Serpell Thirty Years On

Fifty years ago Dr Richard Beeching was appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board and went on to achieve a notoriety that was in part undeserved. Contrary to urban myth railway closures did not begin with Beeching and BR closed a number of lines in the 1950s. Not all of the closures that followed publication of the infamous report Reshaping British Railways were recommended by Beeching. You will, for example, find no mention of the Varsity Line in the report. This and several other lines were closed by decisions of the Labour Government, particularly Transport Minister Tom Fraser. Neither did Beeching ordain the end of steam as many seem to think. That was laid down on the Modernisation Plan of 1955. Some of what Beeching did was sensible and of long term benefit to the railway such as his restructuring of the freight business.

The main flaw in Beeching’s plan was its assumption that there was, somewhere, a profitable, core railway that you could extract from the clutches of the tangle of loss making branch and cross country secondary routes. This failed to appreciate the role that these played in generating traffic on major routes. Neither was any serious effort made to examine how loss making lines could be made viable, through unstaffed stations or changes in working practices. You either got a Rolls Royce or nothing. Kingsbridge station in Devon still had nine staff on its last day in September 1963. With hindsight this was a line that could usefully have been kept.

It was only with the Transport Act 1968 that the concept of uneconomic but socially necessary services was recognised and grants made available to keep them open. BR finally made efforts to reduce costs, with DMU Paytrains serving unstaffed halts. Yet the folly continued. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Serpell Report. He proposed an option for a self-financing railway which represented a radical hacking back of even the slimmed down post-Beeching network and would have left most of Wales and Scotland trainless. The West of England main line would have terminated at Exeter. Serpell had seemingly little understanding of how the railways worked  and was apparently unaware, for example,  that most passengers heading for the West Country are heading for destinations beyond Exeter.

Underlying this “study” was the old Beeching misconception that there is somewhere a profitable core railway waiting to be set free. What made the whole thing even more bizarre was that BR, under the leadership of Sir Peter Parker, had turned the corner and, as last Thursday’s excellent BBC4 documentary about the development of the HST showed, 1982 really was ‘The Age of the Train.’

Twenty years on from Beeching nothing had, apparently, been learnt. This was a study in ignorance of the railways that I thought at the time could never be surpassed.  Ten years later it was, with the disastrous results we now see.  It is easy to dismiss Serpell and his kind as harmless eccentrics. The truth is that he helped to soften public opinion up for further, unnecessary and damaging change.




One thought on “Serpell Thirty Years On

  1. I’m entirely with you there, Peter. Tory ideologues who hated public transport dominated policies and still do.

    I saw one documentary pointing out that the Beeching era Tory Transport Minister had a strong vested interest in the road industry, so it was convenient to slash train routes and services.

    A combination of incompetence, ideology and corruption. Same old, same old.


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