How the Beeching Report signalled the end of the line for many local railways
- Credit: Lens of Sutton
In the 1960s, Devon was dealt a blow from which it has arguably never recovered.
Barely a century after life in the county and, indeed, the nation had been transformed by the creation of the rail networks crisscrossing the land, the consequences of Dr Richard Beeching’s notorious 1963 report, The Reshaping of British Railways were to prove devastating to the rail industry. By the end of the decade, a third of Britain’s 7,000 railway stations (in practice, 2,363) had closed and passenger services were withdrawn from around 7,000 route miles. The ‘reshaping’ led to the loss of around 70,000 jobs.
The story is not clear cut: some stations were scheduled for closure before the report was published, some stations which the report recommended closing ended up staying open and a few which the report spared, ended up closing anyway. But the Beeching Report’s impact was nevertheless devastating. A comparison of the map of the British Railway Network in the year the report was published and 1984, the year before Beeching’s death, tells its own story. In 1963, a detailed and complex network of lines was visible linking many areas of the country. By 1984, the network was still there… just. But it is clear much of it has gone, perhaps forever. Areas of blank white space cover areas once characterised by a complex and close-knit series of intersecting lines. This is particularly obvious in many of the nation’s peripheral areas such as Wales, Scotland and in the south-west of England, including Devon.
So how did the Beeching Report impact the south-west, particularly East Devon?
In Sidmouth, the railway had first arrived in 1836. After a few false starts, a line opened, linking Ottery St Mary, Tipton to Sidmouth in 1874. A junction link with Budleigh Salterton was opened at Tipton St John in 1897 and the branch finally reached Exmouth in 1903. In 1922, the London and South Western Railway fully took over the line. Following nationalisation under the Attlee government in 1948, the line was placed under the Southern Region, then later moved to the Western Region in 1963. But then the ‘Beeching Axe’ fell. The line first gave way to multiple-unit working before closing. The last passenger train left Sidmouth on March 6th, 1967.
In Exmouth, the Beeching Axe threatened the Avocet train line linking Exmouth and Exeter. Only a spirited local campaign managed to save it. Many argue, the subsequent success of the line provides a vivid example of the essential wrongness of Beeching’s conclusions. It has since attracted customer usage numbers well in excess of a million a year.
Although it is in north Devon, the closure of the branch line which ran between Ilfracombe and Barnstaple between 1874 and 1970 is worth mentioning here. The line had proven popular and was converted from a single track to a double track between 1889 and 1891, in an expensive process which required substantial reconstruction of the two stations. The line was invaluable in transporting vast numbers of tourists to the region during this period. However, after the Second World War, train passenger numbers dropped off as people turned to their cars. The line was suggested as a candidate for closure in Beeching’s initial report and services were scaled down, reverting to a single track again in 1967. The last train to run on the line set off on October 3rd, 1970. It was reportedly full to bursting point.
Ultimately, the full impact of the Beeching Report on Devon – for example, the closure of Exminster Station, the end of the Seaton branch line and the withdrawal of trains between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton, to name but a few changes - is too extensive to list in detail here.
In early 2020, however, there was serious talk by the government of restoring many of the services axed under Beeching. It was a tacit acknowledgement perhaps, that a great historic mistake had been made over fifty years’ before.