Essay : Road versus Rail – Part Three

Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s resident historian, takes a detailed look at how the UK’s railways developed, and compares it with the rise of the motor car.

Here, in Part Three, he looks at the decline of rail and the growth road use between 1960 and 1970.

Ernest Marples-ADO50-MarplesMini-LastScan

In November 1959, Ernest Marples (above), the Transport Minister, opened the first section of the M1 motorway. Now seen as a villain by the rail lobby, Marples had interests in road construction which were transferred into his wife’s name – the Minister was either biased or he knew what he was talking about. The problem with arguing that the funds should have been diverted into the rail network instead is that every major country was also building a high-speed road network.

Many of the cars which used the new motorway network in the early days were not, of course, up to the job of continuous high speed running, either through poor maintenance or design. Cars with marginal cooling abilities were pushed beyond their limits and broke down. Another sign of progress in car design was the phasing out of side-valve engines by the motor manufacturers. The new overhead valve and overhead camshaft engines could rev higher and therefore go faster.

In early 1960, the Department of Transport informed the British Transport Commission that any investment programme over £250,000 had to be approved by them, effectively putting the brakes on the railway modernisation plan. Replacing steam with diesel now seemed the cheapest option, and dreams of electrifying all the main lines evaporated. Electrification of the West Coast Main Line now stagnated. It took until April 1966 for the first electric main line services between London Euston and Liverpool and Manchester to operate, and May 1974 for complete London to Glasgow electrification.

Rail hits the buffers

Clearly a modern and efficient railway system was not regarded as a national priority, as stop-go investment was now the order of the day. Arguments went back and forth on whether the road programme was paid for in full by direct taxation on the motorist or was in part subsidised by central Government to a claimed £800 million, which dwarfed the losses incurred by the railways. Over the years, British Railways would be poorly compared with the networks on Continental Europe, particularly the French SNCF.

What must be taken into account is that large chunks of the European motorway network were constructed by private firms who charged motorists a toll to use them, freeing Governments of the financial responsibility for them and releasing taxpayers money for investment in the railways. The ‘New Jerusalem’ mentality that pervaded Britain in the years after 1945, where the state was seen as a benevolent benefactor to the people, meant that the concept of charging for motorways at the point of use was and still is hard sell.

Also in 1960, the Government created a committee to investigate the future of the rail network. Fronted by Sir Ivan Stedeford, the Managing Director of Tube Investments, it also included Frank Kearton of Courtaulds, Henry Benson of Cooper Brothers, and Dr. Richard Beeching of ICI. Frank Kearton later became Chairman of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, which was instrumental in the formation of British Leyland.

The report was finished by October 1960 but never published due to divisions with the committee. Ernest Marples then cut back on the railway modernisation programme and, in December 1960, he announced that the British Transport Commission was to be abolished and its constituent parts replaced by separate boards and thus the British Railways Board came in to being. Further to this, in March 1961 Dr. Richard Beeching became the new Chairman of the British Railways Board. Beeching brought in outsiders and began assessing which routes were viable.

The cars were the stars

Norman Dewis developed many seminal Jaguar road cars; here he is in 1960 with the legendary E-type

Also in March 1961 the Jaguar E-type (above) was announced. The sensational road tests screamed out 150mph, this was a car for the motorway age. The motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson bought one for work in southern Europe, cruising Italian autostradas at 105mph for hours on end, faster than any British train of the time.

In July 1962 Ernest Marples said: ‘Traffic is going on to the roads because the people wish it to go on to the roads. I am not forcing it.’

In September 1962, the Ford Cortina was introduced. Although it was designed for the burgeoning company car market, like the Mini, its social impact when secondhand was enormous. The company car market it was aimed at was also unique to Britain. Gradually the enormous numbers of Cortinas and its rival clones flooding the used car market enabled the family man to forsake the railways and travel independently when and where they wanted to. Once there was a plentiful supply of OHV-engined cars with four-speed gearboxes on sale as bargain bangers, then rail travel would inevitably suffer.

Even now it is possible to buy a used Ford Focus for the price of a personal computer. The Government also gave tax relief to companies which bought cars for their employees –  as the pro-rail lobby pointed out, that was a subsidy well in excess of annual railway losses. This was to boost British car manufacturing. However, in the 1980s the Government gradually began to reduce the amount of tax relief on company cars as both Ford and General Motors increasingly flooded the UK market with imports from their continental factories.

New locomotives roll out

The English Electric Type 4, later known as the Class 40, was one of the early diesel electric locomotives.

The English Electric Type 4, later known as the Class 40, was one of the early diesel electric locomotives

British Railways’ image as purveyors of an outmoded form of transport was not helped by the series of bungles its management had performed since its formation – the continued building of steam locomotives and, when it did see the light, the wasting of precious resources on untried, unproven and ultimately unsatisfactory diesel locomotives.

Many diesel designs were ordered straight off the drawing board, and some of them were not up to scratch, proving woefully unreliable, and were withdrawn after a working life of ten years or less. Who remembers the Metrovick co-bo and the ‘baby’ Deltic?

The public symbol of the British Railways modernisation plan was the English Electric Type 4 (above), later known as the Class 40. This was a 133 ton diesel electric locomotive with 2000hp on tap. When first introduced on the Liverpool Street to Norwich line it proved satisfactory. However, when used on both the East and West Coast Main Lines, it proved to be overweight and underpowered, having to cope with 13 coaches and more and limited by its gearing to 90mph.

D9020 'Nimbus' on a down Scotsman passing Selby

The powerful 3300hp Deltic diesels, with rapid acceleration and 100mph top speed, demonstrated that it was possible to compete with road and air transport for long distance traffic

The Class 40 was unable to match the LMS Duchesses and LNER A4s for both sheer grunt and speed. No doubt British Railways had hoped that its main lines would soon be electrified and the trains would be hauled by 100mph electric locomotives with up to 3300hp available (above), but with stop-go investment, it was not to be. On the East Coast Main Line, the decision was taken to order 22 English Electric diesels powered by a 3300hp Deltic engine.

The prototype had been operating on the rail network since 1955 and, for once, a proven design was ordered. The Deltics, as they became known, were able to match and, with track improvements, eventually exceed the performance of the steam locomotives they replaced. However, this opportunity to speed up trains in the face of road competition was not taken by other BR regions and no more Deltics were ordered.

A split in power – diesel vs diesel/electric

47539 AKA D1718 at Liverpool Street 1982

The ubiquitous Class 47 was seen everywhere on the British Rail network during the 1970s and ’80s

In contrast, the Western region of BR decided that diesels with hydraulic transmission were the way to go, with the promise of a higher power to weight ratio than designs like the Class 40 diesel electric. At least 269 were built before a later railway management decreed they were non-standard, expensive to maintain and not as efficient as a second generation of diesel electrics locomotives, epitomised by the ubiquitous Brush Type 4, later known as the Class 47 (above). They had all been withdrawn from service by the end of 1977 when they had plenty of working life left in them. It all seemed a terrible waste, especially as BR was ordering new freight engines at the time.

The Brush Type 4 (Class 47) entered service in 1962 and 512 were built up to 1968. The Class 47, especially in the Rail Blue era, symbolised Britain’s rail network in the 1970s and 1980s. With 2750hp and a 95mph top speed, this would be as good as it got for a long time for many main lines. These reliable workhorses soon supplanted the older generation diesels, hauling trains over an ageing infrastructure which was starved of investment. The Class 47 and the smaller English Electric Type 3 (Class 37) were the outstanding diesel designs of their era, and their long working lives stand as a testament to the soundness of their basic design.

Doctor Beeching arrives


In March 1963, Dr. Richard Beeching (above) published his report on the future of the railways. Entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, he called for the closure of 2363 railway stations. Passenger services would be withdrawn from around 5000 route miles accounting for an annual train mileage of 68 million and yielding, according to Beeching, a net saving of £18m per year.

The reshaping would also involve the shedding of around 70,000 British Railways jobs over three years. Beeching forecast that his changes would result in an improvement in British Railway’s accounts of between £115 million and £147 million. Controversy still reigns about how the data was collected and how it was all calculated. Beeching argued that a single-track branch line needed 17,000 passengers a week to break even, while others argued it was as low as 8000. Trains would be replaced by improved bus services, a policy known as ‘bustitution.’

The problem with the theory that axing loss-making branch lines would return the railways to profitability was that, although the individual branches might be losing money, they were feeding traffic and revenue to trunk lines, and overall they made a profit. Once the branches were lopped off, revenue to the trunk lines declined and they to began to lose money, and also became candidates for closure.

Air travel – the gamble that didn’t pay

Doctor Beeching was also convinced that air travel would hit Anglo-Scottish rail services, leading to their gradual demise, but as it turned out the gradual speeding up of trains through new technology countered this. Beeching believed air travel would decimate long-distance rail travel as it had done so in the United States.

Domestic air travel had risen 14 per cent between 1956 and 1966, but that could not stop British European Airways losing £1m in 1963-’64 and £1.6m in 1966 on its domestic services. After this point, domestic air travel began to stagnate, but regional airports based on former wartime airfields would continue to thrive as gateways to the sun.

Doctor Beeching advocated the replacement of rural trains with an already extensive network of bus services. It seemed to make sense, but a lot of bus services were irregular and slow, meandering through villages before they reached their ultimate destination.


One person who welcomed The Reshaping of British Railways was Donald Stokes (above) of the Leyland Motor Corporation, which manufactured seven out of every ten buses in Britain. He told the Daily Express newspaper at the end of March 1963: ‘Dr. Beeching has paved the way for Inter-city services on the lines of America’s Greyhound coaches. Over here it could mean the setting up of coach bases – on trunk roads with catering facilities similar to those on the motorways.’

‘It won’t happen overnight, but within two years the rail closures are bound to mean increased demand for buses. And it could mean more jobs in our factories. I think what Beeching did was obvious and logical. It should have been done years ago.’

‘An admission of defeat’

The rail lobby have claimed that the Beeching Report was an admission of defeat by British Railways which convinced the public that the rail network was in terminal decline and that car ownership was the way forward. The choice of residence would now have to be based on road access, not proximity to a railway station.

In 1962 around 785,000 cars were sold in Britain. In 1963, this increased to 1,009,000 and 1,191,000 in 1964, but thereafter UK car sales stagnated for the rest of the decade. Part of this was down to increased capacity at Longbridge, Halewood and Ellesmere Port, but Britain was entering a golden age in its motor manufacturing, with several iconic and desirable models reaching the showrooms.

Indeed, it is possible that the Beeching Report resulted in an extra 300,0000 car sales a year. In October 1963, the new leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, told his party conference in a much replayed quote: ‘We are redefining our socialism in terms of the new scientific revolution… The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this scientific revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry.’

1964 was going to be an election year in which Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, with its vision of a modern, vibrant Britain, would take on the tired Conservative Party led by the aristocratic Alec Douglas Home. The Labour Party and Harold Wilson opposed the Beeching closures and its activists joined in the campaigns to save the doomed lines.


Indeed, in a parliamentary debate on rail closures, Harold Wilson (above) had revealed himself to be well briefed on the dubious mathematics behind the good Doctor’s plan. The Labour Party’s 1964 election manifesto promised to halt rail closures pending a review into Britain’s transport needs. The Labour Party scraped into power in October 1964 with a four-seat majority – how much did the rail closure programme affect the final result?

Richer Brits meant fewer rail journeys

Britons who voted in the 1964 General Election aspired to own their own house, buy a new car, a television set and equip their home with new white goods. These were the aspirations that the politicians had to satisfy.

However, on entering office, the new Wilson administration discovered that Britain was again effectively bankrupt. Public spending had to be cut back as a matter of urgency, and suddenly the arguments emanating from the Ministry of Transport about the need for rail closures seemed much more convincing to a destitute Government. In February 1965, Doctor Beeching presented a second report to Ernest Marples’ Labour replacement, Tom Fraser. Entitled The Development Of The Major Railway Trunk Routes, this advocated actively developing 3000 of the 7500 miles of lines earmarked for retention in the first report.

The report predicted that the UK population would increase by 15 per cent by 1984, when it was 5 per cent in reality, and that annual economic growth would be 4 per cent a year, a somewhat optimistic prediction. The emphasis would be on developing the railway to carry heavy freight, with the occasional passenger train. The report assumed that passenger traffic would dwindle under the combined assault of air, bus and car to 4500 passenger miles a year by 1984. By 2013 it was 35 billion passenger miles a year.

Wilson’s railway U-turn

At the end of March 1965, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that there would be no report into Britain’s transport policy, and no halt to rail closures. Clearly the rail network had no part in his vision for a modern dynamic Britain as British cars seemed poised to conquer the world. The same month the Ministry of Transport took on 150 new examiners to try and clear a backlog of 430,000 driving test appointments.

There were a record 2,000,000 driving tests in 1964. Three decades earlier Britons had marvelled at the creations of locomotive engineers Sir Nigel Gresley and Sir William Stanier. Now, in the 1960s, the best-known transport engineer was Alec Issigonis, BMC’s Technical Director. His compact creations, the Mini and 1100, seemed to offer a solution to the looming and inevitable problem of traffic congestion. The Mini was chic and fashionable and made car ownership of even a basic model desirable.

