Review: Dr Beeching’s Remedy

Posted: August 23, 2014 in Rail

I don’t mind reading something I don’t agree with, but it’s rare that I read a book which makes me as angry as Dr Beeching’s Remedy by David N. Clough. When I bought it, I thought I was picking up a relatively harmless account of British Rail modernisation. Even at halfway through, I still had hopes that I wasn’t reading what I thought I was. But everything up to the last sentence eventually confirmed it.

Perhaps what gave me hope is that the book is full of many black-and-white pictures of lost railways of yesteryear. When I flicked through, it did at least give the impression it might be an account that was sympathetic to the railways – after all, Dr Beeching’s Remedy is a pretty neutral title. But when I read the text, there was a huge disparity between the images and what the book says. I suspect the decision to include them was not the author’s, which does at least give the book one redeeming feature, even if it doesn’t make sense.

The premise of the book (or at least the text) is fairly simple. It’s pretty clear from the introduction that Clough has written this book, in his view, to educate the ignorant masses who don’t appreciate the wonderful Dr Richard Beeching. He talks about how he might have called the book ‘Beeching: Saint or Sinner?’, and yet it’s quite obvious from the tone of the writing that he thinks Beeching is a saint, assumes that everyone else thinks he’s a sinner, and is now preaching from the top of the hill to try and convert everyone. If Beechingism is a real doctrine, Clough is one of its evangelists.

This tone of sneery, smarmy condescension runs right through the book. Clough clearly has a chip on his shoulder about criticism of Beeching, and this book, more than anything else, seems to serve as a way of tearing into anyone who disagrees with him rather than putting forward a particular point of view. The conclusions seem particularly unclear, as he admits that Beeching made mistakes and the forecasts were wrong and yet still continues to criticise anyone who criticises him.

It gives the distinct impression that Clough started with a conclusion and worked backwards from it, never wavering from it. If this piece of work is meant to be credible historical work, that is entirely the wrong approach to take. It’s inherently closed-minded and enormously susceptible to cognitive bias, which makes his constant claims of ‘I’ve looked at the evidence and you haven’t, therefore I’m right and you’re wrong’ look suspiciously thin.

Dr Richard Beeching with his report The Reshaping of British Railways

Particular ire is aimed at an assortment of straw men, be it ‘left-wing critics’, ‘unions’ and ‘railwaymen’, who he seems to see as an inferior species – except those railwaymen who agree with him. In fact, he might as well have just done away with these and just written them as ‘people whose opinions I don’t agree with’ or, more likely from his view, ‘people who are wrong.’ Not only does Clough put Beeching on a pedestal for being from business, but also states that the railways should never have been nationalised as this took away the need to make a profit that, in his opinion, led to British Railways’ massive losses of the 1950s.

Evidently it’s a highly political interpretation, namely the sort of small-state economic liberalism usually found on the Thatcherite right. There’s nothing wrong with approaching it from a particular politicised point of view, but the constant snipes at ‘left-wing critics’ is wrong – and I don’t mean in a moral sense. Dismissing any opposing opinion as ‘left-wing’ is, more than anything else, inaccurate and misguided. There are people on the right politically who think Beeching was wrong, including political historian D.R. Thorpe who criticised Harold Macmillan for his support of the cuts in his biography Supermac, and there are people on the left who think the cuts were necessary and supported them as part of modernisation.

To only criticise the left for criticising darling Beeching looks more like an excuse to criticise the left for something, and that probably alienates about half your readership. It leaves no voice for any opposing opinions in the text – yes, they are present, but they are drowned out by the self-righteousness in the way they are framed, in a ‘well, here’s the opposing view but it’s obviously wrong so we don’t need to trouble ourselves with that’ sense.

Perhaps the most amusing thing is that the elitist tone of the text seems to mimic the elitist tone of Beeching himself. Like Beeching, he ignores the social and cultural contexts and legacies of closures. Like Beeching, he refuses to consider an alternative. Like Beeching, he is convinced he is right and that those who disagree with him just haven’t looked at the ‘facts’. At times it reads like a pathetic love letter – if you don’t like Beeching, you just don’t know him.

Without a hint of irony, he quotes Barbara Castle saying Beeching approached his policy ‘with an arrogance that comes, I suspect, from a clear mind that sees a logical answer to a situation and cannot tolerate any modification of it to meet human frailty.’ The quote could so easily be about this book too. To Beeching and Clough, there was/is an objective truth and it can be found in the numbers. The reality is quite different.

A former LMS Class 2 engine leaves Brecon with a small train bound for the Mid Wales line to Moat Lane Junction

So the idea is that Beeching was Railway Jesus, coming down from Business Heaven to liberate the railways from the neanderthal railwaymen who had held it back for so long. It is correct to say that Beeching did more than close railways – he instigated a successful rebrand of British Railways and helped make freight more efficient. It is also true that many closures had already happened from the mid-1950s on, long before Beeching was involved. Beeching was a figurehead of hatred, certainly one Macmillan and Ernest Marples appreciated, and perhaps his reputation is, to an extent, unfairly negative – he was just one man amongst many making these decisions.

