The Beeching axe, 50 years on

The axeman cometh

The axeman cometh

Can you name the 1963 boss of British Steel, British Gas or Marks & Spencer? I thought not. But you can almost certainly name the 1963 chairman of British Railways. His name? Dr Richard Beeching.

Dr Beeching wields his axe. Photos: PA, via ITV website

Dr Beeching wields his axe. Photos: PA, via ITV website

Beeching’s fame – or notoriety – is solely based on a report published 50 years ago today, on 27 March 1963. The Reshaping of British Railways proposed that 6,000 miles of railway and over 2,000 stations should be closed to reduce BR’s heavy losses. It reflected the rise in car ownership, and the view that the railways were in permanent, irreversible decline.

Railway closures didn’t begin with Beeching. Thousands of miles of track were closed between the wars, especially in 1930. But Beeching took things to a new level. It’s hard to argue with many of the closures – a lot of trains on rural branches carried a handful of passengers. Yet his reasoning was often simplistic, and many unprofitable lines were the victims of deliberate neglect, as rail historian Adrian Vaughan showed in his classic account of the last days of the steam railway, Signalman’s Twilight.

Beeching’s axe went beyond winding branches with a steam engine pulling one or two carriages. Beeching axed the last complete main line to London – the Great Central line to Sheffield – and the Waverley route through Scotland’s border country, not to mention the Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge via Milton Keynes.

Today’s rail bosses are looking to restore at least some of these lost links.

Few realise that Beeching had a sequel. ‘Beeching 2’ in 1965 would have closed parts of Britain’s most important mainlines, including the Great Western west of Plymouth. It didn’t happen, as the backlash forced British Railways to relent. (A similar reaction torpedoed the proposed Serpell cuts of 1983. As a result, few remember Sir David Serpell, unlike Dr Beeching.)

The way we were: British Railways 1963

The way we were: British Railways 1963

It’s hard to imagine how different Britain’s railways were in 1963, the year I was born. Many ancient Victorian and Edwardian steam engines were still in service. Quite a few stations close to London were still lit by oil or gas light. Dr Beeching had a vision of a modern intercity and freight railway, which still lives on today. His greatest failure was to think the railways could not flourish again. His folly has been shown as the number of passengers has almost doubled in the past 20 years.

Dr Richard Beeching lost the PR battle. Yet he put a lot of effort into explaining his proposals. Here’s the rail boss whose name we still remember 50 years on, explaining his axe.

Is your car connected to the internet?

I was intrigued by a BBC story this week suggesting that by 2014 every new car would be connected to the internet.

Readers were quick to rubbish the idea. To take just one example from Ziggyboy:

“I want to drive a car not a computer. If I want to use the internet I sit at my desk and if I want to go somewhere I drive my car. Will there be a new law about using your computer whilst driving. Not that it would make any difference as lots of people still use their mobiles at the wheel and are not caught. I for one won’t be interested I just want a car that get’s me from A to B that’s all.”

Yet I can see real benefits in having a connected car. I’d love my car to pay the Severn Bridge toll for me, saving time at the toll booth. What about a satnav that shows traffic on the map and updates to show diversions if the M4 is closed? A car park finder that will find and pay for a space for you?

Gimmicks? Perhaps. But I’m pretty sure that in 10 years we’ll take all this for granted.

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Going Underground

Going Underground

The London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday. On 9 January 1863, a Metropolitan Railway steam train made its way from Paddington to Farringdon to launch the world’s first underground railway.

The tube has played a vital part in London life: commuter network, bomb shelter and icon. It remains a precious symbol of life in the capital, even for those of us who don’t live in London.

It’s hard to imagine sulphurous steam trains operating in the claustrophobic stations and tunnels – amazingly, some Victorians thought the smoke health-giving, like going to a spa. In time, electricity made the Underground smoke-free. (And the first true ‘tube’, the City & South London Railway running from the City to Stockwell, was electric from the start in 1890.)

The Underground’s iconic status owes a lot to its long-lived corporate identity. The roundel is over a century old, and the typeface (although later modified) dates from the dark days of the Great War. Frank Beck created his famous map in 1933 as the Underground began life as a publicly owned institution: the London Passenger Transport Board, better known as London Transport.

The 1930s were in many ways the tube’s golden era with constant expansion, stunning architecture and new trains that served two generations and survived a world war. (I started working in London in 1987 as London Transport brought back 1938 trains to cope with demand.) Under Frank Pick, London Transport led the world as an integrated system of underground trains, buses and trams, as well as a patron of industrial art and design.