In 1964, Ernest Marples had approved the closure of 991 miles of track. It was quite clear that the pro-road lobby in the Transport ministry were winning the argument. In 1965, Tom Fraser approved the closure of 1071 miles. In 1965, British Railways losses began to rise again. The pro-rail lobby have claimed that this symbolised the failure of Doctor Beeching’s cutbacks, but in reality they had only just started. The decline in British Railways finances probably owed more to the continued upsurge of the private car.

For whatever reason, Harold Wilson declined to renew Doctor Beeching’s contract and he left British Railways on 1 June 1965.

British Rail’s new corporate colours


On the positive side, Doctor Beeching did push forward the use of containerised freight and his stewardship also saw the creation of the InterCity brand for long-distance travel. With the imminent demise of steam, the coaches would be repainted in a new corporate blue and white livery, and the locomotives would be blue overall with yellow ends – even the name British Railways was abbreviated to British Rail.

Although the Doctor had now departed, the bad medicine continued to be administered to the patient, as the rail closure programme went on. Lines not slated for closure in the original Beeching Report now came up for the axe. In July 1965, the Minister of Transport, Tom Fraser, approved the closure of the Varsity line, which was a cross-country line north of London that linked Oxford to Cambridge via Bletchley and Bedford.

Parts of the line survived closure in December 1967, but the track between Bedford and Cambridge was lifted and the land sold off, making its 21st century re-instatement difficult, but not insurmountable. In hindsight, perhaps the real problem with the rail closure programme was that lines were closed, and the land was sold off instead of being mothballed, ready to be revived when demand justified re-instatement. However, British Rail was still obliged to maintain disused structures, and selling the land they were on relieved them of this financial burden and bolstered their ailing coffers.

In November 1965, in response to rising road casualties, Tom Fraser announced there would be a temporary 70mph motorway speed limit, still in force today. On the face of it, this seemed like an end to the concept of high-speed, inter-city road travel, but the Police had to catch the motorist breaking the new law in the first place to secure a conviction.

Barbara Castle arrives

Barbara Castle with Paddy Hopkirk

In December 1965, a Cabinet reshuffle resulted in the replacement of Tom Fraser with Barbara Castle (above) as Minister of Transport. This was greeted with astonishment is some quarters as Barbara Castle did not possess a driving licence and this was enough to convince correspondents to the motoring press that the new Minister had an anti-road agenda. In April 1966, the Labour Party increased its majority in a General Election, the same month in which Barbara Castle rejected six railway closure requests. However, she did agree to the closure of some 1200 miles of railway line in 1966.

The biggest rail closure of all occurred in September 1966 when the bulk of the old Great Central railway was closed. A well-engineered line that connected London with the North of England, it had been progressively run down, denuded of services and, with no attempt to reduce over manning, was deemed to be a duplicate and uneconomic route. The loss of capacity caused by this closure only hit home in the 21st century when a future cash-strapped Government had to find a location for the proposed High Speed 2 line. The argument for HS2 is to create more capacity, capacity that was disposed of as surplus to requirements five decades before.

Much of the old Great Central track bed had been built on, rendering it uneconomic for revival.

In May 1967, Barbara Castle announced the Network For Development plan. The plan was to reduce British Rail from its existing 13,200 miles to 11,000 miles, with 8000 miles open to passengers. However, the Government did not state which lines faced the axe. It was believed that bulk freight would grow, but passenger numbers would continue to decline. By the end of 1967, only 9882 miles of railway were open to passengers.

First British Rail, now British Leyland

Jaguar XJ6 1968-73

In January 1968, it was announced that BMC and the Leyland Motor Corporation were to merge. The Government’s part in encouraging the merger revealed to all its commitment to a thriving British motor industry.

In April 1968, another Cabinet reshuffle resulted in Barbara Castle moving on to be replaced by Richard Marsh, who let it be known that he was a driver. In July 1968, the new Transport Minister approved the closure of the Waverley route, a line linking Carlisle to Edinburgh, which enabled trains to travel from St. Pancras in London to the Scottish capital. The reason for the closure was that it was a duplicate line and therefore surplus to requirements. The line was closed in January 1969, and now parts of it are being re-instated.

In August 1968, regular steam haulage on British Rail ceased. The steam locomotive was seen as an anachronistic Victorian throwback in the brave new world of Harold Wilson’s Britain. Maybe there was some glamour in the crack steam expresses, but most steam locomotives were dirty, inefficient workhorses.

