Rail reminders: Britain hits the buffers – then bounces back

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Fifty years ago, Richard Beeching's damning report saw the railways diminished by a third. Now, they're making a return, says Michael Williams

Could there be a more perfect way to walk into Tavistock, in the foothills of Dartmoor, on this delicious spring morning than along the disused track of the railway that once led into the town? The early primroses and daffodils are out and the song thrushes are busying with their nests. No one could fail to feel the sap rising in this most idyllic corner of our green and pleasant land. But what's this? There's a spectre walking alongside me that I can't quite shake off. He's bald and portly, and his funereal overcoat and unfashionable homburg hat a contrast to the Rohan and Lycra-clad walkers and cyclists.

The ghost at my side is that of the infamous Dr Richard Beeching, once dubbed "the most evil man in Britain". It was 50 years ago this week, on 27 March 1963, that he delivered his infamous report, slashing Britain's railway network by a third and leaving Tavistock (population 11,000), and thousands of other places like it, shorn of their stations.

The proposals contained in his The Reshaping of British Railways were bloody. Most stopping trains would stop, permanently. Some 2,350 stations would be shut, along with 5,000 miles of track. No area would be spared. Not just here in Devon, but almost the whole of Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Wales and the Highlands of Scotland would be robbed of most of their passenger train services.

The massacre of country stations under Beeching irrevocably altered the lives of the towns and villages they served, diminishing many communities forever. As Flanders and Swann put it in their song "On the Slow Train", also written in 1963: "No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat. At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street, no one departs and no one arrives. From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives – they've all passed out of our lives."

For nowhere was this truer than the historic market town of Tavistock. At the beginning of the 1960s, Tavistock, notable as the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake, had two stations on different railways. In March 1962, the first, on the Great Western Railway line to Launceston, closed. Six years later Beeching plunged the knife in again, this time severing the main line to Plymouth and London. Now just about the only sign that trains ran through Tavistock are the remnants of the track bed of the two old railways, converted into "greenways".

Picturesque certainly, but there is always something melancholy about walking the tracks of disused country railways. Bridges and viaducts survive – a tribute to the Victorian engineers – but they are a poor substitute for the sights and sounds of a living railway, memorably characterised by Paul Theroux as "comfortable dusty coaches rolling through the low woods, the sun gilding the green leaves and striking through the carriage windows; the breeze tickling the flowers in the fields and the thump of a powerful locomotive; the pleasant creak of the wood panelling on the coach; the mingled smell of fresh grass and coal smoke …".

But it wasn't always so romantic. At the beginning of the 1960s, much of the railway system was mouldering away – slow, inefficient, dirty and in many ways unchanged since the First World War. No wonder the technocrat Beeching, recruited from the chemicals giant ICI, was shocked. The findings from his report speak for themselves. One-third of the 18,000 route miles carried just 1 per cent of passengers and freight. Half of all stations contributed only 2 per cent of income. Half the total route mileage accounted for 4 per cent of the passenger miles and 5 per cent of the freight miles. Ludicrously, the revenue on these lines amounted to only half the costs.

So the closure notices went up – and the nation was up in arms. But sentimentality was not part of the Beeching remit. The doctor's remedy, as defined by the Macmillan government that appointed him, was simple – to drag the railways into the modern era and try to make them pay. In the process, no loss-maker escaped Beeching's beady eye.

The axe didn't just fall at the likes of Much-Snoring-in-the-Wold – where it would often have been cheaper to fund a taxi for every passenger rather than run the trains. Complete main lines were ripped up, too. There was no bloodbath more brutal than that on the old Southern Railway lines from Waterloo to the West Country through Tavistock. The entire railway from Okehampton to Plymouth, along with its branches meandering into North Devon and Cornwall, closed at a stroke on 5 May 1968.

These days, Tavistock North station slumbers on serenely, the sturdy Dartmoor granite waiting rooms converted into holiday cottages. But once the platforms here reverberated to sound of the expresses racing the ocean mails to Plymouth across the mighty viaduct that still marches across the town on five spans.

Even as recently as 1966, Tavistock was served by one of the most famous express trains in the world. Leaving London Waterloo at 11am prompt, the legendary Atlantic Coast Express behind its powerful streamlined West Country Class locomotive contained more sections than any other in Britain, bearing its passengers not just to this corner of Devon but to the farthest flung coasts of Cornwall, without ever needing to change trains. Even as the axe was being sharpened, it was Britain's fastest ever steam-hauled train over a steeply graded railway.