That public ownership has long outlived the nationalised British Railways – whose celebrated 1960s corporate identity has given way to an explosion of liveries and typefaces, destroying the very idea of a common network. In today’s Guardian, Andrew Martin rightly describes the tube as the people’s railway. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’ll usually find the tube the fastest, most convenient way to get around the city.

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Despite its name, most of the Underground is actually overground. Amersham (above, with then one year old Owen with a 1962 train – built the year of the first Beatles single) is at the country end of the Met Line. Trains from Amersham only head into the tunnel at Finchley Road, a handful of miles from the 1863 line at Baker Street. That 1962 unit was one of the trains that replaced the last passenger steam services on the Underground after almost a century. Curiously, London Transport was still using steam for engineering trains as late as 1971 with former Great Western pannier tanks.

Finally, as Britain (apparently) faces a cold snap, here’s one of those 1960s Met line trains arriving at Farringdon on 17 December 2010.

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

The wonderful London Transport Museum

Going Underground: London Transport Museum

The railways created modern London: first the mainline and suburban lines, followed by the Underground.

London was the birthplace of the underground railway in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to Farringdon. Three decades later the city created the first deep level ‘tube’, the City and South London Railway, which is now part of the Northern Line.

The wonderful London Transport Museum in Covent Garden tells this fascinating story. It’s extraordinary how many relics of the earliest days survive, including a City and South London carriage. The museum is very hands-on: today, Owen, four, drove a Jubilee Line train. (Last year he drove a bus and Met Line train.)

Tube trains have very long lives. This autumn saw the end of the Met Line A stock trains, which replaced steam on the Met LIne in 1961. When I first worked in London in 1987, London Transport had just reintroduced 1938 tube trains to cope with surging demand. They’re still in use on Network Rail on the Isle of Wight.

Highly recommended.

Here’s my video of our visit in October 2011.

Maps: icon to icons

The maps we loved: the Vale of Glamorgan 1970s, mapped by Ordnance Survey

Last month, Apple came under fire for the poor quality of its new Apple Maps app for iPhone and iPad. The reaction showed how our idea of what a map is has utterly changed. A visitor from the 1970s would be baffled by the idea of a computer company producing a map – let alone the concept of having a map on a phone. They’d have thought it as crazy as a television making a cup of tea.

The map that opens this blog post is a section of the oldest map I possess. It’s the very first Ordnance Survey metric map of the Vale of Glamorgan and the Rhondda. (This 1:50,000 series replaced the much-loved 1 inch OS series.) It’s striking (for Wales) for its English-only place and geographical names: Cowbridge, for example, is unaccompanied by its Welsh name, Y Bont Faen, unlike on more recent OS maps. The map is titled The Rhondda, which is a curiously misleading description of a sheet that covers almost the whole of the Vale as well as many of the valleys of the Glamorgan uplands.

I was given this map as a birthday present in 1977. I used to have the earlier 1 inch OS map of Cardiff (a very different place 35 years ago), along with an even older map of Cirencester, showing the railway lines that closed in the 1960s. (I had fun comparing it with the 1990s equivalent.)

Paper maps have a special quality. In the dark, cold nights of January 1995, I plotted a cycle holiday from Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester, to the English Channel at Beer. It was a warming experience lying by the fire choosing villages and quiet coastal roads to explore the following summer – with a beer. Five months later, I took pride in the fact my friend Richard and I got lost just once in 325 miles when we followed that fireside-plotted trail.

But I mustn’t sound too wedded to the joy of the old over the new. I carried a dozen OS maps on that holiday. Twice we arrived at a promised (by the map) pub to find it didn’t exist. How we’d have loved the idea of carrying maps for the whole journey in our pockets. Along with B&B lists and reviews, weather reports, newspapers, music players and books… It would have seemed a miracle.

The BBC news website’s magazine (a great read, by the way) has a fascinating feature on the subject today. It’s a tad sceptical about the move to electronic maps:

“Digital maps may be shrinking our brains. Richard Dawkins has suggested that it may have been the drawing of maps, rather than the development of language, that boosted our brains over that critical hurdle that other apes failed to jump.”

That seems to overstate the case. But I do vividly remember drawing my own spidery maps of Lakeside and Cyncoed, Cardiff, soon after we moved home to Wales when I was seven in 1971. It was my way of making sense of my new hinterland. Most of the houses were less than 10 years old. Street names such as Farm Drive hinted at a more rural past (and there was a surviving farm house close to where Eastern Avenue now crosses Lake Road East).

