Railway Club Directory Monthly Blog
Something Different: A '1963' Critique of Beeching
Being 60 years since the publication of Dr. Richard Beeching’s ‘Re-shaping of British Railways Report’ in 1963, it was perhaps inevitable that at least one blog on this website this year would be dedicated to Beeching and the railway closures implemented in the 1960’s under the auspices of that report.
However, rather than judging Beeching 60 years after the event, perhaps it is fairer and more illuminating to consider the opponents of Beeching back in his own time, and to consider reports made by pressure groups and societies arguing against particular railway closures, examining their contemporary viewpoints and arguments.
An example where this is possible is the closure of the Somerset and Dorset Railway (S&D) which took place in March 1966. This is because the closure was opposed by the Branch Line Reinvigoration Society (‘BLRS’) and in October 1963 it issued a report relating to the proposed closure of the Somerset and Dorset Railway headed ‘A Financial Study of Certain Railway Passenger Services in Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire’. The BLRS Report dealt with a number of railways in the region, but this blog refers solely to the comments in it concerning the S&D.
The preface to the BLRS Report makes reference to the fact that proposals had been made by the British Railways Board for withdrawal of all passenger services between Bristol Temple Meads and Bournemouth West via Bath Green Park and also between Evercreech Junction and Highbridge.
The BLRS Report dealt solely with the economics of the S&D which requires some explanation. This was a consequence of the somewhat peculiar processes relating to the closure of railways at the time as contained in the Railways Act 1962, in particular the fact that the economic case for closure of a railway was reserved exclusively to British Railways and ultimately the Ministry of Transport. Any public enquiry relating to a closure was only to establish whether a given closure would result in hardship, a role to be undertaken by Transport Users’ Consultative Committees (‘TUCC’). Protesters were simply not allowed to protest on the actual grounds of a proposed closure, i.e., its perceived uneconomic performance.
The absurdity here is immediately apparent, as highlighted in the BLRS Report. In reality, closures were all about economics, so the key determining factor relating to a closure concerned economic performance. Yet no independent enquiry into the economics of a particular closure was permitted as part of the official closure process.
It got worse. British Railways were not obligated to furnish any information on the financial performance of a particular service proposed for closure, but how could they justify a closure without reference to economics? So in practice British Railways released very basic financial information, not in an effort to openly discuss economic performance, but as a means to ‘establish’ poor economic performance of a railway service, without having to explain the nature of the economic data nor entertain any discussion in respect of economics. In essence British Railways were able to have their cake and eat it by providing loss figures to justify a closure, without permitting any discussion to take place concerning those figures including the possibility of alternative arrangements which could affect economic performance. A political stitch up, by any other name.
The authors of the BLRS Report were not fooled by this approach. Economics was clearly key, and so British Railways economic data could not be, and would not be, simply accepted without comment, but had to be scrutinised, and scrutinised vigorously. This would prove difficult as British Railways withheld relevant financial information, but as mentioned above, some very basic financial information was usually provided to those who formally raised objections to a closure, and so became of public record.
This extraordinary situation was well put in the BLRS Report itself which stated as follows:
‘…we think it important that some attempt should be made to get at the real truth about the economics of these passenger services before it is too late. That the withdrawal will cause hardship we can well believe; this is considered by the Transport Users’ Consultative Committees. That the withdrawals are being pressed forward by British Railways without consideration of town and country planning requirements, local and national road congestion and future trends in population and industry is also true. A strong argument can be raised against rail closures on such grounds, but the basis on which closures are proposed is solely financial.’
The BLRS Report hit the nail on the head, and it was not side-tracked. It devoted itself entirely to the real, perhaps only, issue at hand, namely economic performance.
It is worth noting here the language used in the ‘Re-shaping of British Railways Report’, in particular the following:
‘It is proposed to close down routes which are so lightly loaded as to have no chance of paying their way, and to discontinue services which cannot be provided economically by rail.’
The Reshaping Report states that railways and services should be closed not because they do not pay their way, but because they have no chance of paying their way. These are two quite distinct things, necessitating an enquiry not just into economic performance as it currently exists, but economic performance as it could be.
As to the S&D economics, the BLRS Report quoted the key financial information that had been disclosed to the TUCC, which were as follows:
Revenue attributable to the line: £108,600p.a.
Direct costs: Movement: £327,100p.a.
Direct costs: Terminal (i.e., stations): £71,500p.a.
Also provided were ‘renewal expected to be required in the next 5 years’ as follows:
Permanent Way: £289,200
Buildings, bridges, etc: £28,180
The BLRS Report pointed out a series of issues with this data:
(i) Brief summarised figures give insufficient data to assess any failure and closure;
(ii) No indication is given as to the time period to which the data actually relates;
(iii) No indication as to how ‘revenue attributable to the line’ had been derived;
(iv) No indication as to whether ‘revenue attributable to the line’ relates just to passengers or includes other revenue (e.g., parcels and/or freight);
(v) The only other costs given were ‘movement’ and ‘terminal’ costs, with no explicit reference to track maintenance or signalling, other than in the context of renewals;
(vi) No details given as to the nature of the work comprising the renewal costs and 5-year breakdown (not reproduced above) which showed inconsistency.
The BLRS Report concluded that there was no purpose to the data given other than to claim that the railway loses £300,000 per year.
It is then pointed out that 5 critical questions relating to economic performance have not been considered:
1. Can train costs be cut?
2. Can fares be increased?
3. Can stations be closed?
4. Can track and signalling costs be cut?
5. Can services be improved and traffic increased?
Taking these in turn the BLRS Report commented as follows:
1. Can train costs be cut?
It was noted that all services remained steam operated, and that steam was an extremely expensive method of providing rail services. The Reshaping Report quoted 15 shillings per train mile as an average cost for such cases. The cost of running a diesel multiple unit varied, but it was noted that the Reshaping Report quoted four shillings per train mile as typical. A rail-bus service would be less. The BLRS Report thus concludes that the use of diesel multiple units on the S&D could cut movement costs by nearly 75%. This would be a saving of £240,000.
2. Can fares be increased?
The BLRS Report expresses surprise that this question is rarely asked by British Railways. In modern times with alternative pricing a norm, it seems an obvious question. Is it possible that higher fares will be acceptable to the travelling public in respect of services particular to a locality where a small premium would be deemed acceptable as it means to cover marginal costs?
3. Can stations be closed?
The BLRS Report refers to there being 29 stations on the S&D lines, excluding halts, and that the average station cost is quoted in the Reshaping Report as £2500 per year.
The BLRS Report suggests that all but six of the stations should be closed (the stations to remain being), and it comments ‘why such a step was not taking long ago is incomprehensible’.
4. Can track and signalling costs be cut?
As mentioned above, the authors of the BLRS noted there was uncertainty as to where these figures lay within the limited data provided by British Railways. It was noted, however, that:
(i) double track cost more than single track to maintain, and that 57 route miles of the S&D was double track;
(ii) Signal boxes were expensive, typically costing £1,500 per year per box, that there were 30 such boxes on the S&D which could readily be reduced to ten at the most.
5. Can services be improved and traffic increased?
It was noted that a service provided by diesel multiple units would be a ‘vast improvement’ especially if operated with a ‘re-casting of the current antique timetable’. Vast improvement was evidently possible. To its credit the BLRS Report refrained from estimating likely increases in traffic considering this ‘conjecture’.
Possible future working of the S&D was then suggested:
(a) Main line services could be operated by three two car DMUs, and the branch line by a single rail-bus;
(b) The main line could carry 7 trains daily (6,600 train miles per week), the branch line 4 trains (1,580 train miles per week);
(c) All track to be singled;
(d) All stations to be closed except Blandford Forum, Sturminster Marshall, Wincanton, Shepton Mallet Radstock and Bath Green Park, and all stations on the branch except Glastonbury and Street;
(e) Crossing places will be retained at 10 places;
(f) Stationmasters will not be appointed at staffed stations but a ‘line manager’ for the entire route would exist. All station buildings will be rationalised to minimise cost.
