Rail Workshop Closures Overshadowed by Beeching?

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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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60 Years of Modernisation

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In 1955, the then British Transport Commission announced its programme for the modernisation & re-equipment of British Railways.  This was set against a backdrop of a worn out rail network, which had had little or no investment since the end of WW2.  The programme included the building of no more steam locomotives, and the use of diesel and electric traction for commuter as well as main line services.

More importantly it included a massive programme to electrify main lines, rebuild stations, workshops, signalling and telecoms systems that were out of date and falling apart.

The programme was simply announced by the BTC in 1955, with Government support. The following year, the Government issued a white paper “Proposals For The Railways”, which was intended to review the financial prospects and strategy for the railways.  The BTC had put in a request to increase freight charges, partly to cover the financial troubles which were becoming ever deeper.

On reflection, you might think it ironic, considering that the railways were generating operating surpluses of between £29million and £55million between 1948 and 1955.  The cause of their losses was simply the capital interest charges they were required to pay – amounting to £50million annually.

When the BTC was set up in 1947 they were hampered from the start by having no capital reserves, and constrained by fixed interest borrowing to allow replacement of expired assets (valued at pre-1939 prices), with new at increased post-war prices.  The amount of spending and type, and volume of assets that could be replaced was also constrained….

Until the modernisation and re-equipment programme was approved.

The 1956 “Proposals For The Railways” white paper recognised these difficulties and introduced a more flexible freight charging arrangement to try in some way to enable British Railways to compete on a more commercial footing.

The modernisation plan had already shown some clear benefits with the introduction of new diesel multiple unit trains on selected routes/services.  They were still a novelty as this excursion handbill from 1959 shows:

BR Ingleton Diesel Excursion May 1959 copy

The 1956 White Paper certainly seemed to provide evidence of very considerable uplift in both passenger numbers and receipts on the new services.   The choice of the West Cumberland lines gave an interesting comparison with the ‘city centred’ commuter lines around Leeds and Birmingham.

% Increase
Service Inaugurated Journeys Receipts
Leeds-Bradford-Harrogate

14-6-1954

144

100

Carlisle-Silloth 29.11.1954 66 44
Carlisle-Penrith-Workington 3.1.1955 84 104
Carlisle-Whitehaven 7.2.1955 44 62
King’s Lynn-Wells-Norwich 19.9.1955 40 30
Bury-Bacup 6.2.1956 132 164
Birmingham-Lichfield 5.3.1956 210 208

Clearly the modernisation plan was working in these examples, and the investment in new equipment continued to be justified.  However, only 3 years later, the “Re-Appraisal” white paper set the scene for some memorable errors, and paved the way for the perhaps greater errors delivered through Ernest Marples in 1963, with Dr Beeching’s report.

-oOo-