From Beeching to Corbyn – rail’s accessibility problem

Posted: August 23, 2016 in Politics, Rail, Transport

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Amidst the media circus today about whether or not Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition and rail enthusiast, deliberately sat on the floor of a train to fake overcrowding for a PR stunt (which of course the man himself has denied, with no evidence to disprove his explanation), one particular hot take leapt out at me.

“He should have reserved a seat.”

As a regular rail traveller and train buff, there’s nothing that screams middle class entitlement and privilege more to me than telling people they should book in advance to travel by train. The implication of this is clearly exclusionary – it reaffirms the inaccessibility of the train in society, rather than supporting any changes to make it more accessible, something Corbyn is a prominent supporter of. But then this is just the outcome of decades of shifting thinking about what rail travel should be, a shift that was managed for political purposes.

Now of course the idea of separating rich and poor on trains has gone on since the early years, hence the class system, which somehow still survives in the division between standard and first class. But, as with so many other negative aspects of modern railways, the idea of restricting rail travel can be blamed on Dr Richard Beeching and his Reshaping of British Railways report in 1963.

Beeching is chiefly remembered for the axing of rural railway lines and stations, which left thousands of people without access to public transport while ultimately saving very little money in the medium and long term. I’ve written about this in the past and will undoubtedly do so again in the future. But there were other aspects to the report which don’t get covered very often, some good and some bad – the rebranding of British Railways into British Rail with a new logo and standardised branding was a necessary step, and the Freightliner system has proven to be quite effective at safeguarding some rail freight.

But there was one other key decision which nearly always gets overlooked and yet has shaped the last 50-odd years of rail travel – Beeching asserted that BR had to raise ticket prices. He explained his reasoning in the video that accompanied the release of his Reshaping report. The context for this (which is important) was the issue of urban and suburban commuter services – Beeching kept these mostly safeguarded from closure, despite the losses they made. He said

‘I’m sure you will all be relieved to hear, whether you’re commuters, motorists or even traffic duty policeman, that we don’t intend to close down suburban lines, even though we lose money on quite a lot of them. This is traffic that we handle better than anywhere else in the world, and we like doing it so long as the price is right. But you mustn’t be surprised if we try to get the price a little “righter” than it is at the moment in the future. And this is important too from the passenger’s point of view, because if the fares are too low, the overcrowding will go on getting worse, and not enough money will come in to enable us to improve the services and increase their capacity. So it matters to you if the fares are too low.”

Now there are instances in this video where Beeching would today be considered centre-left (for instance, he acknowledges the need of the railway to be retained because of its social value) but even by today’s standards, the section on raising fares is astonishing. He is trying to convince the audience that them paying more for their rail services is a good thing in order to persuade many people not to travel by train.

The obvious, transparent implication of this is that he’s trying to dissuade the less well-off from travelling by train. This fits in with the wider ideology of the cuts and where he was positioning the railways within the overall transport infrastructure – it was a conscious, deliberate move to make railways less accessible. Look at the lines that were cut and you can see which areas (and the sort of people) they disproportionately hit.

This idea has become the dominant one about what purpose railways serve – a cheaper alternative to air for long-haul; more expensive and comfortable than buses for short-haul; fast commuter services within the big cities; and faster than the car for inter-city trips. The thing that connects all of these aspirations is that it’s clearly positioned as for middle class people. Beeching wanted to get rid of the working class people so that BR could make more money from rich folk who could afford higher fares on a regular basis, providing them with a journey akin to first class without disturbance from the rabble.

So it was not just people in rural areas who were being hammered by Beeching. Virtually an entire generation of people were denied the opportunity to rail travel in one form or another. Even if you believe Beeching himself was not ideologically committed to screwing over the everyone other than the urban and suburban middle classes – for one, he was an optimist who vastly overestimated in his report how quickly people would take to the motor car – his plan was clearly exclusive and fits the typical pattern of austerity politics. The concentration on inter-city services and commuter services in the south-east left millions without adequate public transport. Even the ‘provincial’ services that survived the Beeching axe were left in the lurch until they were finally sorted out under Regional Railways in the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s no wonder so many turned to the car – the cuts clearly accelerated the increase of the number of cars on the road. This should never have happened. Today we live in a time where having a car is considered the default position, but watching episodes of the 1980s Channel 4 documentary series Losing Track reminds us that it didn’t always have to be this way. The car is always a choice. The government chooses to put more money into roads, justifying it with economic arguments while our atmosphere declines, thousands are killed each year in accidents, and people living next to main roads suffer the consequences of pollution and heavy lorries. The road lobby remains so powerful that we forget it even exists or that there’s even a need for it.

People of my generation have only ever known this. We just assume everyone has a car. But we have had over 50 years of those who don’t have access to cars being totally neglected in transport policy, a steady process of rail and bus cuts. London may have a great public transport infrastructure but there are few cities anywhere near this, let alone rural areas and small towns. If you don’t have a car and you don’t live in London, it is extremely hard to get around the country – and you should never feel obliged to learn to drive.

And of course it is expensive too. I’m lucky because I have a railcard for another year, but after that the cost of travelling will go up by 50% and it’ll become unaffordable. The rail ticket price increases started by Beeching, like the cuts he oversaw, hit the less well-off and vulnerable a lot more than those rich enough to afford the prices.

But even then, the ploy didn’t work. Not only did British Rail go on losing vast amounts of money after Beeching’s plan was initiated, but overcrowding remains a huge issue, even with people paying so much more. Today we have a railway system which is not only exclusive but still not a particularly pleasant service for the millions of people who use it every day at peak times – and yes, it’s difficult sometimes even to get a seat without reserving one well in advance.

Meanwhile, our government feigns interest in environmental concerns and builds more roads while public transport remains an afterthought. The former track beds and station sites which were sold off well below their actual market value after closure are now buried under housing estates and supermarkets with little prospect of reversing some of the most damaging cuts.

We have come to view of the railway as a luxury, not meant for certain sections of society, who are meant to travel by bus, car, bike, or maybe not even travel at all. Many of those who relied on it in the past have been priced out or had it taken away from them in the name of profitability. But what are the government doing about it? We will get new trains soon, but mostly concentrated on inter-city lines. Even when the South Wales Valley Lines get electrified (which currently seems to be on hold), it seems likely that they will receive cascaded electric trains that are older than the current diesel trains.

As Corbyn has said, we should have a railway for the people – all of them. It should not be more difficult or more expensive to travel en masse in a train than to travel individually in a car. Efficient, modern public transport, and in particular a modern railway, should be universal, no matter how much it costs and how many people are using it. That Corbyn has been attacked today by the part-owner of two of Britain’s most prominent train operating companies is no coincidence. After 50 years, it’s going to be a long climb to be able to challenge the narrative of exclusion.

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  1. […] From Beeching to Corbyn – rail’s accessibility problem […]

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