Think our rural rail services are patchy? It could have been even worse…
PUBLISHED: 05:02 01 December 2017 | UPDATED: 16:17 03 December 2017
The phrase 'Beeching Axe' is back in the news, with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling saying some lost railways could be reopened. Steven Russell looks back to the day the planned cuts rocked East Anglia
It was, said the mayor of one Suffolk seaside town, “almost like a death blow”. On the other side of the county, a community growing fast as it welcomed “overspill” Londoners fired off a telegram of protest to the man sharpening his axe.
He was Dr Richard Beeching, and he’d just unveiled a plan to stop Britain’s railways losing money by shutting 2,363 stations and closing 5,000 miles of track. That was 55% of stations and 30% of the railway.
Suffolk would be hit hard, explained the East Anglian Daily Times on March 28, 1963. Among those that found the axe hanging over them were The Stour Valley branch (serving Sudbury and Haverhill) and the Ipswich to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth line.
On that 60-mile East Suffolk stretch from Ipswich to Yarmouth South, opened in 1859, stations that would close were Woodbridge, Wickham Market, Saxmundham, Darsham, Halesworth, Brampton, Beccles, Oulton Broad South, Lowestoft North, Corton, Hopton-on-Sea, Gorleston Links Halt, Gorleston-on-Sea and Yarmouth South Town.
The 43-mile Stour Valley line from Mark’s Tey to Shelford, near Cambridge – with a seven-mile spur to Saffron Walden and Audley End – would lose 15 passenger stations: Chappel and Wakes Colne, Bures, Sudbury, Long Melford, Glemsford, Cavendish, Clare, Stoke, Sturmer, Haverhill, Bartlow, Linton, Pampisford, Ashdon Halt and Saffron Walden.
Three stations faced the chop on the eight-mile Saxmundham to Aldeburgh spur that opened in 1860: Leiston, Thorpeness Halt and Aldeburgh.
Lowestoft would lose its link to Great Yarmouth and be left with only its line to Norwich. All passenger services between Great Yarmouth and London would have to go via Norwich.
The line between Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and Ely wasn’t immune. There would be a drastic pruning of “stopping services” and possibly the eventual closure of some smaller stations.
Three Essex branch lines were also served notice: Witham to Braintree, Witham to Maldon, and Wivenhoe to Brightlingsea.
In total, it was planned to axe passenger services on about 228 miles of railway in Suffolk, Norfolk, north Essex and Cambridgeshire.
Talking about the mooted changes in their entirety, a railway spokesman said: “If the Minister decides that an uneconomic service must continue to run, then we shall have to go on operating it at a loss.” But he warned: “We do not think this is likely to happen in many cases.”
Not surprisingly, there was uproar.
Ipswich MP Dingle Foot, a Labour man, said: “The report is sheer madness. At a time when our roads are the most congested in the world, we are proposing to take traffic off the railways.
“The Government should be doing the reverse and moving goods and people from off the roads and onto the railways.”
It was Haverhill, facing the loss of its station, that sent a telegram to Dr Beeching, the £24,000-a-year chairman of the British Railways Board and architect of the blueprint for reform.
Its Urban District Council told him: “The London overspill town of Haverhill protests most strongly at proposals to sever its rail link with London.”
It was signed by town clerk William Blake, who admitted the news had left him staggered.
“Haverhill is being planned to expand to a population of over 18,000. This is not just a pipe dream. The expansion is actually being carried out under an agreement between the Haverhill Council and the LCC [London County Council], with the approval of the Ministry. For any town of 18,000 people to have no railway link is unthinkable.
“If Haverhill is deprived of its rail connection with the metropolis, it may well have a disastrous effect on the town expansion scheme.”
Not everyone was so downbeat. Geoffrey Boardman, vice-president of Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, did not think closure would be a major disaster but psychologically would have an adverse effect on firms thinking of moving to the expanding town.
Frank Jones, chairman of Lowestoft Town Council’s public and entertainments committee, said there were very serious implications for the holiday industry – and definitely for the string of holiday camps between the town and Great Yarmouth.
“Thousands of people pour in there every week during the summer. In the past, that holiday load has been carried to a very large extent by the railway, and it will now be driven on the roads.”
The two towns would also lose a colossal amount of day-tripper trade, he warned.
Jeannie Mann, an alderman of East Suffolk County Council, said: “Surely we are isolated enough already.”
