and look at the worries we now have about our children cutting themselves off from physically proximate relationships in favour of virtual ones fostered on handheld devices over social media networks.

Beeching was the man who became emblematic in the making of modern Britain, the way it behaves as a society. So many Brits say they love they cars and the freedom of the open road. Yet so many of us also say we hate the way people don’t look out for each other anymore. It’s highly unusual for people to link the one withthe other, outside die-hard passenger transport types. Much, much easier to blame the man who paved the way for car-centric Britain, whatever the truth of his exact role in it, and whatever the culpability of car fanatics ever since.

No wonder the name Beeching has become so culturally totemic.

7 thoughts on “The Unexpected Cultural Significance of Dr Richard Beeching

  1. In terms of grisly road naming little if anything can surpass Stockton on Tees christening of an inner town dual carriageway by pass complete with howling traffic as ‘1825 Way’ as it runs over the trackbed of part of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington railway.

  2. I think it depends whereabouts on the Continent you mean. As a result of the transport coordination plans in France in the 1930s, nearly 10,000 km of railway lost their passenger services in 1937-38. You might say this was an equivalent of the Beeching Report 25 years earlier!

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