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Flexible Transport Planning - Lessons from the Beeching Cuts

Flexible Transport Planning - Lessons from the Beeching Cuts

You probably do not need to be a transport planner to be aware of Dr Beeching. Almost 60 years ago, he published a report that spelt the end for over 2,300 stations, 5,000 miles of track and ultimately closed numerous branch lines up and down the country.

Beeching was a recruited by the government from a very successful business career at ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) with the task of making the railways profitable again. By the early 1960s the industry was haemorrhaging millions of pounds a year.

His solution was simple and reductive - close the bits that lost money and give more support to the bits that made profit. His report argued that improved bus services could replace the poorly used branch lines. Few other factors were considered beyond the bottom line.

Back then, most people assumed that cars, lorries, and buses were the future. And they were right, but what no-one foresaw was the role railways would play in the modern world. Prior to Covid at least, record numbers were taking the train.

Today, transport and connectivity in the UK looks very different from the one envisaged by Dr Beeching. His legacy – dug-up lines, sold-off track beds and demolished bridges – has only hindered plans to revitalise the public transport network in many areas across the county, revealing the dangers of having a single, inflexible vision when planning infrastructure.

The main opposition to Beeching’s proposals at the time focused on the social impact of the cuts. Opponents argued that Beeching had paid little attention to the social importance of the railways. Many argued that the closure of many lines in rural Britain would isolate communities. Buses did somewhat make up the deficit for a while, but the deregulation of bus services in the 1980s proved a death knell for rural public transport. Commercial operators ultimately jockeyed to serve only the larger, more profitable routes – many of them doubling up with rail – leaving smaller settlements no real option beyond the car as meandering community services were cut. The social impact that poor access to transport can have is still reflected in some communities today.

Examples of the headaches imposed by Beeching's legacy include the Varsity line that used to link Oxford and Cambridge and which the government now wants to reopen as East-West Rail, connecting fast-growing Milton Keynes with Oxbridge's research centres. The first stage of the reopening, connecting Oxford and Bicester, was completed in late 2016, while the third phase – which will reconnect Bedford and Cambridge – is currently in development and due to be delivered by 2022. Reconnecting on to Cambridge has proved particularly difficult and the various alignment options have recently been the subject of a new consultation, with each option not without its challenges.  With the East West Rail project coming forward at an expected cost of about £5bn, it will be one of the UK's biggest transport infrastructure schemes. Given that Beeching’s cuts reportedly only saved £30 million (around £476 million in today’s money), that is a large outlay to regain what we already had.

Earlier this year, the Government announced £34 million to rapidly progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Ashington, which also closed to passengers as part of the Beeching cuts.

The Transport Secretary has also recently called on local authorities, MPs and community groups to submit bids for a share of the third and final round of the Department for Transport’s Ideas Fund, designed to encourage proposals to reopen railway lines, services and stations as part of the Governments  commitments to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic and level up transport infrastructure across the country by investing in rail connections. Intended to boost economic growth, unlock new housing, and create new employment areas; it is clear however, that the investment and reopening of branch lines can only go so far and that the significant costs associated with such projects means that they cannot be rolled out across the UK to reconnect communities.

With the potential for changing transport behaviours again being high on the agenda as a result of the pandemic, the crucial lesson to take from Beeching is that you have to be flexible when planning transport infrastructure for the long term, particularly with the often-vast implementation costs, complex land assembly and changing politics involved in developing new networks and infrastructure.

Curious to see how Britain’s railways have changed over time? Check out this interactive map by RailMapOnline:


By Damian Tungatt




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1963 vs 1984