The Beeching Report: Freight and Final Conclusions

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In The Beeching Report: 50 Years On we looked at the report itself and its relevance to London as far as passenger traffic was concerned. This was followed up with a look at its impact on London passenger services. It is very easy to forget though that the Beeching Report was also about freight. Indeed when it comes to the analysis of costs in the report, it is freight that covers far more pages than passenger traffic. So let us finish our look at Beeching (on the anniversary of the report’s release, no less) by taking a brief look at what it ushered in for freight in relation to London. We’ll then look at both freight and passenger traffic and make an assessment of the actual  impact on the Capital.

The Freight Situation

Dr Beeching found the lack of identified costs in passenger traffic truly appalling, but it was probably nothing compared to the situation as regards freight. The “big four” railway companies before World War II probably had all the figures and did their best to ensure they were profitable. The trouble was the world had changed since then and new figures were not available to take into account the new reality.

Amongst the changes were:

  • A misguided attempt at modernisation by building large marshalling yards.
  • An extremely damaging ASLEF strike in 1955 which meant that a lot of freight that could be carried by other means disappeared from the railway, never to return.
  • Competition from a denationalised road freight haulage industry.
  • The recent removal of the damaging “common carrier” obligation which had meant that the railways were obliged to transport all freight offered at fixed rate tariffs whether profitable or not (as opposed to the private hauliers who could pick and choose or even provide the long haul and then leave final distribution to the railways at fixed mileage rate tariffs). Now they were free to pick and choose.

It was soon clear to Beeching that wagon-load freight was highly unprofitable and there was basically no way it could be otherwise. On the plus side, train-load point-to-point freight was ideal for the railways and could be very lucrative if organised properly. Gerry Fiennes, a senior railway manager at the time, in his famous book (now sadly out of print and very expensive second-hand) gives full credit to “the good doctor” for his positive promotion of this and points out, extremely ruefully, that “we” (meaning the existing BR management), could have developed that but that they utterly failed to spot the opportunity that was there.

If Beeching had been able to get his way then freight would be transformed with modern air-braked wagons operating a commercially viable services that customers would want. Of course all this required investment and this was something the government were loathe to do. Having recently sunk a lot of money into various white elephant marshalling yards this is at least partially understandable. Temple Mills marshalling yard, for example, was rebuilt as recently as 1959.

The Loss of Freight Traffic

Once the hopelessness of wagon-load freight and the inefficiency of marshalling yards and sorting sidings was identified it was obvious that these had to go. It seems incredible today but St Pancras had a large goods yard (now the site occupied by the British Library) as did King’s Cross. Even places like Norwood Junction had a marshalling yard. With the coming of the Beeching report it was inevitable that they would disappear. Some were sold off and redeveloped and others found other railway uses, whilst Feltham is now a de facto wildlife sanctuary. The large goods depot at Bricklayers Arms by the Old Kent Road was replaced by housing and the inevitable industrial estate.

It was not just the loss of the large yards. Many stations still had a small goods yard or coal yard in the early 1960s. It would be periodically visited by a steam engine, generally in the middle of the night, to attach or detach the limited traffic around. It must have been obvious to anyone with open eyes that this was hopelessly uneconomic. One wonders how many signalboxes were manned 24 hours a day just so that a tiny tank engine with a couple of wagons could “run as required”.

It is difficult to see how these goods yards would have been missed in London except by those with a nostalgic bent. The trip workings would have in all probability been operated by a dirty old unloved steam shunting engine discharging its smoke and soot into an atmosphere recently transformed by the Clean Air Act. They were noisy and the clanking of wagons could be heard from quite a distance. These were generally nocturnal trips so one wonders how many people had a disturbed nights sleep.

Surprisingly these nocturnal goods train visits were not limited to the main railways. Some of the Underground branches that were originally “proper” railways retained their freight service and a British Railways steam engine would visit. This notably happened on the High Barnet branch and the Central Line to Epping. Even Newbury Park retained its goods yard until 1965 despite the fact that it could only be reached by going around the northern part of the Hainault loop for the last ten years of its existence. More surprisingly still this happened at places that were always part of the Underground system, such as Rayners Lane and stations towards Amersham. The recent resignalling and track quadrupling on the Metropolitan included continued provision for freight and most of the Metropolitan line goods yards stayed in operational use until 1966 or 1967 to be visited by an occasional British Railways goods train.

There was in fact a dramatic change on the freight side but the reality was that no-one cared. After all St Pancras Goods Depot does not quite invoke the same nostalgia as Broad Street. If people in London had thought rationally about the impact of Dr Beeching’s Report a more honest answer might be that they could now get a good night’s sleep and there was also a new car park at the station (the former goods yard) so they could now park there.

