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Lord Beeching

The Right Honourable
Richard Beeching, Baron Beeching
Born (1913-04-21)21 April 1913
Sheerness, Kent, England
Died 23 March 1985(1985-03-23) (aged 71)
Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, West Sussex[1]
Residence "Brockhurst", Lewes Road, East Grinstead, RH19 3UN[1]
Nationality British
Education Maidstone Grammar School, Imperial College London
Occupation Physicist, Engineer
Known for Beeching Report on railway closures
Height 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)[2]
Title Baron Beeching
Spouse(s) Ella Margaret Tiley (m. 1938–1985)

Richard Beeching, Baron Beeching (21 April 1913 – 23 March 1985), commonly known as Dr Beeching, was chairman of British Railways and a physicist and engineer. He became a household name in Britain in the early 1960s for his report "The Reshaping of British Railways", commonly referred to as "The Beeching Report", which led to far-reaching changes in the railway network, popularly known as the Beeching Axe.

As a result of the report, just over 4,000 route miles were cut on cost and efficiency grounds, leaving Britain with 13,721 miles (22,082 km) of railway lines in 1966. A further 2,000 miles (3,200 km) were lost by the end of the 1960s.[3]

Early years

Beeching was born in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, the second of four brothers. His father was a reporter with the Kent Messenger newspaper, his mother a schoolteacher and his maternal grandfather a dockyard worker. Shortly after his birth, Beeching's family moved to Maidstone where his brothers Kenneth (who was killed in the Second World War) and John were born. All four Beeching boys attended the local Church of England primary school, Maidstone All Saints, and won scholarships to Maidstone Grammar School, where Richard was a prefect. Beeching and his elder brother Geoffrey attended Imperial College of Science & Technology in London where both read physics and took First Class honours degrees. His younger brothers both attended Downing College, Cambridge.[2]

Beeching remained at Imperial College where he undertook a research Ph.D under the supervision of Sir George Thomson. He continued in research until 1943, first at the Fuel Research Station in Greenwich in 1936 and then, the following year, with the Mond Nickel Laboratories in London where he was appointed senior physicist carrying out research in the fields of physics, metallurgy and mechanical engineering.[2]

In 1938 he married Ella Margaret Tiley whom he had known since his schooldays. They remained married for the rest of his life. They had no children and initially set up home in Solihull. During the Second World War Beeching, at the age of 29, was loaned by Mond Nickel on the recommendation of a Dr. Sykes at Firth Brown Steels to the Ministry of Supply, where he worked in their Armament Design and Research Departments at Fort Halstead. His first post was with the Shell Design Section where he had a rank equivalent to that of army captain. Whilst with Armament Design, Beeching worked under the Department's Superintendent and Chief Engineer, Sir Frank Smith, a former Chief Engineer with Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).[2]

After the war Smith returned to ICI as Technical Director and was replaced as Chief Engineer of Armament Design by Sir Steuart Mitchell who promoted Beeching, then 33 years old, to the post of Deputy Chief Engineer with a rank equivalent to that of Brigadier. Beeching continued his work with armaments, particularly anti-aircraft weaponry and small arms. In 1948 he joined ICI as Personal Technical Assistant to Sir Frank Smith where he remained for around 18 months, working on the production lines for various products such as zip fasteners, paints and leathercloth with a view to improving efficiency and reducing production costs. He was then appointed to the Terylene Council, and subsequently to the board of ICI Fibres Division.

In 1953 he went to Canada as vice-president of ICI (Canada) Ltd and was given overall responsibility for a terylene plant in Ontario. He returned after two years to become chairman of ICI Metals Division on the recommendation of Sir Frank Smith. In 1957 he was appointed to the ICI board as Technical Director, and for a short time also served as Development Director.[4]

Stedeford Committee

Sir Frank Smith, who had retired in 1959, was asked by the Conservative Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, to become a member of an advisory group on the financial state of the British Transport Commission to be chaired by Sir Ivan Stedeford. Smith declined but recommended Beeching in his place, a suggestion which Marples accepted.[2] Stedeford and Beeching clashed on a number of issues connected with Beeching's proposal to drastically prune Britain's rail infrastructure. In spite of questions being asked in Parliament, Sir Ivan's report was not published until much later.

