Beeching, like Canute, could not stem the tide

YOU are absolutely correct to point out the value of post offices to the rural communities of Huntingdonshire and the environmental importance of local shopping, but you part company with reality in bracketing those things in your comment column of June 2

YOU are absolutely correct to point out the value of post offices to the rural communities of Huntingdonshire and the environmental importance of local shopping, but you part company with reality in bracketing those things in your comment column of June 25 with what happened to the railways in the 1960s. Anyone who remembers the 1960s and has a modest knowledge of the economics of transport knows that there is no real comparison.

The fact is that, had Dr Beeching not set about closing those uneconomic branch lines that were not effectively feeding the main line railway, we would have lost the entire network in the 1970s, and the roads would be an even worse nightmare than they now are.

A brief look at the history of the age is instructive. This was the time when Harold MacMillan, then Prime Minister, was telling people that they had "never had it so good", because they were starting to have access to motor cars and no longer needed to travel by slow train or charabanc.

At the same time, hauliers were finding that they could use bigger lorries and carry smaller perishable loads over shorter distances than the railways, without the diversions and delays caused by marshalling.


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What Beeching was doing was what King Knut did, to demonstrate that you could not stem the flow of the tide, however much you wished it otherwise.

British Rail under Dr Beeching's leadership was not just a time of cuts. It was a time of modernisation - the wholesale move from steam traction to diesel power. Rationalisation was an inevitable part of that process, and removing services that had been deserted by people with their newly-acquired cars and hauliers with their more flexible lorries was the price that had to be paid for retaining the core business of the railways - long distance passenger services, commuter trains and heavy-haul bulk freight.

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It is easy to look back 40 years and identify a few of the closed lines that would once again have become strategically useful as established communities have expanded and (then undreamed-of) new ones were created, including Northstowe. But who would have paid the huge cost of keeping them mothballed for four decades, if not the taxpayer?

Beeching's study underlined Pareto's Law: 20 per cent of the network generated 80 per cent of the traffic and revenue, though he actually retained far more than 20 per cent of the 1950s network. That was why BR in the 1980s and 1990s was able to open or re-open more than 200 stations, some of them on re-opened lines. Without the much-reviled Beeching, we would not have today's rail network, and we could not be thinking about investing billions in new high-speed lines. There would be nothing to connect them to and nobody would think of using them. Thank God for Beeching.

SEB TOMBS

Wertheim Way

Huntingdon

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