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article imageOp-Ed: Britain's railways: Beeching, McNulty and beyond

By Alexander Baron     Mar 28, 2013 in Travel
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the publication of the infamous 'Beeching Report'. This was said by some to have led to the death of rural England, but it could be the worst is yet to come.
In March 1961, Richard Beeching was an obscure administrator when it was announced in Parliament that he would take over the new British Railways Board. He is though remembered not as the Board's first chairman but as a mad axeman who was given carte blanche to hack to death a beloved institution. Although it is called The Reshaping Of British Railways, this now notorious document is usually alluded to by the good doctor's name.
Before Beeching wielded his axe - likewise the Beeching Axe - Britain had over seventeen thousand miles of railway network. This was reduced to less than 13,800. Two years later, Beeching produced a second report which fortunately was rejected.
At the time of these cuts, we had a nationalised railway system, and fares were reasonable. The dogmatic privatisation of everything (including the family silver) in the Thatcher era has left us with a transport network that is run purely for profit, and with both the taxpayer and the traveller subsidising these private companies, giving us in effect the worst of both worlds. As though that were still not enough, the government of the day has resurrected Dr Beeching in the persona of Sir Roy McNulty, whose new proposals have been met with fierce resistance by the rail unions and others.
What is behind this madness? Some say the road lobby, but let us avoid any hair-brained conspiracy theories. Here is American tax rebel Irwin Schiff talking in September 2001 about the destruction of America's infrastucture. Here - from about 1 minute 35 seconds talking about trolley cars (trams), and here - about trains.
America is vastly bigger than the UK, and most people prefer to fly if they have to travel any distance, but what was so bad about an urban transport network?
The English capital, London, has excellent public transport, as do one or two other cities; many American cities have good public transport, but as soon as you move out of the big cities, especially to the countryside, if you don't have your own transport, it's a different ball game.
The big question is are we prepared to allow the UK's public transport network to go the same way as the American network, where if you want to go anywhere off the beaten track, it's a taxi or nothing, and where major commuter routes will cost you an arm and a leg?
If we don't, then we need more projects like Crossrail, and new investment in the main rail network nationwide, otherwise not only will travel be the prerogative of the rich, but the economy will continue to wind down, even without austerity.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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