Government appointment

British Rail Chairman

On 15 March 1961 Ernest Marples announced in the House of Commons that Beeching would be the first Chairman of the British Railways Board as from 1 June. The Board was the successor to the British Transport Commission which was broken up by the Transport Act 1962. Beeching would receive the same yearly salary that he was earning at I.C.I., the controversial sum of £24,000 (£367,000 in today's money), £10,000 more than Sir Brian Robertson, the last chairman of the British Transport Commission, £14,000 more than Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and two-and-a-half times higher than the salary of any head of a nationalised industry at the time. Beeching was given a leave of absence for five years by ICI in order to carry out this task.[5]

At that time the Government was seeking outside talent and fresh blood to sort out the huge problems of the railway network.

There was widespread concern at the time that, despite substantial investment in the 1955 Modernisation Plan, the railways continued to haemorrhage losses - from £15.6m in 1956 to £42m in 1960. Passenger and goods traffic was also declining in the face of increased competition from the roads; by 1960, one in nine families owned a car.[6] It would be Beeching's task to find a way to returning the industry to profitability as soon as possible.

First Beeching Report

On 27 March 1963, Beeching published his report on the future of the railways. Entitled "The Reshaping of British Railways", he called for the closure of one-third of the country's 7,000 railway stations. Passenger services would be withdrawn from around 5,000 route miles accounting for an annual train mileage of 68 million and yielding, according to Beeching, a net saving of £18m per year. The reshaping would also involve the shedding of around 70,000 British Railways jobs over three years. Beeching forecast that his changes would result in an improvement in British Railway's accounts of between £115m and £147m.[7] The cut-backs would include the scrapping of a third of a million goods wagons, much as Stedeford had foreseen and fought against. See Gourvish (link below)

Unsurprisingly, Beeching's plans were hugely controversial not only with trade unions, but with the Labour opposition and railway-using public. Beeching was undeterred and argued that too many lines were running at a loss, and that his charge to shape a profitable railway made cuts a logical starting point.[4] As one author puts it, Beeching "was expected to produce quick solutions to problems that were deep-seated and not susceptible to purely intellectual analysis."[8] For his part, Beeching was unrepentant about his role in the closures: "I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping."[9]

Beeching was nevertheless instrumental in modernising many aspects of the railway network, particularly a greater emphasis on block trains which did not require expensive and time-consuming shunting en route.

On 23 December 1964, Tom Fraser informed the House of Commons that Beeching was to return to ICI in June 1965.[10]

Second Beeching Report

On 16 February 1965, Beeching announced the second stage of his reorganisation of the railways. The report set out his conclusion that of the 7,500 miles (12,100 km) of trunk railway throughout Britain, only 3,000 miles (4,800 km) "should be selected for future development" and invested in. This policy would result in traffic through Britain being routed through nine selected lines. Traffic to Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland would be routed through the West Coast Main Line running to Carlisle and Glasgow; traffic to the north-east would be concentrated through the East Coast Main Line which was to be closed north of Newcastle; and traffic to Wales and the West Country would go on the Great Western Main Line, then to Swansea and Plymouth. Underpinning Beeching's proposals was his belief that there was still too much duplication in the railway network. Of the 7,500 miles (12,100 km) of trunk route, 3,700 miles (6,000 km) involves a choice between two routes, 700 miles (1,100 km) a choice of three, and over a further 700 miles (1,100 km) a choice of four.[11]

These proposals were rejected by the government which put an early end to his secondment from ICI to which he returned in June 1965. It is a matter of debate whether Beeching left by mutual arrangement with the government or if he was sacked. Frank Cousins, the Labour Minister of Technology, revealed to the House of Commons in November 1965 that Beeching had been dismissed by Tom Fraser.[12] Beeching denied this, pointing out that he had returned early to ICI as he would not have had enough time to undertake an in-depth transport study before the formal end of his secondment from ICI.[13]

Later years

Upon returning to ICI, Beeching was appointed liaison director for the agricultural division and organisation and services director. He later rose to become Deputy Chairman from 1966-68. In the 1965 birthday honours he was made a life peer as Baron Beeching, of Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject 'Organisation'.

The Beatles considered Lord Beeching when they were trying to find someone who could sort out the business affairs of their company Apple Corps.