Lakeside, Cardiff – by Google Maps. My version was more spidery

I’ll end on a cycling note. As I blogged in February, I love having digital maps on my handlebars, in the form of my Garmin Edge 800 GPS. But I’ll still treasure my printed maps. They’re part of my past – and my future.

Liverpool Street’s war memorial and the Irish assassins

The war memorial that proved a death knell for Henry Wilson

How many of the thousands of commuters who file through Liverpool Street station every day spare a glance for the magnificent Great Easter Railway war memorial?

The memorial to Henry Wilson

Even fewer will look at the small memorial below it to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, above. Yet it hints at a terrorist atrocity that shocked Britain 90 years ago this year.

Wilson was a distinguished soldier who became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the closing stages of the Great War. He was the natural choice to unveil a memorial to the railway workers who lost their lives in the first world war. Yet within two hours of the ceremony, he was assassinated by IRA terrorists as he returned to his home in Eaton Square. He was the first British MP to be murdered since prime minister Spencer Percival in 1812, and the last before Airey Neave in 1979.

The field marshal was an obvious target for Irish republican terrorists. He was a silent supporter of army mutineers against the British government’s plans for Irish Home Rule (the Curragh incident of 1914). He represented the enemy in the eyes of the republicans. Yet his death came after Lloyd George’s government signed a treaty with Michael Collins ending the Irish war of independence. The greatest irony is that while Irish-born Wilson was killed by fellow Irishmen on 22 June 1922, Collins himself was assassinated by his countrymen exactly two months later, on 22 August 1922.

Wilson’s murder shows that terrorism is far from a modern phenomenon. Just before the second world war, the IRA was killing unsuspecting people in London and Coventry. Happily, the people of Britain and Ireland have put such hatred behind them.

PS: I was shocked to see police officers at Liverpool Street station today wielding guns. A classic case of the kind of macho policing that is totally out of place at a railway station.

West Coast: what a way to run a railway

Once upon a time, Britain’s railways were owned by us. British Railways weren’t perfect, but by the late 1980s the service was rather good. New trains were being introduced, and the taxpayer got rather a good deal: BR was one of most efficient, and least subsidised, railway networks in the world. Clever marketing attracted millions more passengers – under the slogan The Age of the Train. (Although the choice of Jimmy Savile may not seem so wise today…) And even the much maligned sandwich was transformed by 1993.

Then political dogma intervened and John Major privatised the lot, even though respected Tory MP and rail expert Robert Adley warned the sell-off would be a poll tax on wheels. Major wanted a return to the ‘big four’ railways but we got First Great Western not the Great Western Railway. The result: a privately owned railway that is hugely more subsidised than when it was state owned, and a bureaucracy that defies belief.

Today, the flaws in that system were shockingly exposed when the Government was humiliated by being forced to scrap the award of the West Coast main line franchise to First Group. Amazingly, the Department of Transport got its sums wrong, which meant incumbent Virgin lost to First Group’s extravagantly optimistic bid, as Robert Peston explained in his blog.

Transport expert Christian Wolmar described rail privatisation in his book On the wrong line as “A malicious attack on an industry the Tories disked, with calamitous results”. (Labour hardly improved things in its 13 years in power.) Today, he commented:

“Civil servants come and go, and are deliberately trained to be generalists, while the railways need specialists. They also need stability rather than ministers who come and go at the whim of the Prime Minister. It is all too obvious that the way that the Department has been treated as a dumping ground for ministers on the way up or down is also part of the problem.”

Some of the private rail companies have done a good job, including our local line, Chiltern Railways. But Chiltern had a flying start because British Rail transformed every aspect of the line 20 years ago: new track, signalling and trains.

Three civil servants have been suspended because of the West Coast scandal. But no politician will lose their job. No politician will resign. They never do.

PS: BR was a pioneer of modern corporate identity. Its 1965 logo remains as relevant, modern and recognisable 47 years on, acting as a beacon in a fragmented, muddled rail network. Strange to think we still had steam hauled intercity express trains when it first appeared.

Bradley Wiggins is wrong about bike helmets

You choose – not the law

Bradley Wiggins is my hero. I take my cycle helmet off to his amazing feat in winning the Tour de France and Olympics gold within 10 days. But Wiggo is wrong to support calls to force cyclists to wear helmets.