The BLRS Report then set out likely costs of revised operations. In respect of the main line, these were as follows:
DMUs (343,200 miles @£4 per mile) £68,640
8 x £2,500 Including Broadstone and Mangotsfield) £20,000
Track & signalling
73.75 x £3,500 £259,000
As to receipts:
- it was noted that parcels, mail and newspapers would make some contribution (estimated at £21,800 per year);
- freight would cover its movement costs and make a contribution to track and signalling costs of £25,900 per year.
On the above basis, break even on passenger services would need to generate £299,940. In that regard it was noted that:
(1) £299,940 per year equalled £67 per mile per week for the main line;
(2) At 2d per mile average fare this equalled 8,040 passengers per week. At 3d per mile average fare this equalled 5,360 passengers per week (64 passengers per train).
(3) In the Beeching Report, the ‘Density of Passenger Traffic’ map shows a density of 5,000 to 10,000 passengers per week north of Templecombe, and less than 5,000 south to Bournemouth.
The BLRS Report also set out likely costs of revised operations should only the main line section north of Templecombe be closed (these are not referred to further herein).
The BLRS Report then criticised the Beeching Report for failing to consider the ‘basic railway’ concept, i.e., light railways. It accused British Railways of dogmatism in maintaining that ‘unless full quota of Victorian ironmongery and an absolute plethora of staff is utilised, no passenger service can possibly be operated.’ It was quite possible to run a railway under the Light Railway Acts if British Railways cared to make use of them.
The BLRS Report went on to say:
‘It will readily be understood that the operation of a light railway is vastly less expensive and very much simpler than usually obtains. Track and signalling cost, a very heavy feature in most operational accounts, is reduced dramatically. Routes which carry a traffic beneath the contempt of Dr Beeching prove an economic proposition on a light railway. When one considers that the track…is in a reasonable condition (certainly good enough for a light railway) it becomes clear that they could be maintained for many years at an annual cost of a great deal less than the £2,000 pound per mile which is the lowest figure quoted in the Beaching Report.’
The BLSR report then quoted passenger census figures apparently compiled by British Railways (for the S&D main line) and Sturminster Rural District Council (for Templecombe-Bournemouth services) as follows:
Down: 91, 46, 37, 41
Up: 35, 105, 75
Down: 80, 52, 37, 15, 12, 27, 14
Up: 23, 20, 12, 18, 50, 39, 14
BLRS Conclusion on the Closure of the S&D
The BLRS Report concluded that it had shown that:
‘the required traffic to make the lines viable financially are not beyond the reach of an enterprising management. All the routes under discussion could, we are convinced, continue to provide a service to the public, either as light railways or in less elaborate guise than at present.’
Comments and Lessons
On reading the BLRS Report, one is struck by the chasm, not only in figures but also in attitude, between British Railways and those such as the BLRS. Clearly British Railways wanted to close the S&D and so represented the financial position of the line in the worst possible light. BLRS wanted to keep the line open and so made sensible suggestions as to how revenue may be increased and costs reduced. It can be argued that both were correct in what they were describing, but one was looking at the current position under current operations, whilst the other was looking at what was possible. Clearly in 1963 the S&D was making significant losses as it was then operated, but equally it could have been operated on a far more economical basis.
The decision to close the S&D was ultimately a political decision made by the Transport Minister. Ultimately, he decided to close the line. On making that decision, a range of issues would have been considered by him. There would be a degree of subjectivity in many of those issues. The odds were certainly stacked against the S&D however closure was not a foregone conclusion, as an alternative to closure did exist, even if only a temporary reprieve to see if a rationalised DMU service could be proved to pay.
Indeed Gerald Fiennes (then general manager of the Western region) made it clear at the time (in an article in a leading railway magazine) that if permission to close the line was not given, a re-designed DMU service was already envisaged for the line.
By 1967 the rules of the game had changed somewhat, as the Labour Government (re-elected in 1966) worked out a new approach for the railways. The subsequent 1968 Railways Act was transformative in many ways, acknowledging that railways provided a valuable service which warranted subsidies in the case of uneconomic lines. This was, of course, something Beeching was not allowed to consider under the Government imposed terms of reference for his report.
It's arguable that the tide was turning and that the views of the Branch Line Reinvigoration Society were gaining ground. By 1968 the number of railway closures were declining and indeed many railways slated for closure under the Beeching Report were reprieved with the benefit of a government subsidy.
