Axe of desperation

A biography of Ernest Marples shines new light on how he worked with Dr Beeching to axe many of Britain’s railways, says Peter Gruner

Friday, 25th March — By Peter Gruner

Ernest Marples and Richard Beeching

Ernest Marples and, inset, Richard Beeching

OFTEN depicted as Laurel and Hardy lookalikes, government minister Ernest Marples and leading engineer Dr Richard Beeching were regarded as responsible for the infamous closure of huge sections of Britain’s railways.

Back in the 1960s, Dr Richard Beeching, tall, portly, moustachioed and Hardy-looking, was appointed by transport minister Marples to produce a report that would save the decrepit nationalised railway and make it pay. They feature in the book Ernest Marples: The Shadow Behind Beeching by David Brandon and Martin Upham, which is the first biography of Marples, who died in 1978.

It was, however, Beeching who got most of the flak more than half a century ago. He was named the “axeman” and is remembered for recommending the closure of 2,363 stations and 500 miles of line.

It’s an interesting, highly detailed story amid concerns about today’s now-privatised railway and the row over the continuing spiral of fares.

Co-writer Martin Upham, a former Camden education planner who sings with the Highgate Choral Society, said: “Personally today I would take rail out of private hands. There is really no need to assuage shareholders. Things have reached a pretty pass when the French state railways can run our services but the public sector can’t.”

Back in the 60s, it was mainly small uneconomic rural commuter rail services, around Scotland, the North of England, the South East and West that were cut, while London almost managed to escape. Many railway workers lost their jobs and the roads became ever more crowded as more commuters returned to their cars.

If Marples called for change on the railways and was described as “restless and energetic” it was Beeching, a former ICI executive, who produced the plan to sweep away so much of Britain’s railways, and was said to be “cold and analytical”.

Beeching wanted to break down outdated and entrenched attitudes towards railway management. He created a hand-picked clique, many from outside the industry, who supported his ideas.

But the anger over closures was enormous.

As a young man Marples, from Manchester, borrowed £20 from his mother and decided to seek his fortune in London. He stayed at the Tottenham Court Road YMCA while he found work as a trainee accountant. He later became a high-rising Tory MP who went on to revolutionise three government departments. But eventually he got into trouble with his finances and private life and was lucky not to have been implicated in the Profumo Affair.

Beeching, who studied at Imperial College London, earned £24,000 a year – the equivalent today of more than half a million – for his study on how to make the railways pay.

Marples told Parliament in no uncertain terms that the railways were in a grave financial plight. “They are a long way short… of covering even their running costs.” Interest charges alone amounted to £75million a year, he said.

Marples also had a previous financial interest in building roads, as the existing ones were woefully overstretched. Britain had the highest road use density in the world. At one stage it was claimed that the former Greater London Council had been thinking about road schemes that would have resulted in the demolition of 20,000 homes.

Not that Marples and Beeching agreed on everything. Beeching wanted the West Coast line from Crewe to Euston to be run by diesel engines, while the minister wanted electrification and had his way.

The authors believe Beeching was very much a victim of the times. Remember, they write, that in 1961 British Rail had an operating deficit of £87million and cuts had been made for some years before Beeching.

“There was a hint of naivety that sometimes characterised his public utterances. But to his credit Beeching never said that the railways were without a future,” they write.

Marples supported Beeching’s report enthusiastically to prime minister Harold Macmillan. Marples stressed that wherever appropriate, bus services would replace withdrawn trains.

The authors write: “But [Marples] failed to mention that there was no statutory requirement for these services to continue if the bus operator could not make them pay.”

Co-author David Brandon said: “It is emotional and mistaken, if understandable, to call Beeching ‘The axeman’. He was employed by the government, through Marples, to bring his forensic analytical skills to bear on the problems being caused by the thumping losses.

“He produced an analysis of where the losses were being made and recommended changes which he thought would return the railways to solvency. He was wrong, they did not…”

Ernest Marples: The Shadow Behind Beeching. By David Brandon and Martin Upham, Pen and Sword Transport, £25

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