The Slow Train: Britain Struggles to Escape the Legacy of Beeching’s Axe

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as the saying goes. Decisions that at the time looked logical and progressive now appear irrational and ridiculous. As debate rages over the merits and demerits of High Speed Two (HS2), as the government is forced to take control of a flagging rail franchise, and the North-South divide appears greater than ever, the so-called ‘Beeching cuts’ of the 1960s look increasingly short-sighted.

Despite inventing the locomotive and pioneering railway development, by the middle of the 20th century many of Britain’s tracks were in poor condition, lines were being underused and the motor car was fast becoming an affordable commodity. Motorways and A-roads made moving freight by lorry efficient and cost effective. Railways were increasingly seen as expensive and unnecessary and some rationalisation of the system was deemed essential.

Barnoldswick Station in Lancashire closed in 1965. The town is now served neither by a railway nor an A-road

Richard Beeching was chairman of the state-owned British Railways, and in two reports in 1963 and 1965 he advocated axing more than 50% of stations and over a third of route miles on the UK railway network. Virtually all of his recommendations were carried through. Yet the hasty implementation of Beeching’s plans ensured that there was no experimentation period, with land effectively abandoned and left in ruin for perpetuity.

As car traffic grew at a frighteningly quick pace and the population consistently expanded, Britain’s road network began to show signs of pressure. Simultaneously, new housing estates on the edges of cities, in suburbs or once small villages that had previously had railway stations now went unserved. Buses were in some cases a viable alternative, although they further contributed to the clogging of the highways that has become a persistent feature of the early 21st century.

Looking along the old Skipton to Colne line. Restoration of old railways is a far from simple task

It is therefore with no little irony that the government has unveiled a £500m fund to restore historic railway lines that disappeared on Beeching’s recommendations just over half-a-century ago. 

Of course this sum pales into insignificance when compared to the tens of billions of pounds likely to be spent on HS2 or Crossrail. Not only that, but many of the old lines will take considerable effort to revive, others have been built over, whilst others still now run adjacent to housing estates. Imagine buying a home next to a disused railway only to find out that it will soon be plied by screeching trains once again.

HS2 is a hugely expensive and hugely divisive scheme

The reality is that Britain needs major new infrastructure schemes like HS2 to better connect the major cities of the Midlands, North and Scotland with London. However, it also requires the re-opening of as many of the Beeching lines as possible to further connect more provincial areas of the country with these major cities. This will necessitate considerable heartache for residents and landowners in the path of such networks, not to mention the environmental damage it will cause.

Time has proven that the Beeching cuts were a folly and that they have undermined the modern British transport system. Undoubtedly the intentions were noble ones aimed at eradicating inefficiency and waste. But the swift implementation of changes ensured that the long-term consequences would be devastating, provoking the conundrum the UK faces today.

It will take an extortionate amount of money and political capital to see through the radical upgrades now necessary to modernise the British transport system. What else citizens and businesses are willing to sacrifice in order to get there should be the subject of lengthy expert analysis and public consultation.

The contemporary lament of Flanders & Swann has never appeared more apt:

No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street
We won”t be meeting again
On the slow train

At the moment, the train – be it slow or high speed – has barely left the depot.

From a Hangar in a Field to a Global Transport Hub: the necessary expansion of Heathrow

The proposed third runway at Heathrow is moving ever close to becoming law, sparking the protests and debates inevitable with such large infrastructure developments.

Climate change activists at the forefront of anti-expansion protests. Many have the support of their local MPs

There is little argument that Britain’s airports need greater capacity and that Heathrow’s location close to London – where most international businessmen and tourists wish to visit – made it a logical candidate for expansion. Of course there will be significant costs, not least the destruction of good chunks of the villages of Longford and Harmondsworth.

Yet such brutal decisions have precedent when it comes to Heathrow and, indeed, have helped transform the airport from an inauspicious beginning to the global transport hub that it is today.

Great West Aerodrome

In 1929 the Fairey Aviation Company purchased 60 hectares of farmland near the hamlet of Heathrow to establish a factory airfield.  A hangar was subsequently built on the land, which began operating as Great West Aerodrome in June 1930.

The airfield was used to test aircraft that had been manufactured at the Fairey Aviation Factory in Hayes.  These aircraft included the Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber and Fairey Hendon heavy bomber aircraft.

May 1931: the rather limited facilities of Great West Aerodrome; a single hangar and grass landing ground

In 1939 the airfield increased in importance, as Fairey aircraft production was stepped up to meet the wartime requirements of the Royal Navy.  In the early years of WWII the airfield was used to disperse aircraft from Royal Air Force (RAF) Northolt, a fighter station in west London.

In 1943 the airfield and surrounding countryside was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for the creation of RAF Heathrow.  This was intended to host United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) long-range bomber aircraft.  Construction work began in May 1944, requiring the total demolition of the hamlet of Heathrow.

Now you see it, now you don’t: the disappearance of Heathrow hamlet

Alas, the USAAF never required Heathrow and the airfield ended WWII having done little to turn the tide of war.

An international airport of the future

With the military having no requirement for it, Heathrow was slated as a new civilian airport for London. This was at a time when many former RAF bases were being put forward for civilian development.

London Airport, as it was known, opened in May 1946, albeit much of the airfield facilities remained under construction.

Unlike many of the wartime RAF bases, Heathrow had huge tracts of farmland surrounding it that was ripe for development. What’s more, it had never been used as an operational military base and therefore did not have to go through a decommissioning process like many others. It was, in essence, a blank canvas.

13th November 1946
1st June 1951

A convenient location on the outskirts of the capital was bolstered by the construction of the M25 to its west, resulting in a rapid expansion of Britain’s new international airport.

By 1966, the renamed Heathrow Airport was firmly established as the country’s pre-eminent international gateway. It has subsequently been progressively redeveloped, with new east-west runways and additional terminal buildings constructed.

What next?

Along with High Speed Two (HS2), the Heathrow expansion is the major infrastructure development of its generation. It is understandably controversial, likely to cost an exorbitant amount of money and turf people out of their homes.

Nevertheless, as with HS2, this is a positive statement from the British government which has demonstrated its willingness to invest in the future of a country many around the world now see as irrelevant. We want people to visit our country, to be able to access its more remote parts with convenience and at speed. That means big decisions have to be taken.

What’s more, the development will create and sustain thousands of jobs across a multitudinous supply chain.

The proposed expansion

One can obviously not take the destruction of property lightly and over-the-odds compensation should be offered to those whose homes lie in the path of the proposed third runway. Re-housing opportunities should be provided as close as possible to original dwellings at reduced prices. There cannot be a repeat of the regeneration of the East End, where residents have been turned out to the rural outskirts of the London/Essex border in the name of progress.

Distasteful to some, this is necessary. Whether the Fairey engineers back in the early 1930s thought their little aerodrome would see such expansion and cause so much controversy, I very much doubt it!