Parallels with the past

Published Mon, 2015-09-14 11:10

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party means that, unless there’s a change between now and May 2020, the next general election will be fought by a Labour leader with a transport policy that will seek to reverse the existing status quo.


No 7822 Foxcote Manor runs round its train at Llangollen on 31 May 2013; the preserved railway operates over part of one of the lines closed post-Beeching in early 1965. © Peter Waller

Corbyn has made no secret of his desire to see the railways taken back into public ownership; in this he would seem to strike a chord with much of the population. In adopting a popular policy towards an unpopular scheme, Corbyn’s position is very similar to an earlier and supposedly radical leader of the Labour Party — Harold Wilson — who went into the General Election of October 1964 campaigning against the hugely unpopular Beeching report. In the election campaign the Labour Party made claims that the proposed railway closures would not take place and that the Reshaping of British Railways would be quickly shunted into a siding if the Conservatives were beaten.
This year, therefore, marks the 50th anniversary of the first full year of Harold Wilson’s first Labour administration and it depressing to note that, instead of reversing the process of closure, it actually seems to have been maintained under the new government and its first Minister of Transport Tom Fraser.
Whilst 1964 was the peak year in terms of the closure of passenger services, the following year was to see vast stretches of the passenger network eliminated or local services withdrawn.
The month of January saw significant closures in mid-Wales with the closure of the line from Ruabon to Morfa Mawddach and the associated branch from Bala to Bala Junction on the 18th. Of course, it’s still possible to travel over sections of this line — from Llangollen to Corwen and alongside Bala Lake courtesy of the Llangollen Railway and Bala Lake Railway respectively — but the through route is long gone. The same day witnessed the end of services from  Whitchurch to Buttington Junction — the old Cambrian main line — from Walsall to Rugeley and from Nuneaton to Leamington Spa; ironically, of course, passenger services over the last two routes have been reinstated and are now subject to major investment. These lines lost all passenger services; equally destructive in many ways were the loss of local services, on 4 January, from Swindon/Worcester to Bristol and Glasgow to Carlisle.
February was a relatively quiet month, with the loss of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth on the 22nd; again, courtesy of the Gwili Railway, it’s still possible to ride over part of this line and the Welsh administration is undertaking a feasibility study into the line’s reopening. The month of March saw cuts affect the railways of Yorkshire with the withdrawal of services from Rillington Junction to Grosmont — now partially preserved as the North Yorkshire Moors Railway — and Whitby to Scarborough succumbing on the 8th and those from Skipton to Ilkley and Arthington to Menston via Otley closing a fortnight later with local services from Bradford Forster Square to Leeds also being withdrawn on the 22nd. It’s still possible to travel from Embsay to Bolton Abbey via the preserved line, which hopes to extend into Skipton itself in due course. The 29th was to witness one closure with the demise of the Staines West branch.
There was again a sole casualty in April when the line from Welwyn Garden City to Dunstable North closed on the 26th. May, however, was to witness a considerable culling of the lines in Scotland. Aberdeen to Peterhead, Ballinluig to Aberfeldy, Castle Douglas to Kirkudbright and Tayport to Newport-on-Tay East all succumbed on the 3rd with local services being withdrawn between Inverness and Elgin, between Perth and Dundee and between Perth and Inverness whilst those between Arrochar & Tarbet and Craigendoran followed on the 15th.
June was to see two of the relatively few Southern Region lines to close, with the withdrawal of services from the Eridge to Hailsham and Christs Hospital to Guildford lines. The same day as to see further withdrawals in Yorkshire with the demise of the services from Bradford to Huddersfield via the Spen Valley, from Leeds to Huddersfield over the ‘New Line’, from Market Weighton to Driffield and from Selby to Market Weighton. Perhaps the most significant withdrawal, however, saw passenger services cease on the line from Stranraer to Dumfries — the Port Road.
The summer saw a brief respite with relatively few closures until early September; the only exceptions were from Crook to Tow Law on 5 July and from Boscombe Junction to Bournemouth West on 2 August. September, however, witnessed a further assault on the railways of Scotland with the line from Leven to St Andrews succumbing and Edinburgh Princes Street station closing on 6 September. Local services were withdrawn from Ayr to Stranraer at the same time. On the 28th passenger services ceased on the line from Callendar to Balquihidder and from Killin Junction to Killin. Other casualties in September included Nottingham to Kirkby-in-Ashfield on the 6th, Chippenham to Calne on the 20th and Earby to Barnoldswick on the 27th.
Scotland was again the target in October with the lines from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh and Hamilton to Coalburn/Strathaven all succumbing on the 4th and those from Aviemore to Craigellachie, from Boat of Garten and from Keith to Elgin via Dufftown closing on the 18th. Courtesy of the Strathspey Railway it is still possible to travel north from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and beyond, with construction through to Grantown-on-Spey West in hand, and, through the Keith & Dufftown Railway, from Keith to Dufftown.
The first day of November saw yet more Scottish Region closures with the demise of service from Dunblane to Callendar (a line that featured prominently in the original BBC series of Dr Finlay’s Casebook). The same day saw the demise of services over the line from Rose Grove to Todmorden; this was subsequently reopened and has found further importance following the reopening of the curve at Todmorden that permits through Blackburn to Manchester via Burnley services. Also to disappear that day were local services between Lincoln and Barnetby. The last major closure of the year occurred on the 29th with the withdrawal of services between Hull and York via Beverley. This resulted in the East Riding town of Market Wheaton, which had started the year with services radiating out in four directions, ending it completely devoid of railway passenger services. It would be alone in seeing its name completely eliminated from the railway passenger timetable under a Labour government that had come to power openly campaigning on a policy of reversing the proposed cuts to passenger services.
This is not intended to be a full schedule of all the closures that occurred in 1965; other passenger lines were closed or saw local services eliminated and a significant number of freight lines also closed. What it does demonstrate, however, is the sheer scale of closures wrought in a single year.
The process of closure continued through much of the Labour government of 1964-70; it might have been worse, however, had the concept of the social railway and subsidy not been accepted and put into effect by Fraser’s successor as Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, through the Transport Act of 1968. Perhaps the most interesting parallel here is that Castle was a bit of a maverick who fell out with the party leadership.