There are many lessons here. Modern railways need a significant subsidy and as such are at the mercy of, and subject to the whims of, government. Who would have thought in 1963 that a future government would, 60 years later, commit to spend up to £100 billion for a new high-speed railway of just 200 miles or so. Note however that the Beeching Report came only 8 years after the Government agreed to inject £1 billion pounds into the railways under the 1955 modernisation plan. The tap can be turned off as quickly as it is turned on.
An important lesson here is that campaigning can work, even if it takes time to succeed. In 1978 the Branch Line Reinvigoration Society merged with the Railway Development Association to form the Railway Development Society, which survives today in the form of Railfuture.
Railfuture remains the country’s leading railway campaign group to this day. A national organisation with 14 branches throughout the UK, it is still campaigning today for a bigger, better railway.
For September 2023
Rail User Groups and the ‘Rail User Group Annual Awards 2023'
The Railway Club Directory is somewhat unique amongst railway websites in that it is not focussed on railways in general, but rather on railway societies and clubs in all their various forms.
This month’s blog deals with Rail User Groups and Rail Campaign Groups, an interesting category of railway society, as most railway societies today have nostalgia at their root, such as historical ‘line societies’.
Few railway societies today are actively involved in campaigning to improve the railway system in some way. An organisation which does this on a national and branch level is ‘Railfuture’, the advisory and campaign body previously known as the Railway Development Society.
Rail User Groups and Rail Campaign Groups also carry out a campaigning function at the local level. Their interests are usually focused on a particular railway line or station. Their local nature makes them particularly attuned to public opinion in their region. What happens nationally may be interesting, but what happens in the locality sometimes matters more, often resulting in active community involvement. As a consequence, there are a considerable number of local rail user and campaign groups operating in the UK today, indeed well over one hundred.
Many rail user and campaign groups are directly affiliated with ‘Railfuture’, as there is advantage for a local user or campaign group to be associated with a body with an element of national clout, which also has its own active branch system. A good starting point for anyone seeking a local group is through the ‘Railfuture’ website (go to www.railfuture.org.uk/Rail-User-Groups).
The Railway Club Directory website also has a dedicated section on these groups, see ‘Rail User Groups’ and ‘Campaign Groups’, at www.railwayclubdirectory.com/rail-user
Railfuture organises an annual Awards Ceremony for rail user and rail campaign groups. Which brings us to the 2023 ‘Rail User Group Annual Awards’. These were held at the Annual General Meeting of Railfuture held in July, and the winners were as follows:
Best Website: Joint winners Bedwyn Trains RUG and Dartmoor Railway Association
Best Newsletter: Stourbridge Line User Group
Best Social Media: Tarka Rail Association
Best Campaign: Rail Action Group, East of Scotland (RAGE)
Best Campaigner: Joint winners: Barbara Mine (Friends of Bishopstone Station) and Tim Steer (ACE Rail Campaign)
Congratulations to them all. You show railway enthusiasts just what is possible when you get involved.
1 August 2023
Closure of Local Railway Clubs (Part 2)
We’ve received numerous emails in respect of our June 2023 blog (see below) concerning the recent closure of a few local railway clubs. A theme seems to be that whilst many clubs have falling attendances, some are doing well, and indeed some societies have an increasing (albeit aging) membership.
Presumably railway societies are no different from any other clubs, in that those that are run well will survive and thrive, whereas those that are not will decline.
The writer of this blog recalls a few of his own experiences at attending railway society meetings, which have not always been good. Indeed he has attended numerous society meetings as a visitor, and has been struck by how often visitors and potential new members are pretty much ignored at these meetings. This has occurred not just at small local clubs, but at branch meetings of some of the biggest national railway societies in the country.
It seems the experience of invited speakers at railway society meetings has not been much better. In the foreword to the ‘National Directory of Traditional Railway Societies’, Christian Wolmar mentions that ‘at…times, the welcoming has been less than impressive. I have been left to wander into a room with no one acknowledging my presence or offering me a cup of tea. After some meetings, I have been left at an out of the way railway station with an hour to wait for a train with nowhere to buy so much as a sandwich.’
