Asking business to reshape public services is not always mistaken | Ian Jack

Fifty years ago Harold Macmillan's government paid Dick Beeching handsomely to tell it what parts of the railway it should cut or close

In the early 1960s, two of Britain's great traditional industries had as their chairmen two self-important men whom Harold Macmillan's government had appointed as modernisers and cost-cutters. They were alike in so many ways: their black moustaches and baldness, their modest social backgrounds, their peerages and their generous frames. But perhaps only one of them wanted to be liked. "Compared with Alf Robens at the Coal Board, poor Dick Beeching is hardly a winsome personality," wrote Labour's Richard Crossman in the Guardian. "He makes every cut in a local service look like a piece of deliberate cruelty, and every closure of a station like an act of class war."

Crossman was writing soon after the publication of Dr Richard Beeching's report, The Reshaping of British Railways, which next month will celebrate its 50th anniversary as one of the most notorious documents ever published by a British government. When it appeared I had a job as an assistant in a public library, and I remember how, unusually for any government document other than the Highway Code, it was occasionally requested in the reference department. Also, again unusually for anything printed by HMSO, it had a contemporary look: the covers of its two parts were in dark blue rather than light blue, and did without the royal coat of arms. Nowhere did it name the man who'd written it; authorship hid its human face behind the words British Railways Board.

Still, everyone knew about Beeching, if only because his salary was headline news. At £24,000 it was nearly five times as much as his political mentor, Ernest Marples, was getting as minister of transport and 90 times more than the wage of a teenage library assistant in Fife. No other head of a nationalised industry earned as much, but Beeching had been borrowed by the government on a five-year contract from ICI, which paid him that salary as its technical director. It amounted, apparently, to the going rate for the kind of "brilliant business brain" that was needed to sort out the railways; an argument that could be heard in a changed railway context – the bonuses for Network Rail directors, for example – half a century later.

In fact, Beeching was not a businessman as we presently understand businessmen or businesswomen to be. He could never have been Lord Sugar's apprentice. He could never have been Lord Sugar. He was a maker rather than a seller. The son of a journalist and a schoolteacher, he went from a grammar school in Kent to Imperial College London, where he got a first in physics and a PhD in the behaviour of electrons. His career after that took him into the laboratories of the Mond Nickel Company and the armaments division of the Ministry of Supply. At ICI he spent two years superintending the building of an artificial fibres plant in Ontario. Companies such as ICI and Courtauld were then the aristocrats of British manufacturing, respected for their innovation and forward thinking, and Beeching was known to be the kind of bold manager who took pleasure in calling a spade a spade. To a government anxious to remodel a vast and increasingly unprofitable public enterprise – it had 500,000 employees, 4,700 stations and losses of £86.9m in 1961 – he seemed the ideal choice.

And perhaps he was. Certainly his later reputation as "the man who destroyed Britain's railways" may owe as much to his gift for personal publicity as to his report. Long before the report's publication on 27 March 1963, newspaper stories of its possible findings had begun to prepare the ground. An anonymous writer in the Guardian described it as "the most assiduous public relations effort this oddly old-fashioned industry has ever made … we have all been prepared, quite deliberately, for the worst". Of course, a lot of the worst did arrive: Beeching proposed closing 2,363 stations and 6,000 out of 18,000 route miles. But Crossman was right. The tone of "deliberately cruelty" came more from the chairman's persona and behaviour than anything he wrote.

This week, reading the report itself for the first time, rather than a secondhand summary, I was struck by its brevity: 60 pages hardly seem enough to describe the problem, never mind a cure that, through changed travel patterns, job losses, torn-up tracks and demolished Victorian architecture, would change Britain's landscape and how it felt to live in it for ever. But that wasn't the only striking thing. A second, strange to say, was the humane conduct of the argument. It was acknowledged that the proposals would affect the lives of both railway workers and railway travellers. On the one hand, too much of the system was underused – one third of the route mileage carried only 1% of the total passenger miles – but on the other hand, to close everything that had no realistic prospect of turning a profit "would lead to a grave risk of destroying assets" which in future, if transport habits changed, might be valuable.

The third surprise was to see that the railway still earned more than half its income from freight. The closure of passenger branch lines and stations attracted most popular attention, but freight was Beeching's preoccupation, because he believed that by making its transport swifter and less complicated, he could secure the railway's future. Freight and London commuter traffic were what he felt railways did best.

Beeching left his railway job in 1965, a year after Labour came to power. Some of his proposals were never implemented: lines still run north and west of Inverness. Others were implemented unwisely: the old Waverley route to the Scottish Borders from Edinburgh is now being rebuilt at a cost of £348m. Many closures would have happened anyway. The old kind of railway was well on its way to vanishing with or without Beeching – the kind, for example, that had given our village station a stationmaster who burned a coal fire in the ticket office and lived in the station house, where he kept bees. What Beeching did was to give an impetus to these developments and provide a focus for our unease. People fretted about "the Beeching axe" but how many of them, newly empowered by their cars, really cared much to travel by train? Even the Railway Magazine found his analysis "basically correct".

Perhaps he became a bogeyman because at some unconscious level people recognised that he was their fault – if they'd used the railways more he would not have been necessary. A displaced self-hatred. Or perhaps it was much simpler – his irritating moustache, his huge salary, his know-it-all style.

Crossman in the Guardian thought his report was a "reductio ad absurdum of commercialism applied to a public service". It offered the Labour opposition the chance to make "ordinary people see that central planning and public ownership are not doctrinaire fads, but something the nation has got to accept if it wants an efficient and sensibly balanced road-rail system". Labour came to power in the next year, and the chance, not for the last time, went begging.

Contributor

Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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