A month later, the Jaguar XJ6 (above) was announced – because of its price range, it was not a people’s car in the same way as the Mini and Cortina were but, in terms of refinement, it demonstrated what was possible with automotive technology. In terms of noise, vibration and harshness, it was streets ahead of the opposition and, in the years ahead, such technology was bound to filter down to more mundane vehicles. The XJ6 was a refined motorway cruiser, capable of sustained three figure speeds and could take its occupants from doorstep to doorstep, the culmination of Jaguar’s expertise.

In June 1970, the Conservatives under Edward Heath, unexpectedly won the General Election, resulting in a new Transport Minister in the shape of John Peyton. By now the bulk of rail closures had occurred. In June 1971, the Government announced a road building programme which included 2000 miles of motorway and 1500 miles of dual carriageway. After years of stagnation, the UK car market began to expand, 1.28 million in 1971, 1.63 million in 1972 and 1.66 million in 1973.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. My personal belief for the Beeching cuts was as today, to cut staffing levels. With estimates of 474,000 staff pay checks leaving the UK government coffers every week, by slashing the railway you could also slash the staffing. Staff of private hauliers and road builders were not accountable to the tax paying public as such.

    Today the staffing levels are 5% of that figure at @25000 (the actual track mileage has shrunk from approx 18000 to 10000 miles) So call it a 90% staff reduction in 50 years….

  2. @ Andrew Elphick, even the smallest railway stations were fully staffed for 18 hours a day in the sixties. You could have a local station which had a stationmaster, two ticket office staff, two ticket collectors and possibly a porter and someone who dealt with parcels. It was extremely expensive to run and by the seventies many of the smaller stations moved over to Paytrains, where the station was unstaffed but you bought the ticket on the train. I’m sure if many of the lines which were fully staffed moved over to this model in the early sixties, it would have saved more railways.

    • Well put.
      I did try and make that point in the article but not as well as that.
      I believe the Great Central and Varsity lines were axed without any attempt to cut staffing levels.

      • I think you right, but it wasn’t just those two lines. On the day of closure many lines were still operating with fully staffed stations, multiple signal boxes that the volume of traffic no longer merited, multiple instances of overstaffing and excess equipment, which all needs maintaining, thus leading to even more staff. The concept of the ‘basic railway’ i.e. a line run with the minimum number of staff and equipment was not really implemented until the 1970’s.

        I speculate that this concept could have saved some of the lines closed in the ’60 if implemented before. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really like the idea, but an operating basic railway is better then no railway at all!

  3. @ 416 GSi, in the late sixties, costs were cut significantly on the Cumbrian Coast Line, which had been threatened with closure, by destaffing all the stations except Whitehaven and Workington. I’m sure as well as the presence of Sellafield, this saved the line by introducing a basic railway.
    Perhaps the ultimate in basic railways came with the introduction of the Metro in Tyne and Wear in the early eighties. Apart from the drivers, revenue protection staff and staff working at a central signalling centre, roles such as guards, signallers working from individual boxes, station staff( all tickets were bought from machines and put through barriers) and stationmasters were done away with. It might have seen a considerable shedding of staff, a station like Tynemouth probably employed 20 staff in the British Rail era, but made operating costs far lower.

  4. IIRC when the East Coast Main Line was electrified most of the lines connecting were resignalled & had the pointwork simplified so that they could be operated from control centres rather than lots of remote boxes, saving a lot in staffing & maintenance costs.

  5. British Rail’s inefficient practices continued into the eighties. While other countries had moved over to checking tickets on trains, or installed electronic barriers, most staffed stations continued with manned ticket barriers until the open station system was introduced from 1984 onwards( albeit slowly).

  6. Fifty years ago today the Bedford to Cambridge section of the varsity line was closed. The track bed was subsequently built on in many places.
    The present government has sanctioned it’s reinstatement by 2031 at no doubt enormous cost.
    This illustrates the madness of the UK’s post war transport policy.

  7. One development in this era was the formation of Passenger Transport Executives. These organisations were responsible for public transport in major conurbations across the Midlands, the North and Glasgow. Many attempted to boost local rail travel by running feeder buses, rather than competing buses.

  8. Barbara Castle’s main contribution to transport was in road safety. Until 1965, seatbelts were rare in cars, but seeing the benefits in reducing casualties in road accidents, they became compulsory on all cars sold after 1965. For all they weren’t compulsory until 1983 and some drivers considered them obstructive to wear, a massive government advertising campaign gradually persuaded drivers that seat belts saved lives and casualty figures fell during the seventies. Nowadays wearing a seatbelt is considered second nature for drivers and in the last 52 years has saved thousands of lives.

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