Railway Closures

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15.5.02 fax The Times (not published)

The CBI suggestion that "3,000 miles of branch lines should be closed" [May 13], diverting their share of subsidies to main lines, reveals that they are completely out of touch with the background of rail subsidies. Audited BR Accounts show that NetworkSouthEast received no subsidy before privatisation, whilst Inter City received none from 1988. Rural passengers & provincial commuters were the beneficiaries. Had the 3000 miles of branch lines not existed, BR would have been given no Govt subsidy. In the last year under BR, Govt arbitrarily - & without precedent - changed the existing basis, doubling the subsidy. Main line routes should not have been given any subsidy! Under the new regime, savage cuts have been made on some routes, others replaced long term by buses, whilst they continued to receive a subsidy based on the original contract. Some train operators have received substantial additional subsidies above agreed levels to avoid bankruptcy. The theory that they wd begin with larger subsidies than BR but over 7-15 yrs require less has been cruelly exposed as fiscal naiveté, even apart from the fact that any fool knew that £1 now would be worth more than one in 15 yrs time. (See The Railway Closure Controversy).


11.8.08 e-mail Daily Telegraph (not published)

Your obituary on Sir David Serpell does not mention BR’s criticism: “There were two Reports - which are in some ways contrary - & this means there is a danger of increasing confusion. The results of the one indicated that a combination of certain network options with increased investment could prove beneficial. BRB regrets the Committee did not have time to pursue this line of enquiry. The results - of mathematical modelling - seem inher­ently implausible in many instances”. The Committee said: “There are no significant arrears of track renewal”, but BR had reported a six month backlog. “They criticised BR Plans for being over optimistic, yet they count £220m, of largely unsubstantiated savings, in their own calculations. They outlined three options without estimating costs or benefits. They chose, without reason, to double financial savings which BR believe would result from reduced maintenance. They made no estimates of revenue effects when recommending reductions in service quality. The mathematical model on which the options are based is, in the Board’s view, inadequate to form a basis for policy decisions. The Committee were too unsure of it themselves to discuss it with BR”. He forecast that Inter City would never pay. It did. This information was circulated in a Management Brief, dated January 1983. This may have contributed to the dumping of his proposals. Serpell & Beeching were members of the 1961 Stedeford Committee appointed by Marples to look into Railway finance & organisation. Their findings were kept secret for 30 years. Instead of supporting the Whitehall view that Railway problems lay with incompetent management, they criticised Government policy on organisation, & interference with fares & management plans for closure of uneconomic lines that were consistently delayed by Government appointed Committees & Ministers for up to three years, leaving BR to carry the losses. Beeching said: “Railways should be run mainly by pro­fessional Railwaymen”. There were only two among the 15 members of the British Transport Commission.


14.10.08: e-mail Daily Telegraph (published)

Beeching had no power to close Railway lines, (Letters 14 October). He merely catalogued seriously loss making lines that could not be made profitable even with unlimited investment. The decision to close was vested in the Minister. To suggest that they should have been kept open to meet unpredictable future use ignores what was to be used instead of money to keep them open. The Government began to subsidise loss making lines for the first time in 1969, six years after the Beeching Plan. Prior to that, Government only provided loans for such losses. Local Authorities offered no help. From nationalisation to 1963, rail fares had trailed inflation by up to 47 points & passengers thought they were paying too much! Rail fares were the only commodity consistently below inflation – having been kept there by a court of law set up with that objective in mind. By 1963, this enforced policy had cost £8bn.  By no stretch of imagination can the outcry be described as just. Objectors wanted such lines to remain open as a standby for bad weather & wars. Objectors stated that they would have to pay higher fares on replacement buses – which BR had to subsidise as well! Cost reduction on such lines was opposed by local authorities, who were more concerned with the effect on local employment.


21.10.08: e-mail Daily Telegraph (Not published)

David Wragg (Letters, 21 October) makes a common error in claiming that branch lines should have been credited with revenue for incoming passengers. That would double & triple count the same receipts on main lines & other branch lines. Using that basis there would have been no losses. If passengers were unable to go to one resort because a line closed, they would go elsewhere. Many were finding better alternatives abroad where en-suite facilities were common & menus better, even at Pensione level. A head-in-the-sand Hotels Association meeting, (County Press, 3 December 1966) told the AA to mind its own business when it criticised hoteliers for not providing lifts, en-suite rooms & other facilities. UK hotels were inflexible in arrival dates, unlike Europe where one could book from any day of the week. Attempts to prove that branch line finances could be improved by modernisation, claimed only that losses could be cut – not eliminated. No benefactor for the balance was named. One group’s plan for the Somerset & Dorset line involved fares & average train loads higher than those for BR as a whole, which included heavy commuter routes, & made no provision to service investment. My analysis of similar plans to avoid closures revealed more holes than in a colander.


25.4.10 Daily Telegraph (no reply)

Will you kindly forward this e-mail to Mr. Williams

Dear Mr. Williams

Dr. Beeching did not close any lines. This is a popular myth. He had no power to do so. He could only submit proposals for the Minister to decide - after ascertaining whether there would be hardship. There was no sense of urgency. Having failed to persuade the Minister to give BR freedom in the 1962 Act to act like a commercial business:

1. setting its own fares without having to get prior approval from the statutory Transport Tribunal after prolonged Public Hearings. He pointed out that fares were below pre-war levels!

2. being allowed to close uneconomic services without obtaining prior approval by the Minister after prolonged Public Hearings by statutory Transport Users Consultative Committees - to which objectors claimed that they needed a line in the next bad winter, or, if not then, certainly in the next war

3. to decide its own investment priorities instead of those dictated by the Treasury or Transport Dept, by implementing those which had political benefits. The Treasury, for instance, blocked track investment which would cut costs.  

Most of the Isle of Wight closures took place before Beeching, and he only included in his list residual closures  that had been delayed by the Consultative Committee hearings.

Local Authorities spent large lawyers fees to block fares increases (trailing inflation by 47 points) and closures & offered not a penny to keep a line open until thousands of miles had been closed by the Minister's personal Direction. Only after Beeching identified the large number of uneconomic lines did the Government wake up to the political implications and begin - in 1969, for the first time - to subsidise loss making lines. Hitherto, they offered only interest bearing loans. Local Authorities did not offer help until the 1980s - many decades after they had been subsidising buses on parallel routes. Critics who argue that recent re-openings financed by LAs & Government prove that lines should not have been closed do not explain what should have been used instead of money to keep them open. Lines "re-opened" by amateurs neatly avoided this problem by getting people to work for nothing - not an option in the real transport world. When John Major privatised railways, the subsidy was doubled in the first year &  hasn't looked back since. The new bosses say there will be no reversal of subsidies. That "hard-headed bunch of bus operators" did not rush in to take over the uneconomic branch & secondary lines to show how a profit could be made. That would have sorted the men from the boys. Instead they bid to take over the profitable un-subsidised InterCity & Southeast routes - and were given subsidies into the bargain! When they were finally conned to pitch for other lines, they rushed to cut staff & found to their surprise that staffing had been cut to the bone under BR & panicked to re-recruit at higher wages. Even the CEO of the GNER said that "BR was bloody efficient". Bus operators - & LAs - had a legal opportunity to take over closed lines from 1960 - but all knew a dead horse when they saw one. Please see my book - The Railway Closure Controversy - and my website : www.transportmyths.co.uk




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