The Beeching Report: The Closure Proposals For London

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In our look at the Beeching Report itself we saw plans for a considerable number of railway closures, and looked at the reasoning behind the proposal. For London though, there were actually very few closures planned. We now look at these closure proposals, featured on a map in the report, and see what actually happened.

The Beeching Report conveniently has the above map showing proposed closures in London.

Watford Junction – St Albans Abbey

It might be understandable why this branch would have been proposed for closure. The line was a single track, six and a half mile long, un-electrified branch line serving only four stations (excluding Watford Junction). It did at one time have a passing loop at Bricket Wood. In the 1960s the stations would have almost certainly been staffed. The terminus, St Albans Abbey, was not the main station for St Albans and was not situated close to the town centre so it attracted much less traffic than one would initially have thought.

As it turned out, the line was a classic example of what can be done if one cuts costs and develops traffic – as long as the potential demand is there. Since the proposal to close it, two stations have been added and the stations are unstaffed. It is electrified at 25kV AC and operates by the the very cheap and reliable system of “one train working” obviating the need for signalling.

The problem the line has is now one of success, despite the service being restricted to a train every 45 minutes due to it taking 16 minutes to traverse the entire branch. The desirable thing would be to reinstate the passing loop at Bricket Wood which conveniently is exactly halfway alone the line. This would enable a service to be operated every half hour. It could just about be run every 20 minutes, but this would give no recovery time so half-hour off-peak and every 20 minutes in the high peak is probably the most one could expect. Unfortunately this would involve installing two points as well as the plain line track for the loop and signalling the line.

The current proposal which is being developed is to replace the trains with trams. As well as enabling an increase in frequency this is believed to have the added advantage of creating various possibilities to extend the line into St Albans city centre and possibly serve the main station as well. Things do not appear to be going smoothly and costs do not appear to be as cheap as originally forecast, so no visible progress has been made to date. Despite Beeching and the current proposals, it looks like this line will continue in its current form for a few years yet.

Watford Junction – Croxley Green

It was not really surprising that Beeching proposed this line for closure. Indeed it is probably a bigger surprise that it was still open at the time of the report. Consent for closure was refused, which seems a little surprising given the Metropolitan line stations nearby and a peak-hour only service was run. One complicating factor may have been that there was a Bakerloo Line depot at Croxley and if that had to remain open then the actual cost saving by closing the line may have been substantially less than envisaged.

In 1988 Network SouthEast attempted to revive the line by running a half-hourly service during the day. One never knows whether this is done to revitalise a line or simply to prove to those opposed to closing the line that there really was no reasonable prospect of running a worthwhile service. By 1990 the line was reduced to having one inconveniently timed train per day to avoid the formal statutory closure process.

In the next few months it looks likely that the Secretary of State for Transport will approve a scheme for the trackbed to be used as the major part of a scheme to extend the Metropolitan Line to Watford Junction, which will probably result in the bulk of this line seeing more traffic that it ever has done in the past. Those looking to gauge whether this is likely to happen or not would do well to watch TfL’s purchasing in the next few months. Running the service will require an additional unit of S-Stock, and so if TfL activate their time-limited option to purchase an additional unit of stock from Bombardier at no increased price it can probably be assumed that this project has been given the nod, unofficially at least.

Belmont – Harrow & Wealdstone

One of the generally lesser-known branch lines in London is the line from Harrow & Wealdstone to Stanmore. In later years it had an intermediate station at Belmont. The service was run as a shuttle, as the line from the branch pointed away from London and this would have been another factor against its survival. When the Metropolitan Line opened to Stanmore in 1932 passengers deserted the nearby LMS station and twenty years later that station was closed to passenger traffic. Meanwhile at around the same time as the Metropolitan station opened, an intermediate station at Belmont opened on the branch. With the closure of Stanmore Village station (by now it had been renamed to avoid confusion) the branch relied on freight and the passenger takings for tickets from and to Belmont station to support the line. It was not surprising that the station and the branch closed as costs must have been out of all proportion to any benefit. If a train has to be provided for the exclusive purpose of serving one station then, unless that station is particularly busy, it is more or less inevitable that the service is going run at an enormous loss. It follows that its existence can only be justified on either social benefit grounds or, exceptionally, that the contribution to the rest of the network which may otherwise be lost is sufficiently great to justify its retention.

West Drayton – Uxbridge Vine St

This two-mile long line was included in the Beeching Report for completeness, but the reality is that it had already been closed to passenger for six months when the report came out. Vine St was once the principal and indeed only station for Uxbridge. It saw off competition from the north (High St station) but succumbed to the popularity of the frequent electric service offered by the underground from the 1930s. The underground offered a choice of routes to various parts of central London whereas Vine St and the intermediate station at Cowley only offered a ride in a DMU that terminated at Paddington.

