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.

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL