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Beeching Axe

Related subjects Railway transport

Many railway lines were closed as a result of the Beeching Axe
Many railway lines were closed as a result of the Beeching Axe

The Beeching Axe is an informal name for the HM Government's attempt in the 1960s to reduce the cost of running railways in the United Kingdom. The name is that of the main author of The Reshaping of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching. Although this report also proposed new modes of freight service and the modernisation of trunk passenger routes, it is remembered for recommending wholesale closure of what it considered little-used and unprofitable railway lines, the removal of stopping passenger trains and closure of local stations on other lines which remained open.

The report was a reaction to significant losses which had begun in the 1950s as the expansion in road transport began to abstract passengers and goods from the railways; losses which continued to bedevil British Railways despite the introduction of the railway modernisation plan of 1955. Beeching proposed that only drastic action would save the railways from increasing losses in the future.

However, successive governments were more keen on cost-saving rather than elements of the report requiring investment. More than 4,000 miles of railway and 3,000 stations closed in the decade following the report, a reduction of 25 per cent of route miles and 50 per cent of stations. To this day in railway circles and among older people, particularly in parts of the country that suffered most from cuts, Beeching's name is still synonymous with mass closure of railways and loss of many local services.


Pre-Beeching closures

Although Dr Beeching is commonly associated with railway closures, a significant number of lines had actually closed before the 1960s.

After growing rapidly in the 19th century, the British railway system reached its height in the years immediately before the First World War. In 1913 there were 23,440 route miles of railway.

After the war, the railways began to face competition from other modes of transport such as buses, cars, road haulage and air travel. Due to this, a modest number of railway lines were closed during the 1920 and 1930s. Most of these early closures were of short suburban lines which had fallen victim to competition to buses and trams which offered a more frequent service. An example of this was the Harborne Line in Birmingham, which closed to passengers in 1934.

Also, a number of lines had been built by rival companies between the same places to compete with each other. With the grouping of railway companies in 1923, many of these duplicating lines became redundant and were closed. In total 1,264 miles of railway were closed to passengers between 1923 and 1939.

With the onset of World War II, the railways gained a reprieve as they became essential to the war effort and were heavily used. By the time the railways were nationalised in 1948, they were in a substantially worn down condition, as little maintenance or investment was carried out during the war.

Early closures under British Railways

By the early 1950s, railway closures began again. The British Transport Commission (BTC) created the 'Branch Lines Committee' in 1949, with a remit to close the least used branch lines. Many of the most minor and little used lines were closed during this period. However some secondary cross country lines were closed as well such as the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway in East Anglia, which was closed in 1959. In total 3,318 miles of railway were closed between 1948 and 1962.

This period saw the beginnings of a closures protest movement led by the Railway Development Association, whose most famous member was the poet John Betjeman.

Background to the Beeching Axe

By the early 1950s, economic recovery and the end of fuel rationing meant the pre-war trends of increasing competition for the railways reasserted themselves as more people could afford cars and road haulage could compete for freight. The railways struggled to adapt. Britain's railways had fallen behind other countries. In an attempt to catch up, the British Transport Commission (BTC) unveiled the modernisation plan in 1955, which proposed to spend more than £1,240 million on modernising the railways, replacing steam with diesel and electric locomotives. The plan promised to win back traffic and restore the railways to profit by 1962. Much of the modernisation plan was approved.

Traffic on the railways remained fairly steady during the 1950s, however the economics of the railway network steadily deteriorated. This was largely due to costs such as labour rising faster than income. Fares and freight charges were repeatedly frozen by the government in an attempt to control inflation and please the electorate.

The result was that by 1955 income no longer covered operating costs, and the situation steadily worsened. Much of the money spent on the modernisation plan had been borrowed, and much was wasted. By the early 1960s the railways were in financial crisis. Operating losses increased to £68m in 1960, £87m in 1961, £104m in 1962 (more than £1 billion in 2005 money). The BTC could no longer pay interest on borrowed money, which worsened the financial problem. The government lost patience and looked for radical solutions.

In tune with the mood of the early 1960s, the transport minister in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government was Ernest Marples, director of a road-construction company (his two-thirds shareholding was divested to his wife while he was a minister to avoid potential conflict of interests). Marples believed the future of transport lay with roads, that railways were a relic of the Victorian past.

An advisory group known as the Stedeford Committee after its chairman, Sir Ivan Stedeford set up to report on the state of British transport and provide recommendations. Also on the committee was Richard Beeching, at the time technical director of ICI. He was later, in 1961, appointed chairman of the new British Railways Board. Stedeford and Beeching clashed on issues related to the latter's proposals to prune the rail infrastructure. In spite of questions in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was never published and the proposals for the future of the railways that came to be known as the Beeching Plan were adopted by the government, resulting in the closure of a third of the rail network and the scrapping of a third of a million freight wagons.

Beeching believed railways should be a business and not a public service, and that if parts of the railway system did not pay their way—like some rural branch lines—they should close. His reasoning was that once closed, the remaining system would be restored to profitability.

Beeching I

A copy of The Reshaping of British Railways report, displayed beside the National Union of Railwaymen's response pamphlet.
A copy of The Reshaping of British Railways report, displayed beside the National Union of Railwaymen's response pamphlet.

When Beeching was chairman of British Railways he initiated a study of traffic flows on all the railway lines in the country.

This study took place during the week ending 23 April 1962, two weeks after Easter, and concluded that 30 per cent of miles carried just 1 per cent of passengers and freight, and half of all stations contributed just 2 per cent of income.

The "The Reshaping of British Railways" report (or Beeching I report) of 27 March 1963 proposed that of Britain's 18,000 miles (29 000 km) of railway, 6,000 miles (9 700 km) of mostly rural branch and cross-country lines should close. Further, many other rail lines should be kept open for freight only, and many lesser-used stations should close on lines that were to be kept open. The report was accepted by the Government.

At the time, the controversial report was called the "Beeching Bombshell" or the "Beeching Axe" by the press. It sparked an outcry from communities that would lose their rail services, many of which (especially in the case of rural communities) had no other public transport.

The government argued that many services could be provided more cheaply by buses, and promised that abandoned rail services would have their places taken by bus services.

A significant part of the report proposed that British Rail electrify some major main lines and adopt containerized freight traffic instead of outdated and uneconomic wagon-load traffic. In general, politicians jumped at money-saving parts of the plan but were less enthusiastic about those parts that required expenditure. Some of those plans were eventually adopted, however, such as the creation of the Freightliner concept and further electrification of the West Coast Main Line from Crewe to Glasgow in 1974. Additionally the staff terms and conditions were improved over time.

Rail closures by year

The remains of Rugby Central Station on the former Great Central Railway, one of many stations and lines that were closed under the Beeching Axe
The remains of Rugby Central Station on the former Great Central Railway, one of many stations and lines that were closed under the Beeching Axe

At its peak in 1950, British Railway's system was around 21,000 miles (33 800 km) and 6,000 stations. By 1975, the system had shrunk to 12,000 miles (19 300 km) of track and 2,000 stations; it has remained roughly this size thereafter.

Closures of unremunerative lines had been ongoing throughout the 20th century. Numbers increased in the 1950s, as the Branchline Committee of BR also looked for uncontentious duplicated lines as candidates for closure. Approximately 3,000 miles (4800 km) of line had already been closed between nationalisation and the publication of Beeching's report. After publication, however, the closure process was accelerated markedly.

  • 1950....150 miles (240 km) closed
  • 1951....275 miles (440 km) closed
  • 1952....300 miles (480 km) closed
  • 1953....275 miles (440 km) closed
  • 1954 to 1957....500 miles (800 km) closed
  • 1958....150 miles (240 km) closed
  • 1959....350 miles (560 km) closed
  • 1960....175 miles (280 km) closed
  • 1961....150 miles (240 km) closed
  • 1962....780 miles (1 260 km) closed
  • Beeching report published
  • 1963....324 miles (521 km) closed
  • 1964....1058 miles (1702 km) closed
  • 1965....600 miles (965 km) closed
  • 1966....750 miles (1 207 km) closed
  • 1967....300 miles (480 km) closed
  • 1968....400 miles (640 km) closed
  • 1969....250 miles (400 km) closed
  • 1970....275 miles (440 km) closed
  • 1971....23 miles (37 km) closed
  • 1972....50 miles (80 km) closed
  • 1973....35 miles (56 km) closed
  • 1974....0 miles (0 km) closed

Recommendations not implemented

Not all the recommended closures were implemented; a number of lines were kept open for political reasons. For example, lines through the Scottish Highlands such as the Far North Line and the West Highland Line, although listed for closure, were kept open, in part because of pressure from the powerful Highland lobby. The Central Wales Line was said to have been kept open because it passed through so many marginal constituencies that no-one dared to close it .

In addition, lines such as the Tamar Valley Line in Cornwall were kept open because the local roads were poor.

Some lines not recommended for closure were eventually closed, such as the Woodhead Line between Manchester and Sheffield in 1981, after the freight traffic on which it had relied on declined.

This is what the BR network would have looked like if Beeching's (II) plans had been implemented (all lines except those bolded would have been closed)
This is what the BR network would have looked like if Beeching's (II) plans had been implemented (all lines except those bolded would have been closed)

Beeching II

In 1964, Dr Beeching issued a second, less well-known, report "The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes", widely known as "Beeching II", which went even further than the first report. The report singled out lines that were believed to be worthy of continued large-scale investment.

Essentially, it proposed all lines other than inter-city routes and important commuter lines around cities had little future and should close. The map on the right shows that if the report had been implemented, the railway would have been cut to 7,000 miles (11,260 km), leaving Britain with little more than a skeletal system, large parts of the country including much of Wales, Northern Scotland, Yorkshire, East Anglia and the South West of England largely devoid of railways. The entire East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle was included for closure, which would have left the West Coast route via Carlisle as England's only rail link with Glasgow and Edinburgh and what little would be left of the Scottish rail network beyond.

The report was seen as a step too far and rejected by the Labour government and Dr Beeching resigned in 1965. Although politicians were responsible for rail closures, Dr Beeching's name has become synonymous with them ever since.

Changing attitudes and policies

It was in 1964, that a Labour government was elected under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. During the election campaign, Labour promised to halt the rail closures if elected. Once elected, however, they quickly backtracked on this promise, and the closures continued, at a faster rate than under the previous administration and until the end of the decade.

In 1965, Barbara Castle was appointed transport minister and she decided that at least 11,000 route miles (17,700 km) would be needed for the foreseeable future and that the railway system should be stabilised at around this size.

Towards the end of the 1960s it became increasingly clear that rail closures were not producing the promised savings or bringing the rail system out of deficit, and were unlikely ever to do so. Mrs. Castle also stipulated that some rail services that could not pay their way but had a valuable social role should be subsidised. However, by the time the legislation allowing this was introduced into the 1968 Transport Act, (Section 39 of this Act made provision for a subsidy to be paid by the Treasury for a three year period) many of the services and railway lines that would have qualified and benefited from these subsidies, had already been closed or removed, thus lessening the impact of the legislation. Nevertheless, a number of branch lines were saved by this legislation.


The closures failed in their main purpose of trying to restore the railways to profitability, with the promised savings failing to materialise. By closing almost a third of the rail network, Beeching managed to achieve a saving of just £30 million, whilst overall losses were running in excess of £100 million. These losses were mainly because the branch lines acted as feeders to the main lines and this feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed. This in turn meant less traffic and less income for the increasingly vulnerable main lines. The assumption at the time was that car owners would drive to the nearest railhead (which was usually the junction where the closed branch line would otherwise have taken them) and continue their journey onwards by train, but in practice, having once left home in their cars, they used them for the whole journey.

Another reason for Beeching plan's not achieving any great savings is that many of the closed lines only ran at a small deficit, some lines such as the Sunderland to West Hartlepool line cost only £291 per mile to operate, and so closing them made little difference to the overall deficit. Whereas (perhaps ironically) the busiest commuter routes have always lost the greatest amount of money, which even Beeching realised would be a political and practical "disaster" to close.

The use of light railway concepts, already in use on some branch lines at the time of the report, was ignored by Beeching. Such concepts have since been successfully utilised by British Rail and its successors on lesser-used lines that survived the axe (such as the line from Ipswich to Lowestoft which survives as a "basic railway"). Indeed there is little in the Beeching report regarding general economies (in administration costs, working practices and so on). For example a number of the stations which were closed (such as those on the Mansfield line, above) were fully staffed eighteen hours a day, served by steam trains which Beeching notes cost much more to run than the new diesel units and ran on lines which were controlled by multiple ancient signalboxes (again fully staffed, often throughout the day).

