Beeching Axe

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Railway transport

Many railway lines were closed as a result of the Beeching Axe
Many railway lines were closed as a result of the Beeching Axe

The Beeching Axe is an informal name for the British Government's attempt in the 1960s to control the spiralling cost of running the British railway system by closing what it considered to be little-used and unprofitable railway lines.

It was a reaction to the failed railway modernisation plan of the 1950s, which spent huge amounts of money on buying new equipment, such as new diesel and electric locomotives, without first examining the role of the railway and its requirements, recognising the implications of changing old-fashioned working practices, or tackling the problem of chronic overmanning. The result of this was to plunge the railway system deeply into debt.


In tune with the mood of the early 1960s, the transport minister in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government was Ernest Marples, the former director of a major road-construction company. Marples believed that the future of transport lay with roads, and that railways were a dead-end relic of the Victorian past.

An advisory group known as the Stedeford Committee (after its chair, Sir Ivan Stedeford) was set up to report on the state of British transport and provide recommendations. Also on the Committee was Dr. Richard Beeching, the chairman of British Railways appointed by the Conservative government. Stedeford and Beeching clashed on a number of issues related to the latter's proposals to drastically prune the rail infrastructure. In spite of questions being asked in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was never published and the proposals for the future of the railways that came to be known as the "Beeching Plan" were adopted by the Government, resulting in the closure of a third of the rail network and the scrapping of a third of a million freight wagons.

Beeching believed the railway system should be run like a business and not a public service, and that if parts of the railway system did not pay their way—like some rural branch lines—they should be eliminated. He reasoned that once these were closed, the remaining core of the system would be restored to profitability.

Beeching made a study of traffic on all the railway lines in the country and concluded that 80% of the traffic was carried on just 20% of the network, with much of the rest of the system operating at a loss. In his report "The Reshaping of British Railways" issued on March 27, 1963, he proposed a massive closure program. The report proposed that out of Britain's then 18,000 miles (28 800 km) of railway, 6,000 miles (9 600 km) of mostly rural branch and cross-country lines should be closed. Furthermore, many other rail lines should lose their passenger services and be kept open for freight only, and many lesser-used stations should close on lines that were to be kept open. The report was accepted by the Government.

At the time, the highly controversial report was called the "Beeching Bombshell" or the "Beeching Axe" by the press. It sparked an outcry from many communities that would lose their rail services, many of which (especially in the case of rural communities) had no other means of public transport.

The government argued that many rail services could be provided more cheaply by buses, and in a policy known as " bustitution," promised that abandoned rail services would have their places taken by replacement bus services. In practice, this policy proved unsuccessful.

A significant part of the Beeching Plan also proposed that British Rail electrify some major main lines and adopt containerized freight traffic instead of outdated and uneconomic wagon-load traffic. In general, politicians jumped at the money-saving parts of the plan but were less enthusiastic about those parts that required expenditures. Some of those plans were adopted, however, such as the electrification of the West Coast Main Line.

Rail closures by year

The remains of Rugby Central Station on the former Great Central Railway, one of many closed under the Beeching Axe
The remains of Rugby Central Station on the former Great Central Railway, one of many closed under the Beeching Axe

At its peak in 1950, the mileage of the British railway system was around 21,000 miles (33 800 km) and 6000 stations. By 1975, the system had shrunk to 12,000 miles (19 000 km) of track and 2000 stations, roughly the same size it was in 2003.

Contrary to popular belief, Beeching did not start rail closures, as a number of rail closures had occurred during the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1963, approximately 3000 miles (4800 km) of line had already been closed. After Beeching's report, the process was accelerated and dramatically expanded.

  • Pre-Beeching closures
    • 1950....150 miles (240 km) closed
    • 1951....275 miles (440 km) closed
    • 1952....300 miles (480 km) closed
    • 1953....275 miles (440 km) closed
    • 1954 to 1957....500 miles (800 km) closed
    • 1958....150 miles (240 km) closed
    • 1959....350 miles (560 km) closed
    • 1960....175 miles (280 km) closed
    • 1961....150 miles (240 km) closed
    • 1962....780 miles (1 250 km) closed
  • Post Beeching closures
    • 1963....324 miles (521 km) closed
    • 1964....1058 miles (1703 km) closed
    • 1965....600 miles (965 km) closed
    • 1966....750 miles (1 205 km) closed
    • 1967....300 miles (480 km) closed
    • 1968....400 miles (640 km) closed
    • 1969....250 miles (400 km) closed
    • 1970....275 miles (440 km) closed
    • 1971....23 miles (37 km) closed
    • 1972....50 miles (80 km) closed
    • 1973....35 miles (56 km) closed
    • 1974....0 miles (0 km) closed

