Bristol Times: Fifty years since Doctor Beeching took an axe to Britain's railways.
Dr Richard Beeching's 1963 report, The Reshaping of British Railways, pointed the way for the closure of 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of line.
In real terms this represented a devastating 55 per cent of all stations and 30 per cent of all routes.
By closing almost a third of the network, Dr Beeching achieved a saving of just £30 million, while overall losses were running in excess of £100 million a year.
Perhaps overlooked was the fact that the branch lines had acted as feeders to the main lines and that passenger traffic was lost when they closed.
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Although he failed to achieve his aims he always remained unrepentant saying,
"I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping."
Beeching was no railway man, but rather a number-crunching industrialist (he worked for ICI) whose strict brief from Harold MacMillan's Tory led government was to make the railways pay their way.
It was a matter of debate as to whether he left his job by mutual arrangement, or was sacked.
But a Labour Minister of Technology, Frank Cousins, later revealed to the House of Commons that Beeching had, in fact, been dismissed by Transport Minister, Tom Fraser.
Whatever the reason, Dr Beeching's name has gone down in history as the man who decimated the country's branch lines.
In reality mileage had been contracting, albeit slowly, for some decades previously.
In 1953, 10 years before Beeching, the British comedy film, The Titfield Thunderbolt – shot on a Somerset branch line – was about a group of villagers trying to keep their line open.
After the First World War (1914-18) the privately run railway companies had found themselves facing increasing competition from road transport.
This led, between 1923 and 1939, to the closure of some 1,300 miles of line, some of which had, in fact, never been profitable.
The network was kept busy during the Second World War running goods, munitions and service personnel about, after which, albeit in a rather run down state, it was nationalised.
A special government committee decided that, in the interests of economy, the least use lines had to go and in the four years between 1948 and 1962 over 3,000 miles were shut down.
This decision saw the beginnings of a protest movement led by the Railway Development Association, a leading light of which was the conservationist/poet, John Betjeman.
An end to petrol rationing, and the growth of car ownership (annual growth 10 per cent) was now leading to passengers, as well as freight, leaving the railways.
By 1955 British Railway's income no longer covered its operating costs – and things were getting steadily worse.
A Modernisation Plan, which would see steam power replaced by diesel and electric locomotives, was supposed to put the company back in profit by 1962.
Instead, as losses continued to mount by £300,000 a day, the government started looking at more radical solutions.
Beeching's report, published on March 27, 1963, carried the proviso that some branch lines should be kept open for freight alone.
The report also recommended that these lines should be used mainly for minerals and coal, and that the system should make use of new, containerised, systems.
Not all the lines threatened with closure by British Railways actually went.
Lines through Scotland, such as the West Highland, were kept open, partly due to pressure from a powerful Highland lobby.
And the Central Wales Line, it's said, was kept open because it passed through many marginal constituencies.
The Tamar Valley line was kept open for more practical reasons – the local roads were so poor.
Other routes planned for closure, but which survived, included the famed Settle-Carlisle line.
Closures in our area included the Portishead branch (although the whole line was never taken up) and the Midland line from Bristol (St Philips) to Bath, now a cycleway.
Another loss was the so-called "Strawberry line" which, after leaving the main GWR line at Yatton, wended its way through Cheddar to Wells.
Clevedon also lost its station, and three mile branch, which left the main line at Yatton.
Weston-super-Mare was lucky, it kept its small branch line, but Burnham-on-Sea, serviced by the Somerset and Dorset, lost both its line and its station.
One local line that somehow escaped the Beeching "axe" was the one between Temple Meads and Severn Beach.
Eventually some common sense finally prevailed and in 1964 Transport Minister Barbara Castle stipulated that, although some rail services could not pay their way, they nevertheless had a valuable social role and should be subsidised.
In many cases the promised replacement bus services had been far slower, and less convenient, than the rail services they had replaced, and were unpopular with the public.
Most of these underused services lasted only a few years, leaving large parts of the country with no public transport whatsoever.
With hindsight operating costs could have been reduced by reducing staff and removing redundant services while keeping the stations open.
By 1970, just seven years after Beeching, the branch line closures were virtually complete.
How ironic then, to see the Portishead line, closed since 1964, re-opened to passengers, Bristol commuters, in a few years time.
In 1963 John Betjeman made a nostalgic film, Branch Line, which followed 24 miles of the Somerset & Dorset line from Evercreech Junction through to Highbridge and Burnham-on-Sea.
And those writers and performers of satirical songs, Flanders and Swann, wrote a lament for the lost lines entitled "Slow Train".
The 1990s BBC TV comedy series, Oh, Doctor Beeching! set in a small fictional branch line railway station threatened with closure, also revived memories of the 1960s.
Next week we'll take a look at a new book, Beeching: 50 Years On which describes the surviving "Heritage Lines" now successfully run as leisure enterprises by volunteers.
In April 1960 an advisory group set up by the PM Harold Macmillan was asked to report on the state of British transport and to make recommendations.
Sir Frank Smith, a retired former Chief Engineer at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was asked by the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, to become a member of the group.
Smith declined, recommending instead Dr Beeching, who had a PhD in Physics, and was on ICI's main board, but who had no experience of the railways.
In March, 1960, Ernest Marples, whose interests lay in road transport, decided to appoint Beeching as Chairman of the British Railways Board with a salary of £24,000, a huge sum in those days.
A Transport Act of 1962 saw the end of the British Transport Commission (BTC) which had overseen railways, canals and road freight.
The Labour government of 1964, led by PM Harold Wilson, had vowed to halt the Tory's rail closures, but quickly backtracked on their promises.
A 1968 Transport Act made provision for subsidies to be paid to loss-making lines but by then, of course, many branch lines, which would have qualified, had already closed.
In 1970, seven years after Richard Beeching's first report, the rail and station closures were complete.