The Beeching Report remains controversial. Critics have accused Beeching of ignoring the social consequences of his proposals (There is little doubt that rail replacement bus services were rarely a success [14] ), encouraging car use, ignoring the possible economies that might have saved lines and getting the figures wrong. Some have accused him of being part of - or the scapegoat for - a conspiracy against the railways involving politicians, civil servants and the road lobby.[15] The report was commissioned by a Conservative government with strong ties to the road construction lobby and its findings were largely implemented by the subsequent Labour administrations which received funds from unions associated with road industry associations.

Others have argued that it was Ministers, not Beeching, who were responsible for any shortcomings in assessing the social case for retaining lines and that economies had been tried and largely failed, the road lobby was less significant than the Treasury in making policy - and the Labour Party was funded by rail unions too.[16] Beeching's findings have also been reviewed in two books by his contemporaries. R.H.N (Dick) Hardy: Beeching - Champion of the Railway (1989) ISBN 0-7110-1855-3 and Gerard Fiennes: I Tried to Run a Railway (1967) ISBN 0-7110-0447-1. Neither book is in print as of 2013. Both are broadly sympathetic to Beeching's basic analysis and the proposed solution.

On the other hand, Hardy points out Beeching's political naivete and Fiennes notes that because a passenger service was producing a loss did not mean that it would continue to do so in the future. Like Fiennes and Hardy, Terry Gourvish's business history of British Rail sees Beeching as having a positive effect on railway management while not achieving perfection.[17] There is a broad consensus that the detail of figures used in individual cases were imperfect, but a wide divergence of view as to the significance of and motives for this.

Several ex-railway sites have been named after Beeching. There is a pub called Lord Beechings at the end of the Cambrian Railways at Aberystwyth, which until its refurbishment by SA Brain & Company Ltd was decorated with various railway memorabilia, in particular regarding the Aberystwyth - London and Aberystwyth - Carmarthen service, which he axed. It was previously called The Railway. The road Beechings Way at Alford, Lincolnshire, is so named to commemorate the loss of the formerly adjacent station and line (formerly from Grimsby to London, via Louth and Peterborough) under the Beeching Axe. The road 'Beeching Drive' in Lowestoft, Suffolk, located on the site of the former Lowestoft North station is also so named. Coincidentally, a smaller pedestrian area in the vicinity is known as 'Stevenson's Walk'.

There is a cul-de-sac in the Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe about seven miles (11 km) south of Leicester city centre aptly named Beeching's Close. The village was served by a line between Leicester and Rugby, closed under the Beeching Axe. The gardens of the houses on the west side of the close meet with the boundary of the old line. East Grinstead, where Beeching lived, was formerly served by a railway line from Tunbridge Wells (West) to Three Bridges, a line most of which was closed under the Beeching Axe. To the east of the current East Grinstead station, the line passed through a deep cutting. This cutting currently forms part of the A22 relief road through East Grinstead. Due to the depth of the cutting, locals wanted to call the road "Beeching Cut", but as this was deemed politically incorrect, it was instead called 'Beeching Way' .

In popular culture

The effect of the 'Beeching Axe' on a small station was the subject of Oh, Doctor Beeching!, a television sitcom by David Croft and Richard Spendlove from 1995 to 1997. A popular Flanagan and Allen song became the theme song which ran:

"Oh! Dr. Beeching, what have you done?
There once were lots of trains to catch, but soon there will be none!
I'll have to buy a bike, 'cause I can't afford a car.
Oh! Dr. Beeching! What a naughty man you are!"

Note: This is based on the once-well-known and railway-related poem.

"Oh! Mr porter, what can I do!
I wanted to go to Birmingham and they took me on to Crewe.
Take me back to London as quickly as you can
Oh Mr Porter what a silly girl I am!"

Flanders and Swann commemorated the loss of the branch lines and small country stations in 1964 in their song "Slow Train"; another song which remembers Beeching is The Beeching Report, a song against the Beeching Axe, recorded by the post-rock group iLiKETRAiNS.


External links

  • Why Does Policy Change?: Lessons from British Transport Policy 1945-99 Dudley and Richardson
  • "Britain's most hated civil servant" (BBC website)
Business positions
Preceded by
Sir Brian Robertson
Chairman of the
British Transport Commission

BTC abolished
New title Chairman of the
British Railways Board

Succeeded by
Sir Stanley Raymond

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