Jayne Dowle: Have we learned nothing from Beeching's legacy?

221st May 2013.   Leeds Arena car parking in Leeds. Buses on Wade Lane.221st May 2013.   Leeds Arena car parking in Leeds. Buses on Wade Lane.
221st May 2013. Leeds Arena car parking in Leeds. Buses on Wade Lane.
If he could see where his attitude towards public transport has led, perhaps he would think again.

I WONDER what Dr Beeching would do if he was alive today. If the man who took the decision to shut down countless train stations and railway lines in the early 1960s could see where his attitude towards public transport has led, perhaps he would think again. Now it is our buses which face the axe.

The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) says the “shocking” state of subsidised bus services is comparable to the fate of the railways under Beeching’s brutal reforms. Local authorities are proposing more than £27m in cuts to local bus budgets, which will impact significantly on rural and isolated routes.

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The CBT has identified 11 areas in the UK which will be particularly badly hit. North Yorkshire is amongst them. Up to £500,000 will go from local authority bus budgets in the next few years. This follows six years of swingeing reductions in public transport grants from central Government. It’s a wonder there are still wheels to go round.

You can only ask why an area recognised as one of the nicest places to live in the whole country should find itself hammered in this way. The range of possible responses to this question tell us everything we need to know, not just about buses in North Yorkshire, but about our entire national approach to the matter of public transport.

When Beeching took the helm of British Railways, it was running at a loss of £140m a year. His solution was brutal. To close down unprofitable lines and shutter up stations. In the end, Great Britain lost more than 250 train services and saw the closure of 2,000 train stations.

Even now, more than half a century later, the effect of the Beeching cuts still shapes our landscape. Nowhere is this more evident than in our own diverse region. The people of Ripon in North Yorkshire, for example, are still angry about the loss of their station in 1967, even though many of them weren’t even born when it closed down.

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I have a friend who lives near Ripon. She is frustrated that whilst other attractive and historic towns nearby, such as Harrogate and Ilkley thrive (and property prices climb), Ripon is still stuck in second gear. She says visitors can’t get over the fact that there is no railway station.

Despite being a desirable place to live, she says Ripon remains poor relation and she believes that this is chiefly due to its lack of a railway station. That’s why public transport matters. It’s acceptable for the London-based decision makers with
their Oyster cards and 24/7 service. They don’t understand what it’s like to have to take a taxi for 30 miles across hill and dale.

Have our politicians and transport planners learned nothing from the aftermath of the Beeching reforms? Can’t they look at rural bus services and recognise that they are not a luxury, but a lifeline? The irony is that in many places, the bus routes now under threat exist because they replaced the rail links axed in the 1960s.

Now they, too, face an uncertain future. And the communities they serve face isolation. If a family has one car, or maybe even no car at all, how are children supposed to get to school and parents travel to work? What about visits to
shops and amenities? The potential effect on the economic performance of the region as a whole should not be underestimated. How can the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ function effectively if the connections are not in place across the board?

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The further irony is that these cuts are going against the grain of public opinion. For too long, we relied on the motor car for everything from commuting to taking our children to football practice.

Yet you only have to open your eyes as you travel around Yorkshire to see that people are actively seeking viable alternatives to propelling their own internal combustion engines. There is a groundswell of public support in favour of better and bigger trains, reliable and regular buses, cycle lanes and safe roads and pavements so our children can grow up in the knowledge that there is a world beyond the car seat.

Funded effectively and organised properly, buses could play a part in this steadily-growing transport revolution. That’s another reason why the draconian approach of patrician Dr Beeching belongs firmly in the past.

We should take heed of his mistakes, which our towns and communities are still paying for today. And we should remember that we live in different, much more democratic times. Every person who needs to move from A to B has got a right to voice their opinion. So sign that petition. Support that campaign group on Facebook. Write to your MP and enlist them too.

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As those who suffered under Beeching will tell you, the problem with a cut is that once it’s gone, it’s gone. We don’t want to look back in another 50 years and say we stood aside and allowed our buses to end up off the road – forever.