Transport Watch UK Focusing on UK's Traffic & Traffic Systems

36 The Beeching cuts

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November 2017

The announcement, that the Government has aspirations to reverse the Beeching cuts has a silver lining.  Thankfully funds will not be available.  After all, lines qualifying for the appellation, Community Rail, often carry no more than a one or two-car train every couple of hours.  Even in London this vast grade-separated multi-track network is, in highway terms, scarcely used, see Transport-Watch Topic 15

The Beeching report, 1963, says that by 1953 the surplus on the operating account could not cover capital charges. Beeching found that one third of the route mileage carried only l percent of the passenger-miles and 1 per cent, of tonne-miles. Further, 50% of railway stations contributed only 2% of passenger revenues. 

Today, if the railways were paved and the railway function discharged by express coaches and lorries, then, averaged over the network, the flow would be less than 500 vehicles per day per track, a flow so trivial it would not trouble one lane of a motor road for more than an hour See Trasnport-Watch Facts Sheet 1.

Beeching’s recommendation was that one third of the network, then standing at some 18,000 miles, should be closed. In the following ten years 2,363 stations were closed, along with 4,000 route miles, a closure rate which was little more than an acceleration on the 3,300 miles closed between 1948  and 1962.   However, that did not return the railways to profitability. Instead savings amounted to only £30 million whilst overall losses were running in excess of £100 million pa, roughly £2.5bn at 2017 prices.

The oft’ cited reason for this failure is that branch lines acted as feeders to the main lines and that feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed. However, there is no signal in the data to support that. Instead, between 1963 and 1995, passenger-km remained stable at close to 30 billion per year, after which there has been extraordinary growth to over 60 billion.  Today the network length is some 9,900 miles but subsidy, including capital, has ballooned to at least £5bn pa!    

One of the most stupid reported comments currently being made is that the proposed reopening will relieve rail congestion. However, since most of these remote lines do not parallel the main lines no such effect could be possible, with the exception of the largely abandoned Great Central.

If reopened I dare say those long closed lines will revert to type.  With luck they may carry a one or two-car “train” every couple of hours - supporting industry no-end - pity about the vast subsidy – extracted ultimately taken from industry.

A far cheaper option would be to convert these abandoned routes to roads managed to avoid congestion.  Express coaches would then carry passengers at a fraction the cost of rail and the spare capacity would be available to countless lorries and other vehicles, bringing great benefits to the unsuitable rural roads and city streets which they now clog.



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