Not all of the railway lines listed for closure were closed; some were kept open for a variety of reasons, including political manoeuvring. For example, the railway lines through the Scottish Highlands, although not cost-efficient by Beeching's definition, were kept open in part because of pressure from the powerful Highland lobby. It has been suggested that other lines may have been kept open because they passed through marginal constituencies. In addition, some lines listed for closure were kept open because the local roads were incapable of absorbing the traffic that would be transferred from the railway if it closed. As a result, there are still a fair number of rural railway lines in existence on the British railway system, although far fewer than there were before Beeching.

On the other hand, some routes that Beeching proposed should be kept open as major trunk routes, for example the Woodhead route, were eventually closed in favour of keeping alternative politically-sensitive routes open.

Overall, 2128 stations were closed on lines that were kept open. As well as minor railway lines, a few major inter-city railway lines were closed, where it was deemed that these lines were duplicates of other main-lines. The most notable of these was the the former Great Central Railway, which linked London to the midlands and north of England.

Since 1974, railway closures in the UK have been virtually non-existent, and indeed there have been some re-openings, although a few railways across the country have closed in the last 20 years.

Beeching II

In 1964, Dr. Beeching issued a second, less well-known, report "The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes", widely known as "Beeching II", which went even further than the first report. The report singled out lines that were believed to be worthy of continued large-scale investment.

Essentially, it proposed that all railway lines other than major inter-city routes and important commuter lines around big cities had little future and should eventually close. If the report had been implemented, the railway system would have been cut to just 7000 miles (11 250 km), leaving Britain with little more than a skeletal railway system, with large parts of the country entirely devoid of railways.

The report was rejected by the then Labour government and Dr. Beeching resigned in 1965. Although politicians were ultimately responsible for the rail closures, Dr. Beeching's name has become synonymous with them ever since.

Changing attitudes and policies

In 1964, the Labour government was elected under prime minister Harold Wilson. During the election campaign, Labour promised to halt the rail closures if elected. Once elected, however, they quickly backtracked on this promise, and the closures continued, at a faster rate than under the previous administration and until the end of the decade.

In 1965, Barbara Castle was appointed transport minister, and she began to look at the country's transport problems as a whole. Mrs. Castle decided that at least 11,000 route miles (17 700 km) of "basic railway" would be needed for the foreseeable future and that the railway system should be stabilised at around this size.

However, towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that rail closures were not producing the promised savings or bringing the rail system out of deficit, and were unlikely ever to do so. Mrs. Castle also stipulated that some rail services that could not pay their way but had a valuable social role and so should be subsidised. However, by the time the legislation allowing this was introduced in 1968, many such services and railway lines that would have qualified for subsidies had already been closed or removed, lessening the impact of the legislation. A number of branch lines were nevertheless saved by this legislation.


The closures failed in their central purpose of restoring the railways to profitability, with the promised savings failing to materialise. By abolishing a third of the rail network, Beeching managed to achieve a saving of just £7 million whilst overall losses were in excess of £100 million . The losses were mainly because the branch lines acted as feeders to the main lines, and this feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed—in turn meaning less traffic for and worsening the finances of the main lines. The assumption at the time was that car owners would drive to the nearest railhead (which was usually the junction where the closed branch line would otherwise have taken them) and journey onwards by train, but in practice having once left home in their cars, they used them for the whole journey.

The " bustitution" policy of replacing rail services with buses also failed. Most of the replacement bus services were far slower and less convenient than the train services they replaced, and they proved unpopular with the public. Most of the replacement bus services only lasted a few years before being scrapped through lack of use, effectively leaving large parts of the country without any means of public transport.

The closures were brought to a halt in the early 1970s when it became apparent that they were not useful, that the benefit of the small amount of money saved by closing railways was outweighed by the pollution and congestion caused by increasing reliance on cars which followed, and by the general public's hatred of the cuts.