In retrospect many of the specific Beeching closures can be seen as very short-sighted, in that the routes would now be heavily used or even important trunk routes. The Settle to Carlisle line was threatened with closure, reprieved and now handles more traffic (both passenger and freight) than any time in its history. The Great Central Main Line, the last trunk route built in Britain until the opening of High Speed 1 in 2007, was intended to provide a link to the north of England with a proposed Channel Tunnel. It was built to the wider Continental loading gauge and constructed to the same standards as a modern high speed line, with no level crossings and curves and gradients kept to an absolute minimum. This line closed in stages between 1966 and 1969 after just 60 years of service. 28 years later the Channel Tunnel opened (with initial construction beginning only 5 years after the GCML closed). Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1, there has been discussion about ' High Speed 2' linking the tunnel to the North of England. Much of the GCML route has been levelled or built on (see below).

Failures of bus-substitution

The " bustitution" policy which replaced rail services with buses also failed. In many cases the replacement bus services were far slower and less convenient than the train services they were meant to replace, resulting in them being extremely unpopular with the public. As a consequence of this, most of the replacement bus services only lasted a few years before they were removed due to a lack of patronage, thus effectively leaving large parts of the country without any means of public transport. In practice, this policy proved unsuccessful, as the travelling public never saw a bus service as a suitable replacement for a rail service.

Final closures under Beeching

The closures were brought to a halt in the early 1970s when it became apparent that they were not useful, that the benefit of the small amount of money saved by closing railways was outweighed by the congestion and pollution caused by increasing reliance on cars which followed, and also by the general public's hatred of the cuts. The 1973 oil crisis proved to be the final end of large scale railway closures, as it highlighted the problems of relying entirely upon oil dependent road transport.

One of the last major railway closures (and possibly one of the most controversial) resulting from the Beeching Axe was of the 98-mile-long (158 km) Waverley Route main line between Carlisle, Hawick and Edinburgh, in 1969; plans have since been made in 2006 with the approval of the Scottish Parliament to re-open a significant section of this line. With a few exceptions, after the early 1970s proposals to close other lines were met with vociferous public opposition and were quietly shelved; this opposition stemmed from the public's experience of the many line closures during the main years of the cuts in the mid and late 1960s. Today, Britain's railways, like nearly every other railway system in the world, still run at a deficit and require subsidies.

Disposals of land and structures

Notwithstanding the positive environmental implications of a reopening, many of the areas along these routes have expanded and grown over the last 40 years. Where some lines were not profitable in 1963 (on a backdrop of falling passenger numbers and a rise in car use on uncongested roads) they could well be profitable now, or at least could have a desirable impact on reducing road congestion, pollution and congestion on the railway lines that have remained open, and thus be worth operating with a government subsidy. However, in many instances it would be prohibitively expensive for lines closed by the Beeching Axe to be reopened; although it was not stipulated in the report, since Beeching there has been a policy of disposing of surplus-to-requirements railway land. Therefore many bridges, cuttings and embankments have been removed and the land sold off for development; closed station buildings on remaining lines have often been either demolished or sold. This is as much a criticism of the policy since the Beeching closures of the wholesale disposal of former railway land rather than the protection of trackbeds using a system similar to the US Rail Bank scheme for possible future use.

Serpell Report

In the early 1980s, under the government of Margaret Thatcher, the possibility of more Beeching-style cuts was raised again, briefly. In 1983 Sir David Serpell, a civil servant who had worked with Dr Beeching, compiled what became known as the Serpell Report which called for more rail closures. The report was shown to have some serious weaknesses, such as the closure of the Midland Main Line (a busy route for coal transport to power stations) and the conversion of the Great Central Line to a bus route (politically unacceptable due to the area it served). The report met with fierce resistance from many quarters and, having lost credibility, it was quickly abandoned.

