Chapter 6 Conversion opportunities missed!
Several opportunities to prove conversion theories were missed.
Sir David Robertson MP was
author of a scheme to replace the Inverness-Wick line by a road, (Hansard 11.7.55, vol. 543, col. 1682).
Scottish newspapers reported his
plan had been explained to constituents, gained wide support and backed by
influential MPs, who intend rousing public interest. It was believed that it
would open the way to converting unremunerative lines in other parts of
He said that civil engineers Balfour, Beatty & Co had estimated that ‘on the assumption that the BTC would lift the rails or permit them to be covered* the cost was estimated at £4.5m.’ It was not explained how they made the estimate of £30,000 per mile. Surveying a line needed special arrangements with BR, including lookoutmen for which payment would have been required. It is not said who paid these and the company’s costs.
*(That would include covering wooden sleepers, which would eventually rot and cause subsidence).
It would provide ‘a road 22 foot wide, with existing overbridges altered as necessary to give additional headroom. It was to be an all-weather motorway restricted to fast motor vehicles, entering at existing terminals and stations. Pedestrians, cycles, horse-drawn vehicles and tractors would be excluded. BR would continue to operate passenger and goods services using fast motor coaches and lorries’. He stated that ‘signals and track would be recovered to serve more populous areas,’ (John O’Groats Journal 15.7.55). (In the 1970s, objectors to closing the Alston-Haltwhistle branch ridiculed the idea of an “all-weather road”, & that line was 350 miles nearer the equator!. Track & signalling would have been of a minimum [rural] standard, unsuitable for busy routes. It serves to emphasise the superficiality of knowledge of politicians and others on railways).
He did not explain what would happen to farm traffic - animals, horse drawn vehicles and tractors - which crossed the railway line on farm and public level crossings. Nor did he explain what provision would be made for pedestrians using level crossings and statutory footpaths across the line. Nor did he mention how much land was needed to widen the formation and widen or duplicate under-bridges on this predominantly single line! No mention was made of the cost of drainage raised by experts, (see Chapter 4).
He did not say
whether BR delivery drivers would remain the only ones obeying the law on
driving hours, as it was widely acknowledged that that law was routinely flouted by lorry and coach
drivers. (See Chapters 3, 12 also Square Deal Denied &
motive for proposing that BR provide a road service was that it was the only
way to guarantee that the remote
The estimated cost of conversion, did not include the cost of providing new road vehicles to carry displaced rail traffic, nor the costs of diverting the traffic via existing roads whilst conversion took place.
1959 - station & branch closures
Details of the
proposed closures and the £41,200 pa savings were sent to local authorities and
the TUCC, (Inverness
Courier 15.5.59). The editorial called for ‘a reduction in fares and
freight charges which were prohibitive.’ Both had trailed inflation since 1948.*
As inflation was created and fuelled by UK industry, one wonders why the media
did not wake up to the need to call for a reduction in prices across the
private sector. (*See
The closures of stations and changes to train working on the Inverness-Wick line would make 120 staff redundant, (Inverness Courier 30.6.59). Staff redundancy always affected attitudes of local authorities and local MPs to proposed railway economies. At other times, they would be calling on BR to cut costs. When it fell on local labour - which was 66% of costs - critics shouted foul !
authorities and others were urged to object to closure of stations and lines
Thompson said we all realise that railways north of
When BR announced its station closure plans, there should have been dancing in the streets, and demands to close the line completely, thereby opening the door for the conversion to a road which was said to be so keenly supported by MPs, constituents and others. This was the time for Sir David Robertson, the road construction lobby and the conversion theorists to seize the opportunity. They did not even poke their heads above the parapet. Instead it was ‘to the barricades.’
The TUCC for
conference was told that the TUCC had recommended acceptance of the closure
proposals. Caithness County Council is objecting to the decision, (Inverness
Courier 11.8.59). A plan was put forward for a summit meeting
The TUCC for
A reader’s letter (Inverness Courier 25.9.59) argued that as trains were ill-used, what was needed was road improvements. This was the first such view in the newspaper since closures were first disclosed in the paper. It fell on deaf ears.