It is understandable why this branch closed but in retrospect it is probably a great loss. The Crossrail development team were completely unable to make an economic case for extending many of the trains beyond Paddington. If the train paths into Paddington could have been found then this branch, if at least the trackbed still existed, would have been ideal – just two miles long and serving a major traffic centre, which would give much needed relief to the Metropolitan and Picadilly Lines.

West Drayton – Staines West

The passenger service on this branch actually did close after the Beeching Report but survived much longer due to freight traffic. The branch southward from West Drayton in more than one way mirrors the previously mentioned branch to the north. Again it is one of those branches where one wished that all the trackbed was still there. Unfortunately a critical part was obliterated to make way for the M25. With the trackbed about a kilometre away from Terminal 5 station one cannot help but think how shortsighted it was in the 1980s to allow this route to be built on with an ever-expanding Heathrow Airport so nearby. In the process a potential route from the south west of the airport has been lost.

Palace Gates – Seven Sisters

When one thinks of Beeching closures in London then this is probably the branch line that most comes to mind. Yet again though it cannot truly be thought of as a Beeching closure (at least not as a result of the publication of his report) as by the time the report came out it had been closed for getting on for three months.

The branch suffered a number of problems. It was stretching a point to call the terminus station “Palace Gates”. Any visitors to Alexandra Palace and most areas nearby would have been better off using the nearby Wood Green station – itself subsequently renamed to Alexandra Palace. Noel Park station was too close to the Piccadilly Line stations of Turnpike Lane and Wood Green. This left just West Green station with a decent catchment area. A further problem was that the service went to North Woolwich via Stratford which might have been useful when the docks were still active but by the mid-sixties would have seemed like a service from somewhere to nowhere. Although one might nowadays jump at the opportunity to provide a rail service from the north London suburbs to Stratford, this could hardly have been predicted and it is not surprising that this line closed.

London St Pancras – Barking

It is easy to forget that not so many years ago the term “Goblin” didn’t exist and the service provided was St Pancras to Barking, not Gospel Oak to Barking. One shudders to think how much the class 172s would be overloaded if the Tottenham and Hampstead Junction Railway were to run into St Pancras today.

In the 1960s this would have been a very rundown line undoubtedly run with handed down stock, and passenger services would have been regarded as a bit of a nuisance that got in the way of freight. Undoubtedly Dr Beeching was eyeing up the line for his strategic freight workings and probably wished that the passengers would just go away. No doubt some freight managers think the same today but are probably too media-savvy to say it in public.

Part of the reason why the service was so run down was the belief that people didn’t want to travel by train from suburb to suburb – or at least not in sufficient numbers to make running a service worthwhile from the point of view of the rail service provider. This of course leads to a poor infrequent service which is little used which then reinforces this belief.

Romford – Upminster

This line is slightly unusual and today probably unique in London. It is three and a half miles long with an intermediate station, but the significance of it is that it provides a service between two major centres (and stations). It is thought of as a “branch” but is in fact connected at both ends and a half-hourly shuttle service runs along it. As a result it is of some strategic importance, providing the only regular connection between the lines out of Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street. The fact that removing this intermediate connection would have provided considerable inconvenience for a number of people making journeys that didn’t involve going to London was probably a factor in its survival. Like the St Albans Abbey branch is it now electrified and unsignalled.

London Broad Street – Richmond

The problems with this line would have been very similar to those of St Pancras – Barking. Broad Street station was situated next to Liverpool Street station where the Broadgate office development now stands. The station was once one of the busiest London termini but was already hopelessly oversized for its current purposes. There was no suggestion in the report as to what was to happen to this enormous station, which was in many ways like St Pancras – except that it had even more platforms. If Beeching had got his way then the only trains still serving Broad Street would have been the Watford ‘DC’ service.

It is probably going too far to blame Beeching for the end of Broad Street station, but if the withdrawal of the Richmond service had gone ahead then it would have been obvious to everybody that an enormous plot of very valuable land was being used to provide a terminus for one relatively lightly used not-especially-intensive service. Even though withdrawal did not go ahead as planned, the proposal to abandon the Richmond service probably signalled the inevitable demise of Broad Street and in the years between the report and the closure of the station one felt that the inevitability of it all led to avoiding absolutely any unnecessary expenditure on the station and the track to it.

What actually happened here was that in 1985 the Richmond service was diverted to Stratford. This seemed to be part of a plan to remove services from Broad Street. The Watford Junction services were by now peak-hour only so a token service was re-routed into Liverpool Street and Broad Street sold for redevelopment. The token service was soon withdrawn due to lack of use.