The UK has no shortage of rail enthusiasts. Just look at the sheer number of heritage railways in the country, the vast number of supporting group members and volunteers that help run them, the substantial circulation of periodic railway magazines, and the near continuous production of TV programmes and series with railway themes. Young enthusiasts also exist, evidenced by the one million followers of the largest site dedicated to UK railways on TikTok. If people are choosing not to join a particular club, it is probably because the club is not offering what they want, in the way that they want it.
Club officials are acutely aware of the aging nature of their membership and the threat that brings to their society. A loss of members is inevitable, and it is therefore self-evident that the only way a club can survive is by the recruitment of new members. However new members of any sort of club will often face the clique mentality of existing members, who naturally see the organisation as ‘their’ society, and do not necessarily see it as their role to welcome others. Club officials would be well advised to reflect on this and consider just how welcoming their society really is to potential new members.
Our answer to club officials worried by falling numbers and age demographics is not necessarily to think bigger, but to think better. Every society should have someone at its meetings whose role it is to welcome members (and speakers), and in particular new members. A ‘social officer’ so to speak. This would take very little additional effort, but could certainly improve the experience of visitors, and who knows, may turn some visitors into new members.
1 July 2023.
Closure of Local Railway Clubs
It is always sad to learn of the closure of a railway club, especially one that has been in existence for as long as most people will live.
We’re sad to say that ‘The Bournemouth Railway Club’, established 80 years ago, has decided it is time to close. Its last meeting will be held on Saturday 10 June 2023 at the Avon Room, Winton Methodist Community Centre, Heron Court Road, Bournemouth BH9 1DE, at 2.30pm.
The ‘National Directory of Traditional Railway Societies’ describes the Bournemouth Railway Club as follows:
‘The Bournemouth Railway Club (the 'Club') is the oldest railway society in its district and caters for all those with an interest in railways. It was founded in 1943 by the late Rev. A. Cunningham-Burley, who was also Club President from its foundation until his death in 1953.
The Club organises a series of presentations on railway themes during a meeting season. These presentations are held monthly on the second Saturday of the month (2.30pm start) and are given by knowledgeable and often well-known speakers in the railway world.
The Club has members however no annual subscription fees are payable. This is a long-standing position taken by the Club and relates to its aim of wider public benefit. All monthly presentations are open to both members and the public for an entry price, currently £2.50 for adults and £1.25 for juniors. A 'season ticket' for entry to all presentations is available at £25.
The Club issues a newsletter, BRC News, on a bi-monthly basis which contains, amongst other matters, the latest news and events concerning the Club. Members are invited to take out an annual subscription for BRC News, currently at £9 if posted, or £4.80 if collected. Individual editions can also be bought.
The Bournemouth Railway Club Trust is custodian of two large railway photograph collections, the WHC Kelland Collection and the Martyn Thresh Photographic Archive, each of which has been comprehensively catalogued.
The Club organises from time-to-time visits to places of railway interest, some within the UK and some abroad. The Club also has an interest in railway photography with competition between members. The Les Hopkins and George Barlow Cups are awarded each year for best entries. Occasional colour slide competitions are also held, the winner receiving the Martin Shoults Memorial Trophy.’
Covid-19 has negatively affected many local railway clubs whose usual activity relates to the holding of regular (usually monthly) slide shows and presentations. This was the case with the Bournemouth Railway Club. The numbers of attendees to these events had not recovered to pre-covid levels.
Unfortunately other clubs have likewise suffered. Earlier this year, the Nantwich & Market Drayton Railway Society closed, and other clubs, such as the North Wales Railway Circle, the Stafford Railway Society and the Telford Railway Society, remain in abeyance following covid, and may not reopen.
At least for those living in and around the Bournemouth area there is a good selection of railway related societies they could join. The Wimborne Railway Society is just 10 miles up the road, and on the modelling side there is quite a choice including the Poole and District Model Railway Society, the East Dorset Area N Gauge Group and the Central Southern Gauge O Group, and for engineers there is also the Bournemouth & District SME, which runs the Littledown Miniature Railway.
Date: 1 June 2023