In March 1963, a report The Reshaping of British Railways written by Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Rail, was published by the then British Railways Board. The report identified 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of railway line for closure, that is 55% of stations and 30% of route miles, with the objective of stemming the large losses being incurred during a period of increasing competition from road transport.
This was at a time when roads and cars were the future; rails and trains were the past. And it didn’t help that the Transport Minister in the Tory administration at the time, who had opened the first section of the M1 motorway in November 1959, and who appointed Beeching, was Ernest Marples. Marples was a businessman with rather too many fingers in an ever-meatier road construction pie, being previously managing director of the road construction firm Marples Ridgway. By the bye, even though his department was awarding road building contracts to his ‘old’ firm, he still held shares in the company until he was forced to sell them, but he sold them, in secret, to his wife. His political career came to a bizarre end in 1975 when pursued by the taxman, Marples did a flit to Monaco by the Night Ferry owing the Inland Revenue £10 million.
The cuts in the network were driven by a mistaken hypothesis: that cutting the network sufficiently would yield a ‘profitable railway’. But British Railways had little real information as to where its costs were actually being incurred; a large share of which were interest charges and a sizeable bureaucracy. Further, the branch lines that were closed had been feeder routes for the remaining main lines, and traffic on these lines fell disastrously. In the four years following the Beeching report, the route mileage of the railways fell from 14,000, to 11,000 in 1967 (though since 1950 about 3,100 miles had already been closed), but the cuts failed to achieve their objective, and BR’s losses continued to increase.
Fresh thinking was urgently needed: how do you put the UK’s road and rail infrastructure on an equal financial footing and get long distance heavy freight traffic off the roads? However there was an anti-railway and pro-road culture amongst senior civil servants in the Department of Transport, which was headed by David Serpell, the Permanent Secretary. Reducing the costs of the railways by further cuts to the railway network were seen as the only answer. It was Serpell who much later in 1983 was to write an infamous report on railway finances for Margaret Thatcher, which included an infamous Option A, which would have cut the railway network to a mere 1,630 miles.
In 1968, Dr Stewart Joy, an Australian economist, was recruited to advise Barbara Castle, the Transport Minister in the Labour administration, on implementing a pro-rail policy of subsidising unprofitable railway lines. The Cambrian Coast Line which ran from Machynlleth in mid-Wales to Pwllheli in the north, and which had survived the Beeching cuts, had been selected as the first line to be looked at in a cost-benefit study of these unprofitable lines.
This is where Reginald Dawson, who in 1960 had been appointed a principal civil servant in the Ministry of Transport at the age of 38, comes into the story.
In early 1968, Reg was appointed as head of the division responsible for allocating grants for unremunerative services. But Reg, as luck would have it, had also since 1955 been a volunteer member of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society (TRPS) in mid-Wales, the first preserved railway in the world, and the Cambrian Coast Line delivered a good percentage of visitors to the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway. Realising this, he asked Richard Hope, secretary of the TRPS and also a writer on the Railway Gazette, the leading journal for railway professionals, whose offices were near Waterloo station in London, for ideas on how to preserve the Cambrian Coast Line.
In August of that year, Reg accompanied Stewart Joy on a trip on the Cambrian Coast line. At first, Joy seemed genuinely interested in rail and Reg even arranged for him to travel on the footplate of one of the steam engines of the Talyllyn Railway. However, on their way back to London, Joy confided in Reg that he was determined that the study should show that a grant was not value for money, and that he expected the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth line to close as well when it lost the Coast Line traffic. This opened Reg’s eyes to the fact that Barbara Castle’s pro-rail policy was being actively opposed by a substantial body of Transport Ministry officials.
Despite this, Reg Dawson subsequently ‘surreptitiously’ arranged for British Railways to receive a modest grant in 1970 which allowed the re-introduction of services on ten Sundays during the summer on the Cambrian Coast line. This resulted in a healthy increase in takings on the line and it was a factor in thwarting the Transport Ministry’s efforts to close the Coast Line.
In time though Reg Dawson was moved to a different post within the Department. This was likely because of the views of his bosses that he was too sympathetic to railways to be allowed to have any responsibility for them. But before the move, Reg met with Richard Hope, now editor of the Railway Gazette, and told him about a secret high level meeting of about 20 civil servants who were preparing a case for further drastically reducing the railway network, by some 50%, without telling the Transport Minister. Hope briefed Chapman Pincher of the Daily Express, and the paper broke the story on 15 May 1970, but the story died down following the general election in June 1970.
However, the policy review was still being pursued but before it could do its worst, the proposals were sensationally published by the Sunday Times on 8 October 1972 in a story across four columns headed ‘Cut trains by half, says secret report’ with extensive maps of lines likely to close. The Sunday Times article galvanised opposition to railway closures in a way that no previous newspaper story had ever done. It was also highly damaging to the reputation of the government, and Peter Walker, the then Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment (DoE) – transport having been absorbed into that department under the new Tory administration – ordered an inquiry. And as whoever had leaked the document was potentially in breach of the Official Secrets Act, the police were called in.
Until now the identity of the person who leaked the document has been a closely guarded secret, but following the death on 17 September 2012 of one of the principals, none other than Reg Dawson, the extraordinary tale of what happened was told in an obituary written by Richard Hope in the December 2012 edition of the Talyllyn News, and from which much of the material in this post has been taken.
In June 1972, Reg came across a blue 61-page document titled Railway Policy Review in an adjacent office. It had a high security classification and every copy was numbered. Although he knew the copies were numbered for security, Reg arranged for Richard Hope to read the document, but asked him not to copy it. But without the document, it wasn’t possible for Richard Hope to expose what was going on as Reg had wanted. In the end, Hope persuaded the Sunday Times to treat the Policy Review as a major story, and that was how the story came to be published in October 1972.
