Rail Workshop Closures Overshadowed by Beeching?


Was Beeching the Fall Guy for workshop redundancies?

Back in the early 1960s, the Government of the day had spent millions modernising the railway network, with dieselisation and electrification schemes, which were an attempt to reduce the railway’s losses, whilst saddling the industry with massive debts. At the same time almost no attempt was made to integrate the road and rail transport businesses, with the road lobby freed from earlier restrictions, such asd the ‘C’ licences, and Marples giving free rein to build motorways without any thought for demand. Odd you might consider for a ‘free market’, and ‘competition’ driven politician.

More intriguingly, perhaps Beeching was used to further remove competition for road traffic in the transport market – whether passenger or freight. Removing the rail workshops capacity to compete for work in a declining market prefaced the reduction in route mileage, and flexibility driven by the Beeching Plan. That the workshops needed to be rationalised in a state controlled infrastructure is clear, but maybe Beeching was simply Marples’ “fall guy” in pursuit of road transport and motorway building.

The rationalisation and re-organisation of British Railways saw the loss of skills, and the lack of foresight to train existing personnel in new technologies that were emerging, aside from which, the community and social impacts were never fully addressed. Politicians were very much exercised in 1962 and 1963 about these dramatic changes – some of which led to the creation of regions, or ‘development zones’ across the UK, but which ultimately did very little to create sustainable manufacturing industry.

In the debate about the dismantling of the British Transport Commission on 27th June 1962, Ernest Popplewell the MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne made the following observation in relation to the closure of BR workshops:

  • Another important factor in regard to Government interference concerns the skill of the men in the railway workshops, which is now being cast aside. We find in this new development scheme —and I will not argue against the merits of it—the concentration of new works in a few up-to-date, modern railway workshops. This means dispensing with the services of many workshop employees, although it is admitted by the British Transport Commission that these men have the skills and are capable of doing other work, such as producing locomotives for export. They are not being allowed to do so. We have proved, as was proved during the war years, that these self-same men can produce other things apart from those necessary for transport, and can make a jolly good job of it. But now, because this is a publicly-owned undertaking, the skill of these men is to be completely wasted.

This debate in the House of Commons on the changes to the railway organisation, and the creation of British Railways Board, was the precursor to the dramatic changes in the later Beeching Report. The new British Railways Board was due to take over the role of the old Railway Executive from 1st January 1963, and plans were already well in hand to ‘rationalise’ the railway workshops, and reduce staffing.

Even without the even more dramatic consequences following the Beeching Plan, the re-organisation of workshops had a major impact on communities up and down the country.

This debate was – to say the least – lively – and with the then Transport Secretary, Ernest Marples, in the hot seat, some ‘sharp quips’ were recorded. When describing the work of Beeching’s study group, Mr Popplewell advised Ernest Marples that a study group was not needed to determine what were and what were not the most suitable traffic for the railways. Marples retort was to say that the Newcastle MP could all that was needed to know about railways, but didn’t do so well when he was there.

The ‘banter’ at the Parliamentary debates seems to have been as good – or childish – then as it is today!

Overall, this debate was about how the organisational changes were to be put in place, and what the work in hand by Dr Beeching and his advisors would produce. The social and community impacts of the Beeching Plan have been covered at length over the years, but the effect of closing workshops, loss of jobs, loss of skills, opportunities, and local communities’ economic loss have been overlooked.

Was this deliberate?


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