But an important point not expanded upon in the book is that at that time the dominant discourse, particularly on the right, was that railways were in irreversible decline due to the growth of road and air transport, and that it was up to the likes of Beeching to manage that decline. Clough doesn’t discuss Beeching’s 1965 report, which advocated even more closures, beyond stating what the report said. He also barely mentions the Serpell Report of 1982, which recommended just a handful of trunk routes for survival.

I would assume that the vast majority of people living in Britain today would acknowledge that this discourse was entirely misguided for any number of reasons. It might have been difficult to forecast climate change back in 1963, but Beeching’s projections for the future of road transport were wildly optimistic, although to a point it became self-fulfilling. Beeching wanted to cut off the roots to save the trunk, but cutting off the roots just made the trunk shrink even more. The reduction in unprofitable freight trains just led to the profitable freight heading to road haulage too. As is often the case, austerity measures just caused the losses to mount up further.

But Beeching was coming from a school of thought that assumed individual liberty was key and the roads provided that. He never considered a possible future where people might actually want to travel en masse. His way of thinking was that the train was for getting people from point-to-point. He also never considered that people might actually want to travel on a train for the sake of it – lines with enormous tourist potential were wiped off the map, while the Fort William-Mallaig line, now regarded as one of the most scenic in the world, would have been lost but for a successful local campaign against Beeching’s proposed closure.

He barely considered routes to holiday destinations too – his analysis was far too narrow to take it into account. He viewed them in a similar way to commuter routes: there is a rush at certain times, but at other times there’s hardly anyone travelling, ergo it’s wasteful. Had he got his way, commuter routes into and out of cities would eventually have gone the same way as the lines to resorts like Bude, Padstow and Ilfracombe.

Bude station, with a SR Schools Class engine in the platform

At no point did Beeching ever try and find a way around this. He just looked at the figures and decided from that – it was black or white. Clough seems to be at a loss as to why people refer to Beeching as a ‘butcher’ – in his eyes, he can’t be because he didn’t just close railways and wanted to save as much as possible. But people refer to Beeching as a ‘butcher’ not because of the closures, but because of the way they were initiated – with minimal investigation and an almost sociopathic lack of compassion, empathy or acknowledgement of his own potential fallibility. And also bear in mind that the publication of the Reshaping of British Railways report came after considerable propaganda to soften the public up, creating a discourse that cuts were the only way to save Britain’s rail network.

But the biggest hole in the book is the lack of any serious analysis of the legacy of the the closure era more broadly. Clough talks about how some closures were inevitable as they were the result of lines that never should have been built and were never profitable, including, bizarrely, the Great Central Railway, a line widely acknowledged as an incredibly damaging closure because it was a modern railway used heavily by freight. But the book essentially stops as soon as Beeching leaves office.

This is odd considering that the majority of the book is taken up by issues not involving Beeching anyway, namely the 50 years leading up to his arrival. If you are going to put the Reshaping report ‘in the historical context of a century of railway evolution’, as the back cover says, surely that has to include the context of what happened after as well as what happened before.

It seems to be a cowardly way of avoiding admitting that many Beeching closures were totally unnecessary and ultimately counter-productive. Clough briefly touches on mistakes in his calculations, but largely ignores them because they don’t fit his narrative, instead blaming the implementation (by railwaymen, of course!) of the various reports. The rapid sale of railway land after closures, an enormous mistake which has prevented many re-openings, is left to one single line stating that it wasn’t Beeching’s fault because it wasn’t his decision.

This just adds to this general tone that Beeching was right and that if his ideas failed it was because of everyone else’s failings, particularly railwaymen, rather than the ideas themselves being flawed. Clough even states that Beeching couldn’t be at fault for the closures because he just ‘proposed’ (yes, he wrote it with italics) them and that the Ministry of Transport actually initiated them, so if things went wrong it was their fault.

Everything is an excuse. Beeching gets all the praise for the things he did ‘right’, but if something went wrong, it’s not his fault. If Beeching’s projections of a return to profitability were wrong, it’s because of ‘changing circumstances’ that ‘no one could have predicted’, or that he wasn’t allowed enough time to investigate fully. And of course the old excuse of ‘he was only following his remit’ pops up too, as if Beeching didn’t fully agree with the idea of reducing the number of lines himself but just did it to a dogmatic degree anyway because he was asked to.

An engine crosses Crumlin Viaduct, the highest in Britain

If this genuinely was a fair, balanced assessment of Beeching’s decisions, it is surely obvious that this would have to include analysis of his legacy. The only statement touching on this is that other countries in Western Europe ‘followed his approach’, therefore he must have been right – yes, it really is that vague, and at no point does he try to explain it or back this up with evidence or analysis. He just makes this grand, sweeping statement in one line and it’s meant to justify everything Beeching did.