The MoT said
that there will be no closures until he has met a deputation of
The Town council had noted that the BTC expected to save £40,000 pa by closing 22 of the 39 stations, and save £20,000 pa by introducing diesels. They were concerned about unemployment. The editor regarded it as ‘shocking that forty staff were being made redundant at Aviemore as a result of diesel modernisation,’ (Inverness Courier 8.12.59). This is incredible. Critics had opposed closure and called for modernisation - the objective of which must be to cut costs, whilst, hopefully, increasing business. Clearly what they sought was infinite capital to modernise beyond the wildest dreams, whilst not reducing employment!
A reader, who claimed to be a trained railway engineer, had a plan - presumably to avoid closures and redundancies - details of which were not revealed, (Inverness Courier 15.12.59). The precise nature and extent of knowledge of this engineer was not disclosed. Even an anonymous reader could have summarised his CV.
Lord Forbes attacked the BTC plan in the Lords last week, (Inverness Courier 22.12.59).
In March 1960,
the Highland Fund offered to fund retention of a short branch line off the
Inverness-Wick line and may be able to help financially in other directions, if
need be, (Inverness
Courier 18.3.60). Closure of 24 stations north of
In May 1960,
Sir David Robertson asked the Secretary of State for
On 3rd June
1960, the proposed closure of some stations on the
confused by the appointment of a member of this Committee to the BR Area Board,
which he thought ‘should not be a natural ground for promotion of that kind.’
Members of the Committee and Area Board were from similar non railway
backgrounds - the former in order to be independent, and the latter,
ostensibly, to bring external expertise to railways. Appointments to both were
for fixed periods. (Dr. Beeching - a member of
the Stedeford Committee - argued that railways should be run by professionals,
and on becoming Chairman, sacked most external members of Area Boards &
replaced them with career railway executives. All Board chairmen were replaced
by managers, see
He was concerned
about the loss of employment for 79 railwaymen. Converting the line - his
original plan would have sacked many more. This tendency of MPs to object to
closures in their own backyard, whilst applauding economies elsewhere, had
been remarked on by another MP on a previous occasion. (See Hansard vol. 547, col. 711). He admitted he had supported
the general plan to cut services -
until it became clear it was going to hit this line’s handful of passengers. He
said the way to make the line profitable was cut prices - a policy noticeably
ignored by British industry as it went into terminal decline by failing to
match the lower prices of foreign competitors. Of course, with the private
sector, it was different - their policy was to charge as much as they could get
away with. He went on to call for the line to be subsidised, indicating that he
accepted - as other MPs accepted - that the line was bound to be uneconomic, (Hansard col. 1804). He foresaw replacement
buses would lose money. This was from an arch-priest of conversion, and advocate
of road transport - which would not have to pay for conversion. He was
impressed by the savings which could accrue from diesels, but lost sight of the
source of the capital required. He reminded MPs that railways were managed ‘in
other days - in competition.’ What he had lost sight of, was that his Party had
been driving pre-war privately owned railways towards bankruptcy by anti-rail,
pro-road policies which left road free to compete but tied railways to archaic
rates structures controlled by a court of law, which were relevant to an era
when there was no competition. (
Tory MP John
MacLeod supported Sir David and was critical that BR had made up its mind to
close this [grossly uneconomic, very ultra-rural] line. What he ignored was
that any losses had to be made good from elsewhere - main line passengers’
fares or cuts in staff costs on other lines - not from taxpayers. He said
closure was a negative approach. This contrasts with private sector industry
which is presumably positive when it throws in the towel. (Thousands of
companies are wound up annually - none due to political interference. For
statistics on industrial decline see The Railway Closure Controversy, page 49
MP, G.M. Thomas chided that it was unreasonable to criticise BR for making losses and simultaneously attack it for not running services at a loss to meet local needs. He blamed the government.
On 13th June
1960, passenger services were withdrawn between Inverness and
1963 - total closure of the line
Complete closure of the Inverness-Wick line was included in the Reshaping Plan in 1963. This should have brought the advocates of conversion onto the streets. It didn’t. Again it was to the barricades. Lord Cameron, Chairman of the Highland Panel and the Highlands & Islands Development Consultative Council said that the Highland Transport Board could not develop a plan if there was a possibility of rail closures, (The Times 29.2.64).
