Scotland’s lost branch lines

Written by David Spaven

Climate change is adding to road congestion and vehicle pollution in bringing to the fore the case for a renaissance of railways, but across the UK a mass of rail closures in the 1960s destroyed so much infrastructure that would have been valuable to build on today. It seemed at the time that road rather rail should lead the way for the future, but rail historian David Spaven argues in a new book, Scotland’s Lost Branch Lines, that the full possibilities for rail were never properly debated, as he explains here.

The first railways in Scotland providing both passenger and freight services were opened for business in the early 1830s, and scores of branch lines followed over the next seven decades – yet by 1969 they had virtually all lost their passenger trains.

The last of these once ubiquitous feeder routes to Scotland’s main lines – typically single-track and less than 20 miles long – were swept away by the infamous Beeching Report and its aftermath, often described as the ‘Beeching Axe’. But why did we lose so many railways linking significant towns the length and breadth of the country? This is an important aspect of modern Scottish history which has never before been explored in depth. Conventional wisdom at the time regarded most of the closures as inevitable in an era of growing affluence and rising car ownership – but was that a flawed analysis?

While researching the Beeching Report – produced for the government by the Chairman of British Railways (BR), Dr Richard Beeching –  for an article in Modern Railways magazine in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of its 1963 publication,I re-examined the 10 case studies he presented to illustrate the financialrationale for line closures. One of these was the Gleneagles–Crieff / Comriebranch – and my analysis of the line’s costs and revenue data persuaded methat the Gleneagles–Crieff section should have been reprieved and thenheavily rationalised, rather than closed completely. Would archive material,I wondered, shed further light on this and other examples of what I beganto regard as ‘Beeching’s blind spot’?

Studying the sources

Intrigued by the possibilities, I then set out to research and write what I hoped would be a ground-breaking book on this key chapter of Scottish railway history. The principal primary sources of rarely or never referenced material which helped me to lay bare the errors and omissions of the Beeching Report were the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) archive at Warwick University and British Railways’ internal briefs for Liaison Officers (produced prior to public hearings on proposed line closures) held at the National Records of Scotland. The NUR files proved to be crucial to a central thesis of Scotland’s Lost Branch Lines – that BR chose (or was told by government) to ignore the scope for infrastructure and staffing economies as an alternative to closure – while the BR briefs reveal much of the ‘mind-set’ which drove the closure programme in the 1960s.

Part One of the book sets out the key events and trends in the life and death of Scotland’s branch lines as a whole, while Part Two dissects a dozen case studies, outlining the controversial closure process through the unique stories of how a dozen routes lost their trains in the 1960s: the lines to Ballachulish, Ballater, Callander, Crail, Crieff, Fraserburgh, Kelso, Kilmacolm, Leven, Peebles, Peterhead and St Andrews.

What might be called the brutal butchery of the Beeching era and its immediate aftermath stripped Scotland of all its traditional branch lines. But such a drastic end-game was not inevitable, and the book’s analysis allows us to draw a number of conclusions on the headlong rush to close railways in the 1960s – and to learn lessons, some of which may still be valid in the 21st century.

Coming to conclusions

There are two major conclusions. First, the almost complete absence within the official closure process of any consideration of the scope for infrastructure rationalisation – as part of an alternative strategy based largely on making economies – is quite remarkable. On many occasions, campaigners or local trade union branches raised with BR the scope to make savings through the likes of singling double-track, eliminating surplus crossing loops on single-track lines, and closing the smallest intermediate stations (and de-staffing some of the remaining ones) – but the standard management response was either to ignore such arguments or to sweep them aside as a wholly inadequate response to heavy financial losses. The consistency of such responses points to control by central diktat.

In the one case I identified where local BR management initially agreed to co-operate with a move to explore the scope for different ways of running a railway – the Deeside Line to Ballater – the district traffic superintendent was quickly slapped down, and BR erected a brick wall around its doctrinaire ‘closure or bust’ approach. As an ex-BR manager commented to me: “The fundamental obstacles to any sensibly thought-out economies in operating were the Government’s hell-bent determination to reduce the rail network and BR HQ’s overweening compliance.”

Second, the corollary of Beeching’s rejection of such economies was a similarly widespread dismissal of the opportunities for service development / promotion to increase revenue. Whether it was accelerating trains to Ballater, Crieff and Fraserburgh through closure of the smaller intermediate stations, or bringing ‘Land Cruise’ trains to the scenic East of Fife line, the BR response was always the same: “The traffic was just not there” (or similar).

While the context on all routes was traffic being lost to the roads – reinforced by a widespread assumption that local rail services outwith the conurbations were in irreversible decline – there was plenty of evidence that the introduction of fast, frequent, regular-interval services operated by economical ‘diesel multiple units’ could arrest the decline and even turn the tide .

The loss of the lines

The end-result of the book’s analysis of the broad sweep of Beeching closures and the dozen case studies is that we can now argue that Scotland needlessly lost a significant number of rail routes. With sensible strategies for cost reduction and appropriate service improvement, losses would have been substantially reduced, while the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of the retained railways would have been appreciably enhanced.

Of the 10 routes dissected in greatest detail in Scotland’s Lost Branch Lines I conclude that only two in their entirety did not justify retention, rationalisation and development: the sparsely-populated Ballachulish branch corridor (which should really have been on a through route from Glasgow to Fort William) and the circuitous branch railway (another accident of history) to Peterhead. Perhaps the biggest surprise to emerge from the research and analysis is the East of Fife line through Crail – very much a rural railway, but with substantial scope for cost reduction and opportunities for service improvement to further enhance what was already a manageable revenue-to-cost ratio.

Beeching may simply have been doing the bidding of government, but his failure to exploit the widespread scope for infrastructure rationalisation – short of complete closure – on ‘the best of the branch lines’ now looks unforgiveable. Beeching died in 1985, at a time when the revival of railways well beyond the core inter-city network was already under way. One wonders what he made of this positive development, so different from his pessimistic outlook of 1963. And if he is now looking down from the Great Guillotine in the Sky, does he have any regrets about his ‘blind spot’, or rather the ‘blind eye’ he turned to the obvious alternatives to closure? The closures remedy within the Beeching Reportwas, in part, an establishment stitch-up – for which dozens of Scottish towns paid, and are still paying, the penalty. However, the fact that we are now contemplating a possible branch-line renaissance in Scotland demonstrates that much has changed for the better in the six decades since Dr Beeching wrote his drastic prescription.

David Spaven speaks on Monday 6 June at 7.30 pm in the series of talks Embers into Sparx. More information about this talk and events in the series can be found on the OISF website.

About the author

David Spaven

David Spaven has spent his working life in and around the rail industry. His first book, the award-winning Mapping the Railways, was published in 2011. Highland Survivor: The Story of the Far North Line, published in 2016, was also an award-winner. He is also the author of the best-selling Railway Atlas of Scotland. His most recent title, Scotland’s Lost Branch Lines: Where Beeching Got It Wrong, was published in March 2022.