Considering the amount of evidence and analysis provided in the bulk of the book to justify the decisions Beeching took, the lack of analysis of what has happened since is conspicuous by its absence. So is the lack of acknowledgement of the many successful line re-openings. Again, it’s obvious why this is the case. Beeching believed the lines he was closing to be irredeemable – he could see no future where these could be profitable. That numerous stations and lines have returned successfully, often beyond expectations, doesn’t fit the narrative because it proves that they had the potential to be successful all along.

Ultimately, this is the main flaw with the Beeching era – not just the man himself, but the entire mentality surrounding him, going back to the mid-1950s when the closures began to pick up pace. The government and those overseeing the closures convinced themselves that the solution to restoring profitability was mass route closures and modernisation. When they didn’t work immediately, they were accelerated. When there was a route they wanted closed, they cut back services, track, staff and maintenance until no one wanted to use it, so that they could close it with a justifiable reason and less opposition. They worked backwards from a conclusion – cognitive bias.

Yes, there were experiments done to try and save some of the lines, like replacing steam engines with diesel trains to lower operating costs, but there was never a great push to genuinely try and make them work. It almost feels like they were playing to the gallery – making it look as if they were trying before lowering the axe.

At the same time, lines like the Great Central and the Exeter-Okehampton-Plymouth line were killed by a thousand cuts. Duplication was considered the great evil, and there was a logic behind it – the legacy of the Railway Mania of the nineteenth century, particularly after nationalisation, was numerous lines serving the same towns and cities, when often they would be better served by one hub and one line. This was particularly noticeable in the South Wales Valleys, where individual valleys would often be served by two lines, at least one of which eventually succumbing to a perfectly understandable closure.

However, Beeching and his successors took this logic to its extreme – even as late as the 1980s, the Settle-Carlisle line was run into the ground and nearly closed because it was considered a duplication of the West Coast Main Line, despite its obvious potential as a diversionary route (amongst other things). Duplication was always considered negatively, with Beeching insisting that the rail user shouldn’t be left with a choice as that was wasteful, but the benefits of having an alternative are clear, not to mention the fact that these ‘duplicate’ routes usually served different places anyway: the closure of the ‘duplicate’ Exeter-Okehampton-Plymouth line cost the towns of Okehampton, Lydford and Tavistock their rail links.

The abandoned former LSWR/SR station at Tavistock

The success of re-opened lines in more recent times suggests that Keynesian investment in the railways was the superior option over austerity measures. To me, this is something that resonates far beyond railway history, and is enormously relevant 50 years on. The re-evaluation of Beeching in recent years, making him into a hero of austerity, shouldn’t be surprising. However, it still demands greater scrutiny.

Beeching was locked into his ideas: duplication was bad, losses were bad, profit was good, and if a line wasn’t making a profit, it had to go, with no thought for social context. The general approach was always ‘can we afford our railways?’ rather than ‘how can we afford our railways?’ The mode of thinking was entirely wrong from the start – the government considered something that was primarily a service to be a business, they panicked when it saw the losses mounted up and reacted by rushing through a haphazard modernisation and closure programme which ended up causing more problems than solving.

The stark fact, above all of those Clough points out, is that the closure programme saved very little money in the short-term (despite it being geared towards that) because it damaged the rest of the network, as well as the morale of BR staff and the willingness for the public to use it. In the medium- and long-term, the damage was considerable, not only to Britain’s railways but the communities that were left isolated. This was clear as early as 1984, just 20 years after the closure programme was beginning, as this documentary demonstrates.

The bulk of the network could have survived if those overseeing it had approached modernisation constructively instead of destructively. Had they protected more of it, we could have had the greatest public transport network in the world. Instead, we’re left with a patchy network that serves only commuters and businessmen particularly well, and barely touches rural areas. Where once we had an egalitarian network that served nearly all parts of the country, now we have one which only really serves the middle classes.

This of course makes it easy to understand why someone like Clough would have no issues with what Beeching did – it’s easy for him to argue Beeching was right because he is clearly from somewhere not affected by the cuts in the same way as someone from places like Bude, Lampeter, Barnard Castle or Hawick. Not only is insensitive, but it’s also denying the disenfranchised a voice. He allows no space for someone from one of those places left isolated from the rail network an opportunity to provide their case. Like Beeching, Clough is essentially saying that people from rural backwaters don’t have a say.

This elitism has one final flourish in the last sentences of the book which sum up the book perfectly, as all closing lines should. He writes ‘It is now for the reader to decide whether Dr Beeching was a saint or a sinner and whether his remedy for the railways was efficacious. Just bear in mind that virtually all his critics have commented from the armchair or the academic chair and probably couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag, let alone manage a nationalised railway.’ So basically, ‘you’re allowed to decide what you think about Beeching, as long as you agree with me, because I know best.’

Well, I’ve read the book – I thought Beeching was a sinner at the start, and I still do now after reading it, because a badly-written, narrow-minded, condescending book like this has only made me more resolute that Beeching made more catastrophic errors than great decisions.

Glasgow St Enoch station, one of the largest to close

Images used in the spirit of fair use


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