Sorry, Tories, but £500m isn’t enough to reverse the Beeching Axe

Richard Beeching. Axe not shown. Image: Getty.

It is, somehow, only a few weeks since the news broke in Pravda – sorry, the Daily Telegraph – that a Conservative government would “banish the shadow of Beeching”, as transport secretary Grant Shapps put it. Yes, it’s Corbyn in neutral, Beeching in reverse, and Britain going forward (CCHQ – you can have this one for free). All for the cost of, er, £500m. Half a billion pounds to reverse Beeching’s axe, which cut thousands of miles of track and associated infrastructure.

This manifesto announcement passed by relatively unnoticed. There were no briefings on its absurdity from Labour or the Lib Dems, meaning it is left to us, the train nerds, to talk about just how ridiculous it is. The costings seem to have been drawn from a hat; it would fail to address the problems that Shapps says have come about a result of the cuts; and if the number of details were the number of daily passengers, Beeching himself would have ripped up the tracks. 

That's because £500m does not buy you a lot of reopened railway. About 25 miles, give or take, according to railway engineer Gareth Dennis. He suggests that reopening railways costs around £20m per mile. Or there’s the cheaper option, converting freight lines into passenger lines. But, as Sim Harris of Railnews points out, you’ve still got to pay for new stations. In summary: “It would cost far more than that to really reverse Beeching.”

Before and after Beeching. Click to expand.

Furthermore, it is not £500m of new money. In fact, just half of it is new cash, pledged for 2020-21, with the other half coming from Network Rail. In a reversal programme, £500m barely gets you the “G” in “Gnihceeb”. 

For context, another programme that would receive £500m – in this case of actual new cash – is the Potholes Fund. And that’s £500m each year for four years, as opposed to the single year outlined in the Conservatives’ spending plan.


The Potholes Fund is something John Major would be proud to announce in his manifesto, albeit with a telephone hotline too. Both policies are concerned with endemic problems in the country’s infrastructure, and both fail to approach the root cause: years of “spending reviews” at cash-strapped local councils which have seen cuts to road maintenance and local bus services. So £500m may get you a bit of railway, but it won’t pay for the joined-up public transport infrastructure necessary to get people to the stations – although it could get you a lot more busses, increasing their frequency and extent.

Unfortunately, the clear problem with the figures doesn’t matter to the core audience of this policy. It’s an announcement for Telegraph-reading Boomers who nostalgically remember when you could take a train just about anywhere, not CityMetric-reading nerds. Of course, they drive now instead of taking the train, hence the potholes fund.

Even if a more sensible spending figure was found, this idea would still face significant problems. In the years since Beeching’s axe, many railways have been re-purposed, as bypass roads and cyclepaths. Sustrans, a walking and cycling charity, opened its first route on an axed railway line between Bristol and Bath converted into a tarmacked path for pedestrians and cyclists. “Rail trails”, as Claude Lynch wrote earlier this year for CityMetric, give people access to green spaces, to a safe car-free zone to become comfortable with cycling, and offer ideal routes for environmentally friendly commutes. What would happen to the heritage railways that have preserved stations and sections of track? And how would new lines connect with HS2? 

That’s all ignoring the elephant in the room as to the operation of the new lines. Who would run them? Would they be electrified? Or would reopened branch lines get handed down “refurbished” Pacers? 

This policy is the equivalent of a Parliamentary train: it’s only of real interest to nerds, it’s the result of lazy politicians, and it is tinged with irrelevant nostalgia. There is a genuine argument to be made in certain cases for lines to be reopened, such as the Portishead to Bristol line. But to claim Beeching’s work can be undone with £500m is ridiculous.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.