In Praise Of Beeching’s Axe

From our correspondent on the M4:

Trains are an extremely safe way to travel. Safe, environmentally friendly and, in many ways, more civilised, yet our system is still geared towards the car and rewards its use, and has been at least since the 1960s when the then Conservative government commissioned huge cuts to the rail network — the infamous Beeching Axe.

The “Axe” was seen as inevitable and forward-thinking, yet half a century later the tide of expert opinion may be shifting, and with it the serious possibility of undoing some of the cuts. It is an idea with serious merit, and growing in popularity as the problems of a car-dependent society become clearer. Only recently, former transport secretary Lord Adonis, a man who probably knows more about trains that anyone else in Britain, laid out how part of the Beeching Axe could be reversed, with a special focus on the revitalisation of regional economies.

Beeching is one of the most universally hated figures in British politics, yet I have no doubt that he was that rare creature, someone working for the state who actually got things about right.

What Dr Richard Beeching mostly did was a cold, analytical report into the railways and recommended cutting large chunks of it that no-one was using. This was done because the railways were losing a fortune every year. And he mostly got it right. He assumed that we would replace trains with buses, which isn’t a bad idea at all.

It’s not just about the deaths, injuries and illnesses that result from car accidents, pollution and sedentary lifestyles; cars also distort urban environments and make cities and towns worse places to live, damging communities and the economy. As car numbers have increased and population density risen, the external costs of car use have increased each year.

I’m not sure anyone really likes driving. I don’t mean driving as it appears in adverts for flashy 4x4s, where a square-jawed male model speeds effortlessly through the Highlands on deserted roads in the light of a perfect sunset. I mean actually existing driving, the kind that we motorists spend most of our car miles doing; pottering along urban clearways to get to Tesco or pick up the children; stop-start progress on ring roads and one-way systems to get to work; cursing silently as we see a huge sea of brake lights ahead of us on a congested motorway.

One of the reasons I think Beeching ended up more right than he thought was the arrival of the car. Yes, cars can be environmentally damaging, cause deaths and so forth. Personally, I lean towards the bus or train as a preference. But you can’t ignore the upsides of cars.

The biggest problems with trains are connection time, flexibility and that there’s no market in there. Rail is quite poor at doing their one job: getting a train from A to B. You’d think after 150 years, they’d have it going pretty good, but crew not turning up, signal failures, electrical failures, doors not closing properly. industrial action are not that rare. The problems are certainly more common than if you drive a Toyota Corolla on the motorway to work. Your driver will turn up (because it’s you), the doors will close, the car will run pretty much perfectly. You also have no connection time in that Corolla. You turn off one road straight onto another. You can also go when you please. Middle of the night, middle of the day.

Since 1900, a staggering 400,000 people in Britain have been killed by motor vehicles, while total fatalities on the railways since their introduction in 1830 are are less than one per cent of that number. Even if you look at deaths per passenger mile rather than raw numbers, trains do far better than road vehicles, especially cars.

Yes, but death isn’t everything. There’s also life. If I take my kids to Bournemouth University by car, it takes 1hr 55 minutes. By train, it takes 2hr 55 minutes. So, that’s 6 hours of our lives lost if we take the train. It also costs at least £100 more. That’s £100 that has to be earned, which means me losing some of my life to work to pay for it. If you look at train delays, 613,200 people being delayed by an hour is the equivalent of 70 years, the 3 score years and 10 of a human life. Yes, a car is more dangerous than a train, but we accept the risk for the benefit. We might be one of the unfortunate 1800 per year, but we like those odds.

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SadButMadLad
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SadButMadLad

Your Toyota Corolla might be reliable now, but who can think back to classic British Leyland cars and how nearly all drivers could repair a fan belt on the side of the road.

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

yes, but if you owned a BL car, you had to.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Pretty much any car back in the 60s. It’s hard to explain to today’s young ‘uns how unreliable cars were back then. Setting out on a journey of any length and your first thought was probably “will we make it?” AA/RAC membership was not an optional extra 🙂

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

I remember my parents always carrying a blanket in the 1970s.

Hector Drummond
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At least three-quarters of my journeys could not possibly be done by train. Drive to visit friends in a rural village. Take son to cricket match. And so on. Like it or not, cars are the country’s lifeblood.

Rhoda Klapp
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Rhoda Klapp

The original article is a case of knowing the answer before you ask the question. If you like trains and don’t like driving, that is the answer you will come to. But in fact it is a false dichotomy. The writer never defined the problem or explored the range of possibilities. Just another deluded supporter of nineteeenth century technology.

Nautical Nick
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Nautical Nick

Quote: the kind that we motorists spend most of our car miles doing; pottering along urban clearways to get to Tesco or pick up the children…/endquote

which is why the train doesn’t help much for most journeys.

dearieme
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dearieme

“since the 1960s when the then Conservative government commissioned huge cuts to the rail network — the infamous Beeching Axe”: that’s a statement of doubtful accuracy. The Conservatives commissioned Beeching to look into the problem and make recommendations. Most of the cuts were effected by Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

KJP
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KJP

Not read the original article yet but would make these comments anyway. “And he mostly got it right. He assumed that we would replace trains with buses, which isn’t a bad idea at all.” BR was haemorrhaging money at the time: In terms of the amount of money per passenger it was probably worst on the lines he suggested axing. Remember that the government did not have to act on the report and I believe that the following Labour government axed even more lines. He could have suggested mothballing rather than their elimination but that would have cost money and… Read more »

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

That’s precisely the problem with trains. The extra hour on the journey to Bournemouth University includes 43 minutes of waiting for connections.

It means that rail very much suits city commuting. Lots of people going to a single point. And not a lot else.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Trains: taking you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to be for 175 years.

Jim
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Jim

Beeching did get one thing wrong – he assumed that the freight and passengers that were using the lines he planned to close would still appear on the routes he planned to keep open, and thus the whole system would be profitable. Whereas of course the people who lost their line started using cars buses and lorries instead for their travel needs and that business was lost to the rail network entirely, thus removing the profitability of the remainder of the rail network. The other stupid thing was the usual statist refusal to let the private sector take over any… Read more »

Bernie G.
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Bernie G.

“Such is the inherent safety of rail travel that Boris Johnson’s three most recent predecessors as prime minister all served their entire time in office without a single passenger being killed.”

I assume we’re excluding those unfortunate individuals that were stabbed or beaten to death by fellow passengers.

Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

Or shoved off the platform to their deaths.