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The Slow Train: The Importance Of Parliamentary Rail Services, Defiant Survivors Of The Beeching Axe

“No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road. No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street. We won't be meeting again On the Slow Train.”

- Slow Train by Flanders and Swann

In 1963, Slow Train was written as a response to the streamlining of British Rail services under the auspices of its new chairman, Richard Beeching. In that year he produced a report, The Reshaping of British Railways, with the goal of making the railway network profitable (Britain’s publicly-owned railways were making huge losses). He proposed drastic action: the railways were to be reduced in size by one-third, meaning the closure of more than 2,000 stations and the loss of around 5,000 miles of track.

The public were alarmed and outraged at the idea, but the government chose to proceed with the recommendations of the report. Branch lines and mainline stations alike were not safe from the Beeching Axe – many local stations disappeared off the map, and major lines were closed, such as the Robin Hood line between Worksop and Nottingham.

The removal of rail services from unprofitable areas was undertaken without any consideration of the detriment to an area caused by the loss of this valuable public service. But that was not part of the brief. Dr Beeching’s task was simply to save money, and as a detached executive, he was able to act ruthlessly and efficiently.

The 1960s were a time of great social change, and the era of the motor car. The government expected more people to travel by road than by rail, and they predicted the decline of railway use. It was said that many of the analyses of passenger numbers in the Beeching era were carried out deliberately at off-peak times, to make a political case for closures.

The government did not envisage a resurgence in train travel, and we are dealing with the consequences of their decisions nowadays. Some lines and stations have since reopened, but there are many areas where lines were ripped up and built upon, making it expensive and/or impractical to restore these links.

The railways at that time were a complicated mess, but the paring down of the network was excessive, and the plan did not look much further ahead than the end of the decade. Beeching’s recommendations were applied piecemeal and inconsistently, which left some regions with a virtually intact and overprovided service, and other areas with no railway station for miles. This uneven application of the cuts left towns isolated, and simple journeys turned into hours-long ordeals.

Take, for example, these two journeys from Bredbury in Greater Manchester. As the crow flies, it is 2.3 miles from Stockport, and 6.2 miles from Manchester. But it is easier to travel into Manchester by rail, even though Stockport is much nearer. To get to Manchester, it takes 20 minutes on a direct train. But to travel from Bredbury to Stockport, one must first go in to Manchester and then get another train out to Stockport. If it’s late, or at the weekend, you will need to travel out to the Peak District and catch the train originating from Sheffield back in to Stockport. This will take somewhere between 45 minutes and two hours.

This anomaly (and there are many like this) was created by the removal of a two-mile stretch of track between Stockport and Bredbury. These two miles may well have been loss-making if viewed in isolation, but they provided an important route for travellers from Cheshire and Derbyshire, as well as allowing redundancy and flexibility in the network.

Removing supposedly insignificant links like this one caused great inconvenience for passengers and those running the railways. But if the goal of the system is profit rather than meeting a public need, then cuts like this will happen and the system will run at peak “efficiency”. Efficiency meaning as many bums on seats as possible, achieved by reduced services, poor maintenance and overcrowding.

The 1962 Transport Act paved the way for closures of lines and stations, but the term “parliamentary train” actually relates to the 1844 Railway Regulation Act which required rail companies to provide services at low cost to poorer travellers – these services had to, at a minimum, offer one train each day in both directions to call at all stops on the line, for a maximum cost of one penny per mile. These were the original parliamentary trains, and they ensured that while the railways were privately owned, they still provided a public service.

Although the 1844 Act had been superseded long before then, the 1962 Act had a similar effect by the time legislators and the public had caught on to a clause that allowed them to hinder the process of closure. Many stations and lines closed in the early 1960s, but towards the end of the decade the government were struggling to complete the process due to the numerous objections raised to the Department of Transport.

If it could be demonstrated that the closure of a local station would cause hardship to passengers, then the Minister for Transport was obliged to seriously consider the objection and look at measures to mitigate this hardship. This process, enshrined in law, tied up resources and became very expensive to implement.

This stalemate between consumers and the railway board led to the search for a get-out-of-jail free card, and it came in the form of the modern parliamentary train. The lines and stations would remain officially open, but with such a paltry service that they were effectively closed. The most common method is to run a single train per week, at an unsociable hour, making the service mainly symbolic – but crucially it keeps these lines and stations intact.

These trains are quirks of an old law from a bygone age, but they are not unusual. I was surprised to discover that there are hundreds of parliamentary trains in operation. An up-to-date list of all these services is kept by the Branch Line Society, and it’s incredible to see just how widespread the practice is. It seems that the clause buried in the 1962 Act prevented a lot of damage to our railway network.

Those places served by parliamentary services tend to have a lot of local support. In Greater Manchester, the most well-known example is the line running between Stockport and Stalybridge via Denton and Reddish South. The Friends of Denton Station and the Friends of Reddish South Station both manage their local station’s upkeep and campaign for a regular passenger service to be reinstated. Both societies are confident that their aims could be met soon.

Many of Beeching’s closed lines were eventually reopened, partly due to campaigns from local special interest groups championing the unprofitable minority, for whom the railways are essential, but mostly because rail travel became profitable again.

Encouraging people to drive rather than take the train in the 1960s did provide many benefits, and it gave people individual freedom. But it also became expensive and led to the congestion and poor air quality of today.

As well as the choices made by the travelling public, the government began to encourage the use of public transport at the end of the 20th Century. People were using the railway again. The loss of obscure branch lines in remote areas made rail travel inaccessible to those who arguably need it the most – job opportunities are fewer in rural areas, the same reason that the 1844 Act was passed.

The railways may make an even bigger comeback – commuter towns up to 150 miles away from London advertise their excellent rail links, and the government may resume its investment in more high-speed lines linking London to the North (fingers crossed). Britain’s economy is turbulent at present, and many spending commitments have been quietly swept to one side, but the ambition is there. Given how busy the railways are, we know that the demand is real.

Since the 1990s, we have actually needed an expansion of the railways, rather than closures, but due to the rash decisions of the 1960s, that is difficult to achieve. Some places, like Denton and Reddish South, are lucky: while the Beeching Axe obliterated thousands of miles of line, and thousands of stations, some survived due to the notion of parliamentary trains.

The legislation that made it effectively impossible to formally close routes and stations allowed them to be mothballed. When those services were quietly reduced to a bare minimum, little thought was given to the future of the line. But behind the scenes, railway enthusiasts and concerned residents were biding their time, recording the histories of these oddities in the timetable, and building support for their hopeful reinstatement.

The parliamentary train is a symbol of the triumph of the ordinary person over the mundane ruthlessness of capitalism, a public good protected from profit. If you wonder what the point is of running an empty train in the small hours of the morning once per week, consider what your travel arrangements would become if we gave in to unrestricted free-market capitalism. You might literally end up repairing your own bit of road, as it wouldn’t be profitable for the government to do it. That final bit of resistance, the use of the government’s own legislation to stymie its harmful proposals, is what’s keeping our local services available for all.

The format of parliamentary services varies across the country. They run to preserve either a line, a route, or a station. In most cases it is the weekly “ghost train” running at an unusual time, so that most people don’t even know they exist. Another tactic is to put on a rail replacement bus, something that British commuters are familiar with in times of engineering work, but to make it a permanent replacement in all but name. The railway stations remain officially open, but they are not maintained and the train is always replaced by a “temporary” bus service. It is genuinely cheaper to do this than formally close down the station.

After all of this work to economise the rail industry, very little money was actually saved. Dr Beeching parted company with the British Railways Board in 1965, returning to his former job at ICI. In 1981 Beeching was interviewed for BBC’s Hindsight programme, in which he was unrepentant about the closures, stating that he wished the government had gone even further and stripped out around half of the trunk routes – the main lines that comprise the backbone of the network.

