March 2013: Planning, not Beeching

01 June 2013

Ernest Marples was an unsavoury character. His role as a government transport minister and his position as head of the Marples Ridgway road-building company contained blatant conflicts of interest; Lord Denning says he was a regular visitor of prostitutes; and he was revealed as a tax-dodger when he scooted off abroad to escape paying his dues. But even these crimes paled into insignificance when, as the Conservative minister of transport, he appointed Richard Beeching as chairman of British Railways with the mission of destroying the UK’s rail network.


Richard duly came up with the report his master required: the harmless-sounding ‘Reshaping of British Railways’. This title proved to be a breathtaking distortion of the English language. By ‘reshaping’ he actually meant vandalising, destroying and obliterating. It’s like saying that the Allies ‘reshaped’ Cologne towards the end of the Second World War.

The Beeching Axe was the worse example of the malaise of short-term thinking that has beleaguered our industry throughout its history,and which continues today in franchising. Now 15-year franchises are being touted as solving the problem. It is ludicrous.Railway planning has to be considered for generations, not a decade and a half.The only thing that can be done in a hurry is destruction – which is so often regretted later. We would be a cleaner more efficient and socially accessible country if branch lines had not been turned into scrap. the real tragedy is that no one seems to have learned any lessons. Rail has a central part to play in any thriving green economy. But instead of planning now to hand on a national integrated rail network to a future generation, we concentrate on linking a handful of main cities on a north-south axis, while whole regions are ignored.

We welcome HS2, but it should be a start. It should be the back bone of a network that reaches out to provide reliable rail to the whole country. Beeching, Marples and the other vandals made this difficult. But with good will and careful planning, it can still be made a reality.

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