Reversing Dr Beeching’s 1963 rail closures could be a real general election 2019 vote winner
- Credit: Nick Butcher
David Henshall says it may just be a piece of electioneering, but reopening closed railway lines could be a big vote winner
One of the great joys of the school holidays years ago was that, once the chores were out of the way, and in the summer we'd helped bring the harvest home, there were always idle moments to fill - something few of today's hi-tech bright teens seem to have, forever head down, tapping, receiving or filling the ether with their life stories.
Back then, we could put into practise the words of WH Davies' poem learned by practically every youngster: What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare; No time to stand beneath the boughs; And stare as long as sheep or cows.
Watching steam trains at work was always worth a gaze because in those days every station, however small, had its own little marshalling yard, carefully calculated stretches of rail where trains could offload wagons containing goods and merchandise for local dealers. This was how coal merchants got their supplies.
Pulham Market was one of the dozen little stations on the Waveney Valley line running between Tivetshall on the main Norwich-London route and Beccles where it linked to the Lowestoft line to Ipswich. It was a single track with passing points at Harleston and Bungay and each of the tiny halts had a spare line to off-load goods, as did almost every station across Britain.
It was a treat for kids to find a comfy fence and watch as one or two men, working tightly with the loco and using a long wooden shoe to slow or arrest the released wagons, separated a couple of trucks from the main body of the goods train. This elementary entertainment came to an end in 1963 with Dr Beeching's report, The Reshaping of British Railways.
At a stroke he killed off 2,363 stations and 5,00 miles of track. There were protests all over the place and, here and there, somebody saved a station or a bit of line but in the end the doctor's orders were carried out. There was clearly a need to trim the railway system which, like the rest of the country was suffering from the strains of the 1930s depression and the bankruptcy of war. Millions of pounds the country hadn't got at the time were needed to update its creaking infrastructure and locomotives.
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But I do recall a few wise heads at the time asking that not every BR building should be smashed to the ground and not every sleeper ripped up because, they said, there might come a time in the future when we wanted to run more trains, not fewer. Well, maybe that time is coming. The Tories say they are going to reverse Beeching and reinstate local rail lines as part of a package of measures to rejuvenate provincial towns.
It's a brilliant idea and one that will find favour with most people but we should also bear in mind that there's a general election coming up and the various parties, in perhaps the most uncertain poll of all time, are anxious to grab our attention with attractive promises that might persuade us to vote for them.
On the other hand, this is one pledge that makes a lot of sense, taking cars and lorries of the roads and helping clear the airways with electric trains, perhaps kids will again see trains unloading containers at lots of places the way the steam-driven goods trains did their stuff 100 years ago.
It will happen because it's got if the nation is not going to seize up solid with traffic jams, but it will take a lot more loot than the £500 the government says it has earmarked for a start. You only have to weight up the billions that are disappearing into the new high speed rail heading north out of London to form a picture of how much it would cost to reverse even a small part of the incredible rail system that Dr Beeching wiped out with a stroke of his pen.