There are few things more evocative of the British landscape than the country branch line. A little engine chuffs along a single track, a few wisps of steam drifting across the fields, the sun glinting off its copper-capped chimney. There might be a couple of elderly carriages and perhaps a milk tank or a cattle truck in tow. Nobody much comes or goes on the immaculately tended platforms. Somehow here, it always seems to be summer.
At least, that’s how we like to imagine it. Of course the railways haven’t been like this since Dr Richard Beeching, Britain’s most hated civil servant, came along with his axe in 1963 and shut down 5,000 miles of branch lines. Recruited by the government from the chemical firm ICI at an enormous salary (£500,000 in today’s money) Beeching was actually a rather genial chap, chain-smoking cigars rather in the style of Kenneth Clarke. He could have been mistaken, someone once said, for “one of those phlegmatic men who tell long stories over a pint of beer in a country pub.”
Yet, half a century on, there is no pub, or anywhere else in the land for that matter, where the name of this quiet physicist is not reviled. He is regularly compared with Fred West, Richard III, Robert Maxwell and Genghis Khan. Not long ago a tabloid newspaper nominated him as one of the 50 people who had most messed up Britain. Beeching’s name to this day is a byword for the senseless axing of public services.
Now, it seems, the Evil Doctor is to get his come-uppance. Britain’s privatised train companies have declared they want to reopen at least 14 branch lines closed down 40 years ago. The wheels could turn again on forgotten lines in such diverse places as Fleetwood in Lancashire, Cranleigh in Surrey and Wisbech in Cambridgeshire.
Back in 1963, the comedy songwriting duo Michael Flanders and Donald Swann caught the mood of the nation in a song mourning the closure of “all those marvellous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names all due to be axed and done away with one by one”. “No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat at Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street,” they sang. “No one departs and no one arrives from Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives. They’ve all passed out of our lives…”
But now, it appears, some of them might be back again. The hard-headed corporate train operators of modern Britain are not, of course, inspired by altruism or nostalgia. They claim that the growing popularity of the railways, with passenger numbers up by a half since privatisation, justifies the “business case” for reopening.
But it was ludicrous to believe there was ever a case for closing many of these lines in the first place. How on earth did we allow the closure of the “Varsity Line” from Oxford to Cambridge, forcing passengers to travel on a roundabout route across London, while at the same time planning the construction of the M25?
Or to shut down the old Great Central line from London to the north of England. This was the newest railway in the land, as well as the most expensively engineered and designed to take European-sized trains to a Channel Tunnel? Too late to rescue it now, since the trackbed on key parts of the route has been destroyed. How crazy was it to rip up the tracks on almost every line in north Devon and Cornwall, where the roads are regularly choked with holiday traffic every summer? The Scottish parliament is spending a fortune relaying the tracks over the Waverley route between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Not surprisingly, the locals who opposed closure have been saying: “We told you so”.
In allowing Beeching’s orgy of closures back in the 1960s we also failed to recognise that local railways have always been more than a way of getting from A to B. “The country railway,” wrote the historian David St John Thomas, “provided more than transport. It was always part of the district it served, with its own natural history, its own legends and folklore, a staff who were at the heart of village affairs, its stations and adjoining pubs – places for exchange of gossip, news and advice. Its mourners recognised that more than British Rail’s statistics would be lost when it died.”
Sadly we may never be able entirely to revive these ghosts, since the reopening of the lines proposed by the Association of Train Operating Companies is to be funded by “property development”. But how nice, once again, to be able to buy a through ticket on the branch line to Bramley and Wonersh, to Slinfold or Burn Naze Halt when the trains eventually stop there once more.
‘On the Slow Train: Railway Journeys into Hidden Britain’, by Michael Williams is to be published by Random House in May 2010