Track rationalisation

One effect of the Beeching closures which was not always immediately obvious was the single tracking of some formerly double track sections of line. In some cases - e.g. Princes Risborough (at one time the junction of four separate lines and an important railway town, after the closure of the GCR it was reduced to a single platform station) to Bicester singling was done but the line was re-doubled by Chiltern Railways in the early part of the 21st century. Another line which was singled was the line from Inverness to Dingwall which is now the major barrier to increasing the number of trains on the Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. The West of England Main Line formerly an express route from London to the South-West, was singled and effectively reduced to a secondary cross-country line, since at national level it was viewed as duplicating the Great Western Main Line.

Single tracking has caused problems. Traffic on the single-tracked Golden Valley Line between Cheltenham and Swindon and the Cotswold Line between Oxford and Worcester has increased to a point where redoubling is being considered. On the Cotswold line, there are now double the trains trying to run on the single track than in the 1960s after singling. As well as this, punctuality and reliability is worse on single lines- delays are added to delays where trains have to wait for a passing train to clear the single section. Finally, journey times are extended as waiting time and catch up time is added to the timetable. A journey from London to Worcester takes much longer now.


Since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, traffic levels have grown significantly and in some areas this has become close to gridlock. In recent years there have been record levels of passengers on the railways. A modest number of the railway closures have therefore been reversed.

In addition a small but significant number of closed stations have reopened, and passenger services been restored on lines where they had been removed. Many of these were in the urban metropolitan counties where Passenger Transport Executives have a role in promoting local passenger rail use.


After studies instigated by the now-defunct Greater London Council, the Snow Hill tunnel, south of Farringdon station, was reopened for passenger use in 1989, providing a link between the Midland Main Line, from St Pancras station, and the former Southern Railway, via London Bridge station. This line, named Thameslink, now provides the only north-south cross London rail link and it has been highly successful, providing a spine of service from Bedford to Brighton. Although its closure was not a Beeching cut, its success demonstrates the possibilities for rail expansion, in contradiction of Beeching's approach. The East London Line is re-opening a stretch of track that used to run into Broad Street.


Chandler's Ford in Hampshire opened its new railway station in 2003, which had closed as a result of the Axe in 1969

East Midlands

A notable reopening is the Robin Hood Line in Nottinghamshire, between Nottingham and Worksop via Mansfield, which reopened in the early 1990s. Previously Mansfield had been the largest town in Britain without a rail link.

West Midlands

In the West Midlands a new Birmingham Snow Hill station was opened in 1987 to replace the earlier Snow Hill station. The tunnel underneath Birmingham city centre that served the station was also reopened, along with the line towards Kidderminster and Worcester. This introduced a new service between Birmingham and London, terminating at Marylebone. The former line from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton has been reopened as the Midland Metro tram system. The line from Coventry to Nuneaton was reopened to passengers in 1988. Despite the successful and potential re-opening of many rail routes as light-rail and metro lines, the concept is still under-threat due to the varying popularity of these schemes with successive governments.

South Wales

Beeching saw South Wales as a declining industrial region. As a result, it lost the majority of its network. Since 1983 it has experienced a major rail revival, with 32 new stations such as Llanharan, and four lines reopened within 20 miles (32 km) of each other: Abercynon– Aberdare, Barry– Bridgend, Bridgend– Maesteg and the Ebbw Valley Line.


In Scotland, the Edinburgh- Bathgate line, reopening in 1985, was the first success of a new policy introduced by the Thatcher government of experimental reopenings that would become permanent only if well-used. It was and did. Plans are now in hand to reopen the 15 mile section between Bathgate and Drumgelloch, which will restore the complete through route from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Bathgate. More recently, a four-mile (6.4 km) section of the Argyle Line was reopened in December 2005, serving Chatelherault, Merryton and Larkhall for the first time since 1968. After several years of 'false' starts dating to the 1980s, the railway from Stirling to Alloa and Kincardine has been rejuvenated, and reopened on 19 May 2008, providing a passenger (and freight) route once again after a 40 year gap. A 35-mile (56 km) stretch of the former Waverley Route between Edinburgh and Galashiels is expected to be reopened in 2011 now that funding has been approved. The closure of the line in 1969 left the Scottish Borders area without any rail links.

Heritage railways

Part of the Midland line from Mangotsfield to Green Park has been re-opened as the Avon Valley Railway
Part of the Midland line from Mangotsfield to Green Park has been re-opened as the Avon Valley Railway


Several lines have also reopened as heritage railways.

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