A History of Passenger Railway Closures in London

An intuitive approach to looking at the impact of the Beeching Report in London might be to look at railway closures occurring in the immediate years after the report was published. Such an approach would be flawed for a number of reasons. First of all, there has always been a trickle of closures as misguided schemes are shown up for what they are, competition makes stations or lines redundant or the reason for a line or service being there no longer exists. Secondly the closure of a line may just be a coincidence that would have happened anyway. Thirdly, its closure may have even have been proposed prior to the arrival of Dr Beeching at the British Railways Board but taken place after the report’s publication. Is it reasonable to blame Dr Beeching for such closures?

Railway closures in London are nothing new

The world is not in a steady state. In a relatively stable situation one would expect railway closures but one would also expect a corresponding number of railway openings. In fact railway closures are nothing new.

Commercial Dock station on the South Eastern Railway line south of London Bridge closed as long ago as 1866. There was even at least one line closure in what is now part of London in the 19th century. Central Croydon, located on its own short branch off the Brighton main line, closed for the second and final time in 1890 – having previously closed in 1871 but reopened again in 1886.

There were many “temporary” closures due to the First World War. Some stations and lines took over a decade to re-open and others did not re-open at all. New Underground services sometimes killed off demand at nearby railway station but it was generally only many years later that the inevitable coup de grace was executed. Uxbridge eventually lost two branch lines that served it and Stanmore lost its original station. This even happened south of the river where the opening of Colliers Wood on the Northern Line soon led to the closure of Merton Abbey station in 1929.

Closing Individual Stations

The Beeching report makes much of the expense of running stopping services which are a poor utilisation of stock and require the expensive cost of running a station. Apart from line closures a prominent feature was the proposal to close many stations on through routes but keep the line open. Probably the best example near to London was the Oxford-Cambridge route on which Beeching proposed to close all the minor countryside stations. It is surprising therefore that there does not appear to be a single case of a proposed closure of a station in London that did not also involve closing the line to passenger services entirely. Sudbury & Harrow Road seems to have defied all the odds and still exists despite being reputedly the least used station in Greater London, and there being a good service from nearby Sudbury Town Piccadilly Line station about 300 metres away.

The total lack of proposals to close any stations on a line where the passenger services would continue run is all the more remarkable when one considers the number that were closed in the hundred years prior to the report and in the decades afterwards. Westbourne Park, East Brixton and Lea Bridge are examples that never got mentioned in the Beeching Report yet subsequently closed. Westbourne Park cannot be reopened because it has been obliterated by track remodelling but the two others could be rebuilt – and maybe sooner rather than later.

Impact for Journeys within London

The closure of only two lines within London seem to be indisputably as a direct result of the Beeching Report. One, Harrow & Wealdstone to Belmont, affected just one station and another, West Drayton to Staines West, was already extremely run down and probably served a more rural population than some rural areas. Undoubtedly these would not have lasted long – Beeching or no Beeching.

We can never know how much Beeching influenced closures that took place a short time prior to his report. Again it is doubtful if these few lines would have had any prospect of long term survival. We also cannot know exactly what damage was done simply by proposing a line for closure. If It subsequently closed would that be partly attributable to Dr Beeching? What is really interesting is to see what happened to the lines that he proposed for closure but initially remained open, only to close subsequently.

We have already mentioned the potential takeover of part of the Croxley Green branch to provide an extended Metropolitan service. It could be argued that closure when it came did no great long term harm. As most readers know, the bulk of Woodside-Selsdon was used for Tramlink and usage here is quite remarkable. Addiscombe Tram Stop was built on the other side of the road to Bingham Road Station. It is one of the busiest tram stops outside central Croydon (and Wimbledon of course) with passenger journeys nudging towards the million per annum figure. Equally remarkable is the high usage of the trackbed to Broad Street which is now part of London Overground and one does wonder if that would ever have been proposed if Broad Street was still operational.

A longer (distance) view

Could it really be that the Beeching Report had an arguably beneficial effect when it came to freight and virtually no effect on passengers in London? Well no. Because London is part of Great Britain and the Beeching Report had a big effect on Britain.

The Beeching Report resulted in a lot of rural closures. It therefore has to follow that there were a lot of places in Britain that were accessible by train but were no longer. If your family didn’t have a car it may well be that your holiday destinations became a lot more limited within Britain. And if for some reason you wanted to travel to Kirby Muxloe or one of the other villages or towns that lost their station and you didn’t have a car then it would have been difficult.

One of Beeching’s obsessions was to remove what he saw as duplication. St Pancras was once a potential starting point for a journey to Scotland. Indeed the great music hall gag was “St George for England” to be followed by “St Pancras for Scotland”. So Londoners lost their choice and they may have had a good valid reason for preferring one station over another. It was not just St Pancras. Marylebone became little more than a commuter terminus having previously had services to places like Nottingham. In truth the long distance service from Marylebone had been seriously reduced before Beeching arrived on the scene but it was he who saw no point in the services continuing and axed them altogether and it is that finality that probably helped his name become associated with the demise of the railways.

So as far as London is concerned what was the impact of Beeching?

It’s a contentious question to ask, but in a departure from LR tradition we feel that in this instance we will offer a rare opinion:- For the Capital at least, Beeching was actually mostly harmless.

Written by Pedantic of Purley