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.