A TUCC hearing
Sir David Robertson MP, wrote to the TUCC that the “gravest hardship would beset the people in the northern counties if the line was closed. Industries could not be introduced to the towns and villages without railways. New light industry, land reclamation and other things had to go hand-in-hand with the retention of railway services”. (He had advocated ripping the route up in 1955. His plan was praised by Lloyd & used by him as the basis for costing conversion. An opportunity to realise his dream).
Any government that insisted on closing down a life-line used in both world wars would have a short life’. MP Neil McLean was present at the TUCC Hearing and spoke of the great hardship that would be caused by closure.
The TUCC also
held a Hearing into the BR proposal to close the
Board said that hoteliers would suffer enormously from closure. Inverness
County Council pointed out that closure negated government’s own plan as set
out in a White Paper: Review of Highland
Policy, which stated that government would promote economic growth and
provide suitable amenities and social services. Other objectors said that a
bus, having no toilets nor room for luggage, from Thurso to
BR’s representative at the TUCC Inquiry said that if all objectors used rail there would be no need for closure. Objectors who asked the TUCC for an early decision to end anxiety were told that their MPs had quicker access to the Minister, (Inverness Courier 10.3.64).
Popplewell, MP had no doubt that the line could not be made to pay, but closure
would leave many people hundreds of miles from a railhead, (Hansard vol. 621, col. 1261). He made no
suggestion as to the source of funds to cover deficits. Government did not
begin to do so for such lines until 1969. (See
Tories called for subsidies for uneconomic railway lines in
1964 - the line is reprieved
Marples* reprieved lines north of
*(Marples was a partner in Marples, Ridgeway, a road construction company. The Great Railway Conspiracy claimed
Marples pursued railway closures whilst facilitating road construction, because he favoured road transport).
In common with
other loss making services which BR had been prevented from closing over the
past sixteen years, no subsidy was to be paid by Government or local
authorities to retain the services. (See The Railway Closure Controversy &
Mr. Marples did not undertake to provide Government funds to keep these lines open. The continuing losses would appear in the Accounts - as hitherto - to be due to BR inefficiency, rather than Government interference in business decisions for political reasons and a failure to fund its own social policies.
Dr. Beeching, BR Chairman said that the figures quoted by the Minister were the minimum savings expected. BR called on objectors to make full use of the services. This was a reasonable request, in view of the low level of existing user.
A TUCC meeting on 15th May, responded to a request by the MoT to examine the effect of closing some intermediate stations and agreed that no hardship would arise from closing five, including Dunrobin, the location for the proposed new school, (TUCC 1964 Report). It had earlier been said that the school would not be viable without a station.
Objectors had emphasised the effect on tourism
Objectors to closures - of either selected stations as in 1960 or complete closure as in 1964 - stressed the effect on tourism and hence the economy of the area. It did no harm to their case that the Loch Ness monster was seen round about the time of each closure announcement, and when TUCC Hearings, to consider objections, were taking place.
The Inverness Courier reported ‘two sightings of the monster’ and ‘Objections made to railway closures,’ (7.7.59). ‘The monster was seen again on Wednesday by more than 40 tourists, and was visible for fifteen minutes,’ (Inverness Courier 24.7.59). A reader has put forward a plan to capture the Loch Ness monster, (Inverness Courier 25.8.59).
The newspaper carried a further report of a ‘hunt for the monster,’ (Inverness Courier 13.10.59). At the most crucial time - when closure was threatened, they carried another report that the monster had been seen, (Inverness Courier, 20.3.64). Whether these reports led to more tourists is not known, much less whether more tourists used the railway.
Other good opportunities for conversion theorists
The proposed closure of the Inverness-Wick line was the golden opportunity for the advocates of conversion to stand up and be counted, there were other opportunities.