But the demise of the train hastened the end of the line. The Tavistock stationmaster punched his last ticket, and bought the station building as his retirement home, re-naming it Beeching's Folly. Poignantly, he didn't change a thing, preserving all the railway paraphernalia until the day he died because he believed in his heart that one day the trains would come back.

Now, against all the odds, his dream is about to come true. Plans are in place for the track southwards to be reinstated, connecting with the stub of the line from Bere Alston into Plymouth that Beeching failed to close. Funding from a local housebuilder, and backing from Devon County Council, is already in place. Contrary to Beeching's faith in the road network, the inadequate A386 along the winding Tamar Valley simply hasn't been able to cope with the traffic.

The dream now is that the line through to Exeter may reopen, too – an idea reinforced by the fact that the only surviving rail route into Cornwall runs precariously balanced on the sea wall at Dawlish. It is frequently swamped by huge waves, wreaking salty havoc with the control systems of modern trains, meaning that a single high tide can cut off an entire county.

Such a mistake seems incredible now. But Beeching committed still bigger ones. The most disastrous error was ditching the Great Central route from London to Sheffield through Leicester and Nottingham. Driven through the Chilterns at lavish cost and opening as late as 1899, this was Britain's last-ever main line and the most modern – built to link with a future Channel tunnel. If Beeching had stayed his hand we would have had a ready-made route for the new HS2 high-speed line to the north. We must weep for the social capital that was pointlessly thrown away.

But Beeching cared not a jot for such new-fangled philosophies. As I puff along the last stretch of track into Tavistock, the weather has changed and a fickle March wind is blowing billows of freezing rain off the moor. I think wistfully of the roaring fire that once warmed the backsides of the passengers in the station waiting room. Still, there's a warm enough welcome in the Ordulph Arms, where the barmaid tells me that any local comments on Beeching would be unprintable. But I can't quite join in the general chorus of vilification. The truth is that Beeching was a creature of his time, when it was smart to think that railways were an anachronism and should be replaced by roads in the way that trains displaced the canals. Besides, there are others with a more dastardly role in the Beeching saga, such as his master in the transport ministry, Ernest Marples – who made a fortune building motorways before doing a flit to Monaco – and prime minister Harold Wilson, who spectacularly reneged on an election pledge to stop Beeching in his tracks.

In any case, something had to be done. I find a cutting in the local paper archive showing that one Devon branch was so little used that not a single person registered a protest when it was shut in 1964. And if Beeching hadn't come along when he did, the damage could have been worse. In 1983, a civil servant called Sir David Serpell provoked terror by suggesting a further cut of 84 per cent to the network, leaving just 1,630 miles and four trunk routes remaining.

It didn't happen – and now, 50 years since Beeching, none of it matters, since the railways are fashionable again. Passenger numbers nationally are at a record high, with 1.5 billion journeys on a network that is one‑third smaller than it was in the 1960s. Transport economists are even talking about "peak car" – and the first evidence of diminished car use in Britain is beginning to show.

All across the land, Beeching is being put into reverse. Mansfield and Corby, once the largest towns in Britain without a railway, now have their stations back. The old North London Line, which Beeching determined to destroy, was not only saved but is now part of the Overground system and one of the most flourishing urban railways in the world. Here in the West Country, passenger growth on the surviving branch lines is running at 5 per cent a year.

Richard Beeching died in 1985, unloved and unmourned by his own industry and the public, having resigned from his job as BR chairman before the end of his contract. But he was unrepentant to the end. Asked if he regretted his cuts, he replied defiantly that he wished only that he had closed more lines. What sweeter epitaph, then, than the prospect of trains running once more over the magnificent Tavistock viaduct, bringing the railway back into town again.

Michael Williams is author of 'On the Slow Train Again' (Arrow, £8.99). His new book 'Steaming to Victory: How Britain's Railways Won the War' is published in May (Preface, £25). A 50th anniversary edition of Beeching's 'The Reshaping of British Railways', published by Collins, is out now (£9.99)

Ripe for reopening

The Borders Railway

One of the most hotly opposed Beeching closures was the scenic Waverley route through the Borders from Edinburgh to Carlisle, shut in 1969. Now the Scottish government is spending £294m to relay 30 miles of track – the longest "new" domestic railway in Britain for more than 100 years.

The Swanage Railway

Enthusiasts saved a section of this picturesque branch through the Purbeck Hills when services were withdrawn in 1972. This year, the operators were awarded a £1.47m government grant to reconnect with the main line to London Waterloo, and to run a year-round service.

Brighton Main Line 2

Beeching took a chunk out of the alternative London-Brighton route in 1968 by closing the southern section between Uckfield and Lewes. Brighton council is spearheading a powerful campaign to restore services.

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