The last major railway closure resulting from Beeching was of the 80-mile-long (130 km) Waverley Route main line between Carlisle and Edinburgh, in 1969; plans have since been made to re-open a significant portion of this line. With a few exceptions, after the early 1970s proposals to close other lines were met with vociferous public opposition and were quietly shelved: this opposition stemmed from the public's experience of the many line closures during the main years of the cuts in the mid and late 1960s. Today, Britain's railways, like nearly every other railway system in the world, still run at a deficit.

Hindsight has shown that, in some areas, Beeching went too far. There was a need for some pruning of duplicate and deeply unprofitable services, but nowhere near as much as was stipulated. However it can be argued that some of the closures were a necessary emergency response to save the railway network from financial disaster, and that if they had not occurred, a far larger programme of cuts would have been later necessary.

One of the major criticisms made of the Beeching report was that it failed to take into account future trends such as population growth and greater demand for travel. The population of many of the towns which had their railways closed in the 1960s has grown significantly since, leaving the towns more in need of public transport. However, the trackbeds of many closed railways have been built over and they would be prohibitively expensive to re-open. This is as much a criticism of the policy since the Beeching closures of the wholesale disposal of former railway land rather than the protection of trackbeds using a system similar to the US Rail Bank scheme for possible future use.

In the early 1980s, under the government of Margaret Thatcher, the possibility of more Beeching-style cuts was raised again briefly. In 1983 Sir David Serpell, a civil servant who had worked with Dr Beeching, compiled what became known as "The Serpell Report" which called for more rail closures. The report was met with fierce resistance from many quarters, and it was quickly abandoned.


Since the Beeching era, a modest number of the closures have been reversed. Notable amongst these is the Robin Hood Line in Nottinghamshire, between Nottingham and Worksop via Mansfield, which reopened in the early 1990s. Previously Mansfield had been the largest town in Britain to have no rail link.

In the West Midlands a new Birmingham Snow Hill station was opened in 1987 to replace the earlier Snow Hill station, which had been closed and demolished in the early 1970s. The tunnel underneath Birmingham city centre that served the station was also reopened, along with the line towards Kidderminster and Worcester. The former line from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton has been reopened as the Midland Metro tram system. The line from Coventry to Nuneaton was reopened to passengers in 1988.

In Newcastle upon Tyne, most of the railways north of the river Tyne have been reopened and some new sections added: Shiremoor to Chillingham Road via North Shields, South Gosforth to Newcastle Central station and Kingston Park to Bank Foot. South of the River Tyne, the Newcastle Central station to South Shields section via Gateshead and Tyne Dock has in some parts followed the route of the old line, and in some been completely new. These lines opened as part of the Tyne and Wear Metro; the routes were originally run by the North Eastern Railway.

Beeching saw South Wales as a declining industrial region. As a result, it lost the majority of its network. Since 1983 it has experienced a major rail revival, with 32 new stations, and three lines reopened within 20 miles (32 km) of each other: Abercynon– Aberdare, Barry– Bridgend, and Bridgend– Maesteg.

In Scotland, a 35-mile (56 km) stretch of the former Waverley Route between Edinburgh and Galashiels is expected to be reopened in 2011 now that funding has been approved. The closure of the line in 1969 left the Scottish Borders area without any rail links. The Edinburgh- Bathgate line, reopening in 1985, was the first success of a new policy introduced by the Thatcher government of experimental reopenings that would become permanent only if well-used. It was and did. Plans are now in hand to reopen the section between Bathgate and Drumgelloch. More recently, a four-mile (6.4 km) section of the Argyle Line was reopened in December 2005, serving Chatelherault, Merryton and Larkhall for the first time since 1968. Also, after several years of 'false' promises dating to the 1980s, the railway from Stirling to Alloa and Kincardine is currently being rejuvenated, and will open in 2007, providing a passenger (and freight) route once again.

In addition a number of closed stations have reopened, and passenger services been restored on lines where they had been removed. Several lines have also reopened as heritage railways; see List of British heritage and private railways.

Notwithstanding the positive environmental implications of a reopening, many of the areas along these routes have expanded and grown over the last 40 years. Where some lines would never have been profitable in 1963 they could well be profitable now, and could even have a major impact on reducing road congestion and pollution in those areas. However in many instances it would be prohibitively expensive for lines closed by the Beeching Axe to be reopened; although it was not stipulated in the report, since Beeching there has been a policy of disposing of surplus-to-requirements railway land. Therefore many bridges, cuttings and embankments have been removed and the land sold off for development; closed station buildings on remaining lines have often been either demolished or sold.

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