I’m opposed to compulsion for practical and philosophical reasons. But at the outset I should say that I agree that it’s often sensible to wear a helmet. It’s just we shouldn’t be forced to do so.

Health and safety: the only possible reason to force people to wear a helmet is that it makes them safer and healthier. But there’s strong evidence from Australia that making people wear a lid (and criminalising those who don’t) leads to fewer people cycling, making for a less healthy society. It also suggests that cycling is a dangerous activity – which it isn’t. On average, 17 cyclists die a year, fewer than die flossing their teeth. (OK, I made up the bit about flossing, but you get the idea.)

Freedom: making helmets compulsory removes choice and responsibility from the individual. It also ignores the fact that risk varies according to where you cycle. It makes far more sense to let us decide when to wear one. If I’m cycling in the city or on country lanes with fast cars, I’ll don my helmet. If I’m pootling about in our quiet cul-de-sac, I won’t. The state shouldn’t make a criminal of a man going 5mph on a bike without a car in sight.

Supporters of compulsion say that few now complain about being forced to wear a seat belt in a car. True, but the risks are hugely magnified in a car. At this rate, we’ll see pedestrians in body armour within 30 years. And we’ll have to conduct a risk assessment before being allowed to walk down the stairs at home.

As Chris Peck from CTC, Britain’s national cycling organisation, said, “Two thirds of collisions between adult cyclists and motor vehicles are deemed by police to be the responsibility of the motorist. Any legislation should put the onus on those who cause the harm, not the victims.”

Clan Line reaches Swanage – 46 years late

Above: another Southern pacific, Manston, at Swanage, 2010

One of Britain’s most impressive steam engines has reached the seaside – 46 years after setting off for Swanage.

British Railways decided in 1966 that Clan Line was too large and heavy to complete its journey along the Swanage branch. But last week, the engine proved the old state rail network wrong and completed its long-awaited journey without incident.

Clan Line is a ‘pacific’ – the largest express passenger steam engines used in Britain. A pacific was the last locomotive you’d expect to see on a branch line. Clan Line’s 1966 trip was a special, and Britain’s preserved lines use far larger engines than they’d have seen in normal life. (A modest tank engine would have been more than enough to cope with a typical train in normal times.)

The Swanage Railway line is a delight. We visited in 2009 when Owen was approaching his first birthday, and took a return trip from Norden to Swanage the following year behind Manston, a Battle of Britain class pacific. The line revels in its LSWR and Southern Railway heritage. And it’s wonderful to reach the seaside by steam.

One last thought. The Southern was our most modern railway, with its extensive electrified network, yet provided London’s last steam express train service until 1967. The steam engines now visiting Swanage were those that took Londoners to the coast in the era of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Here’s the video I shot in 2010 of Southern pacifies on the Swanage line:


In praise of Britain’s Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon


Above: childhood memories come alive at Heritage Motor Centre

How many times have we ignored the brown signs on the M40 to the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, Warwickshire? More than I can remember. Yet today we called in for the first time and were hugely impressed by the museum that pays homage to Britain’s car heritage.

Take my photo above. Apart from vans from Royal Mail and Post Office Telephones (the business that later became BT) vans, it includes three cars my parents owned: an Austin 1800 (lovely car), Austin Princess (an awful creation – more later) and an Austin Metro, the car that showed British Leyland under Michael Edwardes might just have a future after the industrial carnage of the Red Robbo years. (Derek Robinson was a trade union shop steward who became notorious for causing an alleged £200m in lost production in an era when unions didn’t have to call strike ballots before calling workers out on strike.)

Dad routinely bought British until he bought the Princess. It was a shocker. The problems started when it was brand new. The hub caps sprang off when he was driving around Cardiff, and the Howells BL dealers  had no idea why. A couple of years later, the car burst into flames as Dad was driving my 89 year old Nan home from Wiltshire after celebrating her birthday with my sister. Nan thought it was a great adventure, but Dad never bought another car from BL or Rover.

But the Gaydon museum is much more than a tribute to the dark days of British car making. It covers the whole history of our motor industry, including a recent gorgeous Range Rover concept car.


Owen (above) loved wandering around the museum. Here he’s inspecting one of his grandfather’s first cars, the Austin Seven. I didn’t know until today that BMW’s first car, the BMW Dixi, was a licensed version of the Austin Seven.

The Heritage Motor Centre is well worth a visit. It has an excellent cafe, Junction 12, and a cinema and well stocked shop. We’ll follow those brown signs more often in future!