The earliest long line conversion opportunity was that of the M&GN,
which was proposed for closure in 1958, and closed in 1959. This line from the
East Midlands across to
Closure of the Barnard Castle-Penrith & Tebay line was proposed in
1959. It was 55 miles long, of which half was double and half single track. It
had some high bridges and viaducts, the widening of which would not have been
practical. They would have to have been duplicated to give required road
widths. It ran over the
Somerset & Dorset Railway
The S&DR - from Bath to Poole, some 100 miles, of which less than half was double track, the rest was single - was proposed for closure in 1962. The terrain was hilly, but gradients would not be a serious challenge to motor vehicles. Widening throughout to give a reasonable road width would have been a costly challenge. It closed in 1966.
Great Central line
The closure of the GCR, from
The closure of the 98 mile long double track
An early opportunity was on the
Another chance for glory was the Wensleydale line, about 40 miles long from Northallerton to Garsdale, which closed in the mid-1950s. Helpfully, the route passed outside most of the towns and villages, making it an ideal route for a road. Part has now been re-opened for a rail service of sorts, although it cannot be regarded as a commercial railway, being dependent on free labour. It may yet be abandoned a second time, when reality sets in, when the conversion theorists may have a second chance.
Hull & Barnsley
opportunity was the Hull & Barnsley, which had 71 miles of route, excluding
joint lines. It could have been converted and creamed off traffic from the
coalfields to the docks at
Opportunities on shorter routes
Some short lines longer than the average 1.5 miles achieved, (see Chapter 7) were:-
The Potteries Loop ran 7.25 miles from Kidsgrove via Hanley to Stoke on
Haltwhistle to Alston
The 13 mile single Haltwhistle to Alston line, with its daunting
Lambton viaduct, near the Scottish border, would have been particularly
difficult to convert. Closure was opposed by residents and infrequent users,
who knew there would be serious problems in winter. That was when users of road
transport turned to railways in this area as in many others. Objectors scoffed
at promises of the provision of ‘an all-weather road.’ That was the prospect
held out by Sir David Robertson for the conversion of the Inverness-Wick line
to a new fast road. The Alston branch was 350 miles nearer the equator than the
The branch in
This route was closed in 1952 as a result of severe damage by the sea. It was re-opened, despite there being no financial justification nor economic demand for it, and at BR expense. This increased deficits for which government’s brilliant solution was not a subsidy for this line to a fishing-village-cum-minor-seaside-resort which enjoyed fishing subsidies, but interest bearing loans! Regrettably, this was in 1952 before Brigadier Lloyd had his brainstorm. He might have had the support of BR management, but not that of the local community, who were convinced that the line could be made viable and sat back waiting for others to pay for it, whilst making occasional use when other transport was unavailable. It closed after a delay of ten years. It is not without significance that among objections was included evidence that bus fares were higher than rail! (See The Railway Closure Controversy, Chapter 6).
Among other lines closed, there have been hundreds of miles which were taken over by amateurs, to run an infrequent tourist attraction service for periods varying from a few bank holidays to half the year, or, in isolated cases, longer. They do not operate at night, and are under no pressure to run trains, if the unforeseen happens. Why the road lobby did not jump in quickly in these cases, and put some quick cash on the table, whilst enthusiasts were trying to drum up funds, is a mystery. In all, to date, about ten thousand miles of railway routes have been closed. By 1980, the total was already about 7,000. For all practical purposes, the conversion league did not seize the initiative and get these routes converted to roads. The league - in its publication, (see Chapter 7), extolling the success of conversions - tabulated only 43 miles ‘converted’, and these were in lengths varying from 109 yards to six miles, with an average of 1.5 miles. Whilst the conversionists have been dithering, several railway routes that had been closed, have been re-opened as part of BR, in recent years, invariably with local authority funds.
A favourable political climate
From 1954 to
1964, when the conversion campaign was at its height,
Further opportunities arose when Tories were in power in 1970 - when the League published a new plan. What stopped them from funding a trial scheme to convert one full length line? They claimed to have massive support. After 1969, when the State began for the first time to subsidise loss making routes, they could have asked the anti-rail Tory government to give them the proposed subsidy for a line less say 10%, even 50% given their arrogant boasts. Putting their money where their mouth was would have convinced all doubters. They could have negotiated a deal to charge tolls to use their new roads.
An opportunity for the League to convince the Tory government recurred from 1979 to 1992. Another thirteen wasted years. In 1993, the unconvinced Tories opted to keep railways, and to privatise them.