Unfortunately a Sunday Times journalist had interviewed Richard Marsh, Chairman of the British Railways Board, a few days before, and had showed him a copy of the report. Though Marsh pooh-poohed the story, and said that the review was just a hypothetical study, he refused to hand back the copy of the report – it was numbered and it had notes written in it – so it was easy to work out from which DoE office it had come from. As it was known that Richard Hope had been involved in some way in the Sunday Times story, all that remained to do was to prove that Reg had given Hope the report. Reg was quizzed by DoE security staff and admitted that he knew Hope because of their joint interest in the Talyllyn Railway and that he had lunched with Hope on 2 October. Hope said that he had been called in by the Sunday Times to help them deal with the policy review, which was true in a sense. Reg later wrote ‘I came as close to panic as I ever have done during my whole life’. Reg and Hope both risked prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, and Hope faced a jail sentence for contempt of court if a judge ordered him to reveal his source and Hope refused to betray Reg. For a while though things quietened down.
On 14 November, the Daily Telegraph ran a story to the effect that the Director of Public Prosecution had asked the police to track down the person or persons responsible for leaking the review paper. The news did not go down well in Fleet Street. This was not about the leaked plans of some top secret missile with a nuclear warhead, but about a project to destroy half of Britain’s remaining railway network – a plan which had been hatched behind the backs of the ministers responsible. Here was a clear case of a public interest defence if ever there was one.
And sure enough, on 29 November, two detectives from Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Croucher and Detective Sergeant Whisker (I assume these are their real names?), visited the Railway Gazette offices near Waterloo. The offices were shared with The Railway Magazine, and forewarned by the Telegraph article, Hope had hidden the review document. John Slater, the editor of The Railway Magazine, and also the volunteer editor of the Talyllyn News, showed the detectives around and helpfully pointed out which filing cabinets belonged to Railway Gazette, and were covered by the search warrant, and which filing cabinets belonged to the Railway Magazine and could not be touched. After three hours the detectives left empty-handed.
The police did not give up so easily. On 7 December detectives visited Harold Evans, the editor of the Sunday Times, and in an effort to get him to divulge his source, threatened two of his journalists with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if they did not co-operate. Evans did not enjoy being threatened and briefed his fellow Fleet Street editors about this attack on the freedom of the press.
Worse was to come. Police officers visited one of the Railway Gazette journalists at home and threatened to expose the fact that he was gay and lived with a male partner if he did not shop his boss. The officers told him that they had discovered this by listening to his telephone call to a friend, apparently without authorisation. Hope concluded that the Railway Gazette office phones were probably also being tapped, so he asked a Post Office engineer, Phil Glazebrook at Euston, yet another Talyllyn volunteer. Glazebrook knew the engineer responsible for the private telephone exchange in the Railway Gazette office block, and the engineer was able to confirm that the line had been tapped and showed them the bright solder where the wires had been installed.
Hope briefed another friendly journalist and on 18 December 1972, the Sunday People broke the phone tapping story: the police were tapping people’s phones without the Ministerial approval that was a legal requirement. Richard Hope recalled that the press – its right to protect its sources under threat – went ‘berserk’. Hope was sure that Leslie Huckfield Labour MP for Nuneaton, would have also been recorded in a conversation with him, and Huckfield secured an adjournment debate in the House of Commons.
All this time both Reg and Hope were fearful that they would be charged, but the real risk for Hope was that he could be jailed for contempt of court by a judge if Reg was prosecuted and he refused to reveal who had passed the blue book to him.
But the fuss about illegal phone tapping broke the government’s nerve and on the 17 January 1973, the Attorney-General, Peter Rawlinson, announced that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. And six months later, Reg had his reward. In July 1973, the Minister of Transport, John Peyton, announced that:
‘draconian cuts of the kind at one time rumoured following the escape of a regrettably mobile document are not in the view of the government the answer to the industry’s or the nation’s problems’
Since 1972 only a few passenger lines have been closed but many have been re-opened. Successive governments have been so wary of closing railway lines that when Sir Roy McNulty was charged in 2010 with carrying out his Value for Money study of the railways he was firmly told not to recommend closing lines or stations. Thanks to Reg and Richard Hope some 7,000 routes miles of Britain’s railways were saved.
Reg and his wife Betty moved to Tywyn in 1993, where the Talyllyn Railway’s workshops were located, later moving to sheltered accommodation in Llandudno on the north coast of Wales. On 5 September 2012, Reg wrote to Richard Hope to say that due to their increasing incapacity, they had decided to end their lives at Dignitas in Zurich, where they died peacefully together on 17 September. Reg also wrote about his volunteering for the Talyllyn Railway, ‘My lack of skills confined my activity to things like stuffing the [Talyllyn] News, and my most useful action for the TR was probably to grant-aid Sunday trains on the Cambrian. But I love the TR and had a bitter-sweet final ride on it last week’.
John Rogers, who founded the Cambrian Coast Line Action Group to ward off a closure plan in 1971, said he had never realised what Reg Dawson had done for the railways in Wales. ‘He was a very brave and determined man’ said Mr Rogers, who now chairs the South Wales branch of the Railfuture campaign, ‘It was quite obvious to everyone that if the Cambrian Coast line was closed, the domino effect would work’. He added that Reg Dawson was probably unique at a time when most civil servants regarded railways as superfluous in the age of mass car ownership’
And the government never discovered the mole.
The full story of the successive threats to Britain’s railways over two decades from the 1960s to the 1980s is told in Holding the Line – How Britain’s Railways Were Saved by Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, published by Ian Allen earlier this year