Beeching's axe proved to be a kind cut for our railway heritage, claims new book
IT'S 50 years since Dr Richard Beeching's report signalled the end for a goodly chunk of the nation's once extensive Victorian railway system. "The recommendations... were greeted with horror and indignation," writes Anthony Poulton-Smith in a new publication about Beeching and his legacy.
"But with hindsight we now see that the report, more than any other factor, helped to preserve the nation's railway heritage.
"Without it the buildings, disused lines, locomotives, rolling stock, signalling systems and signs would simply have been removed and tucked into a corner to be forgotten, or even rotted away.
"Perhaps the time is now right to take a fresh look at the situation, both in 1963 and in the ensuing five decades."
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Richard Beeching certainly made mistakes, yet 50 years on it seems that, for many people, he was not the demonic figure that he is still made to be.
"It is probably true to say that Beeching's single biggest mistake was taking the job in the first place," concludes Poulton-Smith.
"He was in a no-win situation almost as soon as he signed the contract, which would have been true of whoever took on the task.
"Richard Beeching was also extremely unlucky.
"Factors he had no control over, nor could have envisaged as having such an influence, crept up on him"
The early 1960s was, after all, the dawn of the motorway age and mass car ownership.
Like it or not, the automobile and the lorry were now here, providing the main means of transport, for the foreseeable future.
Three West Country lines closed by Beeching were saved for the nation by steam railway enthusiasts and tireless volunteers.
"This story goes back to 1869 and the opening of the Mangotsfield and Bath branch line, enabling Bath to be connected to the Midland Railway network," says Poulton-Smith.
"Essentially a local service, it also connected with trains from the Midlands, Bristol and the increasingly popular destinations on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway."
Almost a century later, in March 1966, the final passenger train ran along the line, a victim of the Beeching cuts.
As with many other heritage lines, the tracks were ripped up for scrap and the buildings boarded up. But in 1972 the first steps were taken to reopen this former branch line.
"It eventually became known as the Avon Valley Railway, three miles of line which is now a popular tourist attraction" says Poulton-Smith.
"When the first engines ran along the reopened track it was just 100 yards long.
"One major landmark was an extension which opened in 1991, when the part of the line between Bitton station and Oldland Common was completed.
"The yard houses rolling stock and covered workshops where repairs and restoration are carried out by an army of volunteers."
The Avon Valley Railway now brings pleasure to many thousands of visitors each year.
Another West Country heritage line, a legacy of the Beeching era, is the West Somerset Railway, which, since the 1970s has carried passengers from Taunton to Minehead, via Washford and Dunster, on 23 miles of preserved line.
A new turntable at Minehead, the HQ of the heritage trust, means that there is no need for the steam engines to run backwards.
Today the West Somerset has fifty permanent staff and a volunteer workforce of 900, many of who are ex-British Rail staff.
The line has been used extensively for filming – The Belstone Fox (1973), TV's The Land Girls (1997) and A Hard Day's Night (1964) featuring The Beatles.
The cost of keeping two steam engines running for a whole day (80 miles) runs to £1,000 and the engines have to be stripped down and rebuilt every ten years.
This used to connect Wells with Witham, now part of the "Heart Of Wessex" line running through Somerset and Dorset from Bristol to Weymouth.
Passengers took their last train in 1963 but quarry freight continued to use it until 1985.
In 1972 the internationally acclaimed wildlife artist, David Shepherd bought Cranmore station and started running his own two locos, Green Knight and Black Prince, there.
The 24 volunteers hope to extend the line to Shepton Mallet sometime in the future.
The station has been restored, along with a ticket office, a well stocked museum and a period waiting room.
Like the West Somerset, the three mile long line has been used by a number of film companies, which certainly helps the finances.
Beeching – 50 Years On by Anthony Paoulton-Smith is published by The History Press and costs £16.99.
As well as a mass of detail about many of the UK's heritage lines the book also includes a full alphabetical list of station closures.