The 1963 Cabinet Papers / British Rail: Beeching branded 'PR disaster' over rail network cuts

Click to follow
HAROLD MACMILLAN'S Cabinet feared that the tactlessness of Dr Richard Beeching, the British Rail chairman, was proving a PR disaster as he prepared plans to cut BR's network by a quarter.

The Cabinet's disillusion provides a parallel with the Thatcher government's irritation with Ian MacGregor, the Coal Board chairman, during the miners' strike 20 years later.

Ernest Marples, the Secretary of State for Transport, and the Prime Minister were confident the pounds 150m-a-year deficit for BR could could only be reduced by severe pruning of uneconomic branch lines. But they feared Dr Beeching, who like Mr MacGregor had been brought in from private industry, could make the policy unnecessarily unpopular.

Macmillan and Marples corresponded at length to try to ensure the press presented the cuts in a positive way. It was not an easy task. Beeching's plan, The Reshaping of the Railways, announced in March 1963, proposed reducing the network by a quarter and cutting 67,700 jobs.

In the run-up to the announcement, when the rail union had called a one-day strike over BR workshop closures, Macmillan complained to Marples that Beeching was 'a first-class technician (but) neither he nor his staff are good public relations men'.

Marples wrote to Macmillan: 'The (BR) public relations officer is Garrett, and he is a good man. Some MPs complain about Beeching himself. I have managed to have quite an effect on him over the unions . . . but from time to time he has lapses. Still, they are getting fewer.' In one of these 'lapses', Beeching had replied in anger to an MP's innocuous question about the high price of food on trains.

On 26 March, Macmillan's flair for the manipulation of public opinion was brought directly into play. He suggested that the announcement of rail closures should be rewritten.

His new draft, which was used, made the cuts sound like the first phase of a co- ordinated transport policy - even though there was no plan to replace the axed railways with improved roads.