Clapham Junction – Kensington Olympia

One of the more surprising mentions in the Beeching Report is the proposal to close the shuttle service from Clapham Junction to Kensington Olympia. The reason this would have been surprising is not because it was profitable – it wasn’t. In fact it would have been difficult to conceive a way of running a service more unprofitably. As the route was unelectrified the workings were made by steam or in latter years by diesel – generally from a depot many miles away. What was surprising is that it was acknowledged that the service existed at all.

The 1960s were a period when The Avengers was on the television and, in the same month that the Beeching Report came out, the public got to learn about the Profumo Affair. The Official Secrets Act was still taken very seriously and was all embracing. Even the address of the Post Office Tower was supposedly an official secret, although if looking up did not make it immediately obvious where it was located, the sight of a 253 bus with a destination of “Warren St Station (Post Office Tower)” would remove any lingering doubt.

During this period there would be a couple of unadvertised services in the morning from Clapham Junction to Kensington Olympia exclusively for a group of government workers. There would be no workings in service in the return direction in the morning and in the evening the situation was reversed. In fact it turned out that the workers worked at nothing more mysterious than the Post Office Savings Bank at Olympia. Quite why these workers from another nationalised industry were given their own special service at great expense, and quite why ordinary passengers were not supposed to use it has never been made clear. Maybe the railways were worried their special passengers couldn’t get on if they let everyone use it. It has been suggested that they didn’t want that to happen because the fare (and thus the revenue) would be higher if ordinary people had to travel via London.

The obvious thing to do was to electrify the line and build up the service. One of the reasons for not doing so is probably that it got in the way of freight. Another reason would be that it would involve co-operative working between two railway regions. For those who have never experienced it, it is difficult to imagine just how parochial and territorial the regions were. To emphasise the point, it wasn’t British Rail who later proposed reopening some abandoned tunnels and providing a North – South service called Thameslink. It was the GLC. When Chris Green became head of newly formed Network SouthEast he started off by painting all the lampposts red. By doing so he was establishing his position that there was going to be one railway and inter-regional rivalries were not going to be allowed to get in the way – and funnily enough under Network SouthEast a proper service from Clapham – Junction to Kensington Olympia was established, advertised and eventually electrified.

Woodside – Selsdon

No decent proposal of railway closures in London in the 20th century would have been complete without the suggestion that the Woodside – Selsdon portion of the line from Elmers End to Sanderstead be closed. That is assuming it was at the time open of course.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Join the railway from Woodside, south of Elmers End and north-east of Croydon with the nearby line at Selsdon Road in South Croydon. This line would continue to Lewes via East Grinstead – the line to East Grinstead was at that time being built. The tiny flaw in the plan was that it managed to miss the nearby substantial town of Croydon. This meant that no-one could use it to get to Croydon and if potential passengers could get there by other means they had the option of a fast service to Victoria or London Bridge. Unsurprisingly, according to disused stations website, the first proposal for closure was in 1895 – just 11 years after opening.

The line was closed as a wartime economy and reopened in 1927. The stations (Bingham Road, Coombe Road, Spencer Road Halt and Selsdon Road) however remained closed. This was because the Southern Railway weren’t interested in the local traffic. They wanted to re-open the route as a link to a rather fanciful proposed scheme, the Southern Heights Light Railway, from Sanderstead to Orpington. Nothing became of this scheme.

Having made the mistake of re-opening it, instead of cutting their losses and closing it again, Southern Railway decided to electrify it and three of the stations reopened. They accepted the reality that with South Croydon station less than a quarter of a mile away Spencer Road Halt was never going to provide much traffic. So it was that in 1935 Bingham Road and Coombe Road got their trains back and the by now misleadingly-named Selsdon got an extra two platforms in use.

Somehow the stations stayed open during WWII with a sparse service, but the post-war service was on a slow decline with further cuts. Closure was proposed before the publication of the Beeching Report and announced for 4th March 1963, a week after publication, provided of course that there were no objections. Not surprisingly there were objections and incredibly it was refused on the grounds that it would cause hardship to the 650 daily passengers – which doesn’t seem a lot. With Addiscombe station nearby to Bingham Road and Selsdon (now having lost its platforms on the Oxted line) less than half a mile away from South Croydon, it was a surprising decision given the far worse plight of many on rural lines.

The line continued running albeit only in the peaks and ultimately only as a 2-car shuttle service. When the signalling and track for other lines were modernised as part of the 1976 London Bridge resignalling, the line was not included – a decision which spoke volumes for its long term prognosis. One felt that it was left to keep going as long as it could soldier on, but “make do and mend” only works for so long and by the early 1980s the track had deteriorated to the extent that the only sensible options were an expensive wholesale renewal or closure – so closure it was.

In the third and final part on our look at the Beeching Report and how it affected London we will look at the overall impact on London that the report had. In this we will include freight, which is often forgotten when one talks about the Beeching cuts, and other factors.

Written by Pedantic of Purley