Sunday, 15 September 2013

The continuing environmental impact of the Beeching Axe of 1963

The continuing environmental impact of the Beeching Axe of 1963

          The continuing arguments over the HS2 project in Parliament has this week led me to dig out one of my old university essays as I think it makes not only an interesting piece on environmental impact but ironically some of the lines mentioned in the essay as being closed down are now being proposed as part of the route for HS2.
          The essay was written early in my university course in the mid 2000s and at the time didn`t sustain a high mark, the essay focuses mainly on the environmental impact and not social so please bear that in mind.

           In 1963 Doctor Richard Beeching issued his now infamous report, in which he proposed the closing of over two thousand stations and five thousand miles of track, this mainly affected the rural branch line network many of which were single track and losing money but also more significantly closed diversionary and secondary main lines, which could have been used to ease the level of road traffic today, I will outline and identify some of these routes later. 
          Going back a little further in history to 1948, the least used branch lines were already being closed down this was being done by the "Branch line committee" with some Three thousand miles being closed by them between 1948 and 1962 and replaced by bus services, this is where the environmental impact starts in earnest as the buses of the time were smaller than they are today, and indeed the railway coaches they replaced, less efficient than they are today requiring more fuel to be used for the same distance travelled, and had no way of eliminating the harmful pollutants released into the atmosphere as the catalytic converter had yet to be invented. 
          With the end of Petrol rationing after the war car ownership increased, however the majority of the population could not afford to buy a car so still made their journeys by rail or bus, with the benefit of only a small amount of pollution being produced per person and lessening the impact on the environment as several people travelled over a small area rather than having to increase road size to permit the same amount of people to travel to the same area.
          In 1955 a Modernisation plan was rolled out across the network which would eliminate steam from the network and be replaced by diesel and electric engines, of course this was done to try and save money and reduce journey times and at first glance this appears to be sound environmental thinking until its remembered what was being replaced with what, while it can`t be denied that steam engines produce alot of smoke the majority of what comes out of the chimney is steam, water vapor, easily reabsorbed by the environment, diesel engines at the time just belched thick black smoke into the air full of pollutants leading to an increase in greenhouse gases the impact of which wouldn`t be felt until much later. 
          Putting aside the infrastructure needed to support electric trains in terms of overhead wires, electric trains although much more environmentally friendly at source still need to be powered by electricity which came from at the time, huge coal burning power stations releasing tons of smoke into the atmosphere once again leading to the increase of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 
          After 1963 the wholesale tearing up of the railways began without a thought as to what was to happen next. Without access to the railways they had come to rely on many people had no other choice but to try and afford a car or use buses, still releasing highly polluting gases, and with the increase in car ownership came the inevitable increase in road traffic which led to the building of more roads and ultimately motorways and the beginning of a vicious cycle that we can`t escape from today.
          Whilst it could be argued that this would have happened anyway the impact on the environment would have been lessened as railways would have provided a sustainable alternative in the interim, it would also not have required the vast amounts of land to be destroyed to provide a route for a motorway through areas, such as the M6 through Cumbria or the total destruction of a hill in Oxfordshire for the M40.
           With the increase of car ownership caused (although not solely)  by the Beeching Axe has come the increase in "wasted seating" with the majority of car journeys made by one person, this means the amount of pollution, or carbon footprint, made by one person is huge and although the amount of pollution is increased when more people are in a car as the engine has to work harder, the amount of pollution can be divided by the number of people in the car. Of course there a more seats on a train than a car, anything up to three hundred which when the train is full reduces the carbon footprint of the individual to a very small amount.
          One of the biggest impacts caused by the Beeching axe has been in the area of cargo transport, in 1955 virtually all the stations in the country had at least a siding to hold wagons with goods for the immediate area however the 1955 modernisation began to erode this as one suggestion that was followed through with was containerisation of goods eliminating individual goods wagons and the flexibility in transporting goods they offered, this was compounded in 1963 as the rural branch lines were pulled up leaving communities with no other option but to turn to road hauliers to bring in goods, not only increasing traffic on the roads but also the associated increase in damage to the local environment as well as the environment in general.
          Further the 1955 modernisation plan created huge marshalling yards which were designed to hold and reorganise wagons for onward movement yet because of the amount of goods lost to the roads and the loss of stations and there goods sidings from 1963 these marshalling yards were more or less abandoned in the 1970`s although a few are still being used, the loss of these marshalling yards has also hampered the size of modern goods trains, as during the steam age there are plenty of pictures showing the lengths of some of the goods trains hauled, anything up to a half of a mile long, the length of modern goods trains has shrunk despite modern engines having more than enough power to haul them due to there being no space to store these semi permanently coupled block wagons.
         One area identified by the Beeching report as being money losing was the duplication and under utilization of certain routes, including secondary main lines, a prime example of this being the former Great Central Railway mainline from London to the Midlands, because this duplicated the lines running South to North, it was sited early on as needing to close to save money, a little research shows that this line was built differently to other main lines and could easily have accommodated the modern goods trains of today and most of international wagons as well, as the directors of the line at the time were keen to increase foreign investment and trade to the Midlands. (modern note; does that sound familiar!) If this line still existed today  it would have been able to take a huge amount of goods leaving the other main lines free to concentrate on passenger services and taking more lorries off of the road reducing the environmental impact of these vehicles.
          Another route that was closed due to the Beeching report and could have helped with the environmental impact was the Waverley Route running from Carlisle to Edinburgh through the Scottish borders, not only was this line used by the isolated communities as the primary means of getting around but in at least one case was the only way of getting anywhere, further to this the route was used as a diversionary route for freight trains on a regular basis and had a regular freight working to the communities over the line, after the Waverley was dismantled the A7 road had to be upgraded to cope with the increase of road traffic supplying to the communities and today can be regularly clogged with forty tonne lorries winding their way round the roads, the biggest irony being that for the vast majority of its length the A7 follows the route of the Waverley line.
          A further line that could be used today would have been the Somerset and Dorset line in the South West of England running from Bath to Bournemouth, this did have the distinct disadvantage of being single track for the majority of its length but as an alternative means of getting a large quantity of goods down to the South West of England, unclogging the M5 and reducing the impact on the environment in the area.
          Another line that could potentially be useful today would have been the branch line running from Penrith to Keswick, this once again was torn up and replaced by a road that follows virtually the same route through the Cumbrian countryside, this line would have been particularity useful in the summer months to take tourists from Penrith to Keswick, there are not enough car parking spaces in Keswick for all the tourists that come through nor is there the land to expand into to create more spaces, this may have been negated had the railway line still been in place.
          Above I have outlined just four of the potential routes that could have been used in the present day to reduce the impact on the environment but were dismantled for various different reasons.
          Although devastating from a socio-economic point of view the Beeching axe has also had a devastating impact on the environment that is continuing to be felt today, unfortunately this impact is unlikely to be reversed as the lines have been concreted over or built on, station siding no longer exsist for goods and trains are now formed into block formations.

          As I mentioned at the start, not very good as it was biased and woefully short of references or statistics (only a best guess can be made for some of these old routes), all cut out here, but it is relevant to the arguments going on in parliament now, Thankfully since I wrote it some changes have occurred, part of the Waverley line has been rebuilt and there is discussions going on about rebuilding the line between Penrith and Keswick, its doubtful whether this will have any impact but its a start. Its also worth mentioning that ironically the government (conservative) that closed these lines is the same government proposing using part the Great Central Railway route as part of the HS2!
          I personally do not support the HS2 as not only is it a waste of money but a huge environmental disaster waiting to happen.

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