A telling moment reveals Beeching’s detachment and lack of concern for the real people that rely on the railway:

“There’s an East coast route to Scotland, and there’s a West coast route. The West coast route carries nearly all the traffic; the East coast route beyond Newcastle could be closed without any hardship to anybody except people in Berwick-upon-Tweed.”

A flippant remark, as if the residents of Berwick-upon-Tweed do not matter. This was the flaw in Beeching’s plan: there was no human element, no mechanism to ensure the core purpose of the railway was still being served. While remote places may have only had a handful of passengers each day, those travelling from rural areas across the UK contributed to overall passenger volumes in great numbers.

By disenfranchising these locations, Beeching not only betrayed the public interest, but also the capitalist model he had been instructed to satisfy – we can see this in the marginal savings that were far from his predictions.

Today’s railway network is not perfect, and passengers expect better than what the current system of railway franchises is able to provide. In turning the railways over to private companies, we aimed to increase efficiency, and eliminate the losses to the public sector that date back to the 1950s. But we now have the worst of both worlds: inadequate and understaffed trains and stations, and losses that the government ends up paying for anyway.

Many scoff at Labour’s commitment to renationalise the railways, but the state has had to step in several times already to bail out failed franchisee companies – giving a shoddy public sector service at a vastly inflated cost.

So-called efficiencies made by private companies have led to worse problems. At the time of writing, Northern Rail has suffered hundreds of cancellations this year due to a shortage of drivers trained on the necessary routes. In these Neoliberal times, cost efficiency is the main purpose of a private company, not the holistic performance of the service.

More seriously, around the turn of the century there were a number of preventable train crashes resulting from ill-judged cost savings. Between 1996 and 2002, 49 people were killed and over 900 were injured, all due to poorly maintained track, malfunctioning signals and/or non-functional emergency braking. Cost-cutting not only inconveniences the public; it endangers lives.

Both the Beeching Legacy and the privatisation of the 1990s highlighted the shortcomings of applying a business model to a public service, yet the railways in Britain began life as a capitalist endeavour. So what went wrong? The birth of the rail industry was assisted by investment from wealthy innovators, looking to make a profit from their designs and ideas.

There was a lot more freedom to take on wildly extravagant projects like just building a railway because, well, why not? After some initial successes, people realised that there was definitely money to be made in this railway lark, and soon there were numerous companies running independent operations all over the UK.

When these disparate lines were connected to create a national network, there was much duplication. It was reasonable to say that the original constructors had perhaps overdone things. This bloated railway system wasn’t as profitable as it should have been because there was so much wastage. Operating as separate entities, there would be rival companies’ lines running parallel to each other, competing for the same passengers. In an integrated network, there was no competition, and no need for such elaborate infrastructure. In this case, it was actually more efficient to nationalise than privatise.

But of course, we took things too far in the other direction with Beeching’s Axe. Distracted by the motive of profit, we sacrificed service. The stunted, nationalised railway was broken down into franchises which still allowed for a proper, joined-up network. But franchise-holders are in it to make a profit, and efficiency in those terms means a poor-quality service, or worse, a preventable tragedy. It’s difficult to make the railways profitable, yet we keep trying. Irrespective of the cost of investment, the consumer still ends up paying, either through increased fares or when tax revenue is used to make up for the limitations of the private sector.

We need to decide what we actually want: a cheaper, low-quality service, or a subsidised and accessible system.

Parliamentary trains are curiosities that pique the interest of nerdy locals (like me), yet most people are completely unaware of them. This is intentional, because if these services become popular, they may need to return to full operation, and that is expensive too.

These survivors of cuts to infrastructure and budgets are the links in the chain that cannot be severed. Now that the railway has become more popular, these obscure routes will no doubt prove useful again. We can’t bring back some of those stations and lines that succumbed to Beeching’s Axe, but at least we saved these ones.

Although the railways are currently in private ownership, they are still a public service. It is our right to demand that our need is met, and that the government provides us with a functioning rail system. If we choose to seek out the odd parliamentary train and use it, we provide evidence that these services are needed and wanted. Why not take a ride on the Ghost Train – it could secure the future of the railways for everyone.

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