Railways: service or business?

Posted: November 4, 2016 in Rail, Transport

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Llanfyllin station in North Wales (image used in the spirit of fair use)

When do railways stop being a service and become a business? When do railways stop being a business and become a service?

Dr Richard Beeching thought he had the answer. As chairman of the British Railways Board, he helped set out the criteria for what we understand as the modern railway, after which the idea of railways being solely operated as a service regardless of cost finally died – although it had already been dying in the decade leading up to it. Railways were expected to cover their losses, and could only be retained if “hardship” would result from the closure, a vaguely defined term which was easily exploited in times where pruning the network was accepted wisdom in Whitehall.

Barbara Castle, as Minister for Transport after Beeching initiated his closure programme, helped shore up some vulnerable lines by creating terms for what was known as “the social railway”, where lines could be retained and subsidised if they met criteria for providing a vital service for those communities. This helped the survival of rural lines in Scotland, Mid Wales and Cornwall where roads were poor.

But while Castle is acknowledged as the saviour of many lines, the Labour government of the 1960s did break an election promise in 1964 to halt the Conservative-initiate cuts programme altogether; Castle, the minister between 1965 and 1968, still oversaw many destructive closures. It is often pointed out that many of the lines which were marked for closure by Beeching but were saved in the years after ran through marginal constituencies.

50 years on and we are in austerity times again.  It is now the default position that the vast majority of railway lines are expected to cover their losses and justify their existence, rather than a radical statement as it essentially was for Beeching. Luckily, with vastly increased passenger numbers, it is only a handful of lines in Britain that are bailed out significantly. Of course, road maintenance and construction is not analysed in such a crude way – you don’t see anyone saying rural roads should be closed or left to run down because hardly any cars use them – but that’s a tangent for another article.

Beeching has long been cast as the villain, but he and Transport Minister Ernest Marples have, in the long run, been victorious. Half a century on, it’s obvious to see that they won the ideological battle – closures are out of the picture, but so are most reopenings, because they will always be expected to make a significant profit, and the privatisation of the railways and the gearing of them to being profit-making businesses is a logical extension of Beechingist thought.

The principle of providing a service to people who may need public transport is largely gone. It is at least accepted that the railway links that are there now should not be closed. But people who live in rural areas that lost railways which once provided an important link to towns, cities and main lines will never get them back, because it’s not considered cost-effective.

The only time a reopening project through a sparsely-populated area has had any traction has been the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth campaign, which seems to be being taken along as a political and nationalist project rather than because it is what would normally be considered realistic. Even at this stage where Welsh government studies are going to be undertaken, it still seems unlikely that when it comes to making a decision, someone’s going to volunteer to foot the bill for a £1 billion railway line linking two medium-sized towns and not much else.

But just for a moment, it’s interesting to ponder the possibility that ideas of the social railway had taken hold a little earlier. Here’s the official paper map of the railway network in 1961 – two years prior to Beeching’s Reshaping of British Railways report, but in the midst of considerable cuts which had been escalating since the mid-1950s. It lacks detail in urban areas like London, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and South Wales, but it is a great general overview. A close-up map of the London Midland region (stretching from London to Carlisle, roughly following the West Coast Main Line) from the same time is available here.

It’s easy to spot where the vast swathes of cuts were to come, picking out the lines that are no longer there. Anyone with an interest in railways and rail history can probably work out why they went. But an alien with only a broad grasp of British towns and cities would question it.

There are two main aspects to this. One is the total loss of railway lines in rural areas. Despite heavy closures already at this point, there’s still very little clear space where lines are missing. People in the majority of rural towns in regions like West Wales, Central Scotland and East Anglia (in spite of the destruction of most of the former Midland and Great Northern network in 1959) would still be within a reasonable distance of a railway station.

