The Death of Rail


Sally Thomsett, Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins on set in 1970.

When the Railway children was filmed in 1970 the death knell had already sounded for fully integrated local rail system in both Britain and Ireland.  The nostalgic romance of the rails of Victorian Britain was already a distant fantasy of a time that never was.  The axeman was Richard Beeching who published his first Report on Rail Cuts in Britain on this day in 1963.

Over 2,000 stations and 8,000 km of rail were designated for the chop.  Where the British led the Irish followed and the Irish Civil Service lobbed off most of the branch lines in the 1960s.

Looking  back today we can see how foolish these moves were.  If I have learned one thing in my life it is not to let go of public infrastructure.  Canals, Railways, Fixed line telephony, Roads, Bridges, Gas Networks and Public Water.  The bones of a nation take centuries to build and can be squandered in a decade by vested business interests.

Oil was calling the shots in the 1960s.  The chequebooks flowed, roads were built and the car was king.  Rail was sacrificed on the altar of the oil industry.

Rail may have been seen as outdated in the 1960s but today it is a gift to commuters.  Rail is vastly more efficient in moving large numbers of people in and out of cities to work.  It is also far more environmentally efficient than cars.

The Beeching report was a stich up.  The decisions had been made long before the report was written.  His cutting of local branch lines was supposed to improve the efficiency of the core, and profitable mainline rail.

Often it is a cartoonist who can best expose the lie and I wish I could find you an image of the cartoon I like best.  It shows Beeching himself lobbing off his own arms and legs to improve the core.

The truth is that if you don’t have the branch lines feeding the main line what you are hoping for is that commuters will get into a car and drive to the nearest railway station on the main line.  But they don’t.  Mostly once they get into a car they no longer use public transport.

Today if you travel Ireland and wonder why so many areas have abandoned railways and stations you can blame Beeching.  Blame the British Government.  Blame the Oil industry.  Blame an Irish Government that had no imagination to take a different direction and no confidence in their own decisions.



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