And alderman William Amy, who had joined the staff of the Great Eastern Railway 60 years earlier and was a former mayor of Lowestoft, told the EADT: “The news is more than a shock to me. It’s almost like a death blow.
“It is far more than a tragedy to close the through route from Lowestoft to London, which business people, the public generally, and holidaymakers have enjoyed for a century.”
Charles Ramm, mayor-elect, called it scandalous. “Lowestoft Corporation, the trade unions and everyone concerned should fight this with everything they know.”
The mayor of Beccles called the proposal a disaster and pledged the council would fight to the last ditch to stop it. Closure would cause great hardship to the public and threaten the council’s efforts to attract more industry.
Similar sentiments were heard around Britain.
Dr Huw Edwards, chairman of the Welsh tourist boards, said: “To cut away the valleys from the seaboard is really vile, and to make mid-Wales to all intents and purposes a derelict area is a crime against the Welsh nation.”
It was mostly rural Britain that found its neck on the block – and for the usual reasons. The report made it clear the major money-losers were local services making frequent stops. With the steady growth of personal transport, there was no hope of making these services pay, it argued.
Most of the stopping trains in rural areas carried less than a busload of passengers and lost nearly twice as much money as they collected in fares.
The report said: “Most areas of the country are already served by a network of bus services more dense than the network of rail services which will be withdrawn, and in the majority of cases these buses already carry the major proportion of local traffic.
“With minor exceptions, these bus services cater for the same traffic flows as the railways, on routes which are roughly parallel. Taken as a whole, they have enough spare capacity to absorb the traffic which will be displaced from the railways.”
It added: “In most areas of the country, therefore, it appears that hardship will arise on only a very limited scale.”
And Dr Beeching did have his supporters. The general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, for instance, called it a “very able document” that was “an entirely honest attempt to rationalise the railway system of this country”.
Brian Harrison, Conservative MP for Maldon, said: “I support the Beeching plan, but where rail services are essential to the local community, then the local authorities concerned should have power to subsidise railways.”
Sir Harwood Harrison, Tory MP for Eye, said: “This is an extremely good report which for the first time sets out all the details about the country’s railways – where they make money and where they lose it.
“What I can’t understand is why it proposes that the passenger service between Ipswich and Saxmundham should be closed. This line carries a great many passengers.”
Of course, not everything came to pass. A dogged campaign stopped east Suffolk becoming more or less a rail-free zone, for instance, and we’ve still got trains travelling as far as Sudbury, and from Witham to Braintree. But the legacy of Dr Beeching’s handiwork can still be seen across much of rural England.
With East Anglia growing rapidly, perhaps the time is right to pursue Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s notion of reopened or new lines, linked to new house-building and commercial development, and see if a case could be made for support.
A new Age of the Train? It almost looks like joined-up thinking – in theory at least.
The details of Dr Beeching’s 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways (it would be followed in 1965 by The Development of the Major Railway Trunks Routes) sought to save between £115million and £140m and make the railways pay by 1970. As well as the closures of stations and lines, it envisaged:
* Big fare increases
* Fewer holiday trains at peak periods
* “Liner trains”, carrying freight between main industrial centres, that would be cheaper than road transport. Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridge and Harwich were among the 55 rail centres designated as likely depots and terminals where standardised freight containers would be switched between rail and road, and vice versa.
Back in 1973, it was hoped a start could be made on implementing the Beeching changes that autumn. The report had first to be approved by Parliament, and formally advertised.
Regional transport users’ consultative committees would hear arguments about any difficulties it might cause, and then put views forward to the Minister of Transport, who would make a final decision.
While agreeing that “extensive reshaping on the lines proposed is essential”, Minister of Transport Ernest Marples told MPs (on the day the report launched) that no opposed closures would happen without his consent.
A British Railways spokesman told the EADT that lines losing their passenger trains would probably carry on running goods services, though traffic would be withdrawn gradually as new methods of moving freight took over. Land and buildings would then be disposed of.
The cuts also forecast about 70,000 redundancies over the next two or three years, though British Railways’ Norwich area traffic manager thought there wouldn’t be much difficulty absorbing staff, “provided men are prepared to move their jobs within the area”.
The closure of a line like the East Suffolk would happen over a number of years and this would cushion the impact, he said. Retirements and “normal wastage” would help.