The other is that so many thick lines and highlighted places on this map would disappear, or at least be downgraded. Here’s a follow-up map in 1969 after Beeching’s axe had slices off many branches. The white space becomes obvious – and more lines were to go after this. But it’s notable how many of the cross-country lines designated as major routes disappear – Carmarthen-Aberystwyth, Ruabon-Barmouth, Harrogate-Northallerton, Darlington-Penrith, Taunton-Barnstaple, Okehampton-Bude/Padstow, Aberdeen-Ballater, and the line through Coupar Angus and Forfar. A lot of these were never main lines in the traditional sense, but clearly they were considered significant links.

The success of Beeching was in convincing people that lines like this weren’t important. It was based on a very simplistic model of what constitutes “importance” – i.e. that the important lines are the ones that make money. This can be seen developing through the 1970s to the point where British Rail was eventually divided into three sectors – InterCity, Network South East, and Other Provincial Services (later given the better title of Regional Railways). It’s clear to see where their priorities lay – fast services between towns and cities, and commuter services around London. Everything else was almost an inconvenience.

Those running BR and its sectors did great work in the 1980s turning all three sectors in successes ahead of privatisation but the divisions betray the fact that at the heart of it was a very middle class conception of what an “important” rail service was. This was something Beeching had essentially already started, with the Reshaping report talking about how rail was to fit a niche between that of the car and air travel, totally misrepresenting and misunderstanding what rail links meant to rural and less well-off areas. Working class people were largely excluded from the network by the cuts and deliberate price rises, which Beeching called for in his report. They never admitted it, of course, but it seems a conscious decision to aim railways exclusively at the middle class market.

I often wonder if there’s an alternative universe timeline where some thought was actually given to areas which were left isolated by the cuts. Were they always destined to lose out?

Take the example of the Llanfyllin Branch, just inside Wales. This former Cambrian Railways branch opened in 1863 to serve the village of Llanfyllin, which today has a population of around 1,500. The other major settlement of note on the line is Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, best known for being the former home of Welsh football champions TNS. The nearest town of note was Oswestry, a few miles to the north on the former Cambrian main line.

It’s surprising that this sort of line ever made the 1960s – the parallel route up the Tanat Valley to the village of Llangynog closed to passengers in 1951. But remarkably it lasted until January 1965, when the Gobowen-Oswestry-Welshpool route also closed. The only links today to the area are narrow, winding A- and B-roads.

And yet, I talk about this as if it is almost logical to close a line like this, given that it’s unlikely to have ever made much money, but I’m certain that this must have been a vital link for the people in the Llanfyllin area. The villages and hamlets in the mountains here, only a short distance from the eastern boundary of Snowdonia, were miles from the nearest towns. This was a lifeline for them – the state of the roads here means no replacement bus service could ever be practical. How could the British Transport Committee have decided that hardship would not result from closure of this line?

Of course, this line was never built for the sake of providing a service – the same goes for every other line in the country, as they were all built by entrepreneurs. But a century after opening, it was the sort of line that should have been kept open regardless of cost, because of the service it provided – this would have been a true social railway.

And there were many, many more like it that disappeared – some long and winding like Carmarthen-Aberystwyth, others short like the Alston branch in Cumbria or the line to Kingsbridge in Devon. Others had significant tourist potential like the Dunblane-Crianlarich line through the Trossachs or the lines through the Brecon Beacons – routes like this were overlooked because governments did not want to subsidise leisure traffic as they didn’t believe it would ever last. This attitude even continued up until the 1980s with the threatened closure of the Settle-Carlisle line, which is now thriving.

That 1961 map is how the railway network could and should have been well beyond the 1960s. Even if you want to argue for the sacrifice of a few lines from the overall network after the war, this would be a good compromise state, perhaps with the addition of one or two others which had just closed in 1959-60.

The fact is Britain subsides its railways to the tune of €4.5 billion – by comparison, Germany subsidises its railways by more than 4 times this, with €17 billion of subsidies. “Affording” more or less of a network is a conscious choice – an ideological choice. If other major countries can find it within themselves to stump up the cash to support their rail networks, never let it be said that we couldn’t have.

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