There is one good thing to be said for the Beeching Axe

The Alban Way, near Hatfield. Image: Claude Lynch.

In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan’s government commissioned a report intended to modernise Britain’s railway system, and to make it profitable for the first time in ages. Victorian “railway mania” had generated some of the most impressive railway routes in Europe, but it had come at a cost: early investment in railway infrastructure had grown and grown, even in areas where it was economically unsustainable. The changing transport habits of the post-war period proved the final straw: by 1963, fully half the train stations in the UK only brought in 2 per cent of the revenue, with many routes running almost empty trains at a heavy loss.

This problem, outlined by the report, was not controversial; indeed, it was factual. But it was the solution, proposed by the now infamous Dr Beeching, that proved so radical: closing almost half of the United Kingdom’s railway infrastructure for good. The “Beeching Axe” has been loathed by public transport pundits ever since, with the likes of Lord Andrew Adonis urging for it to be reversed, condemned and, I presume, consigned to the dustbin of history. We’re still dealing with the repercussions of the today.

But the public perception of the Beeching Axe is incomplete. For one, it was written at a time when car ownership was skyrocketing and replacing travel on the railways. Beeching’s recommendations came not only from his presumed visceral hatred for public transport, but also the time in which he was writing.

Moreover, the railway lines that have been reopened since Beeching are those that have seen substantial housing development in the interim. We demonise Beeching because we now understand just how important rail travel is for a sustainable public transport network – but he couldn’t have known the in-and-outs of harmful nitrous oxides or the horrors of the motorway box.

In any case, there were some lines axed by Beeching that are hardly worth resuscitating: railways easily substituted by bus, railways that were single track requiring widening, or railways that have simply deteriorated too much and face costs too high to be worth rejuvenating.

But it’d be a total misstep to write these disused railways off and sell the land back. After all, even if they can’t carry trains, they can still carry people; and what a great windfall that turned out to be. Because we got to replace our extra railway lines with the best cycle paths in the country bar none.

Labelled as “rail trails”, many disused railway lines across the country later became public rights of way. And with sleepers and rails removed, the paths are often extremely straight and have shallow gradients, making them perfect for leisurely cycles or even commutes.


In Hertfordshire, for example, rail trails run between St. Albans and Hatfield, Rickmansworth and Watford, and Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead. They’ve all got fashionable nicknames and, in places, the former infrastructure remains as a homage to the era of railway mania – platforms turned to flower gardens and so forth. Other routes are more bucolic, such as Cornwall’s Camel Trail or the Downs Link between Surrey and Sussex.

All this may sound idyllic, but what are the tangible benefits of these rail trails, as opposed to returning them to their original use? For one, they’re far cheaper than railway infrastructure, both to build and maintain. They also offer easy, direct routes between town centres in parts of the country where segregated cycle paths are otherwise rare (essentially, anywhere outside London). This encourages novices to give cycling a go in a welcoming, safe environment, and encourages commuters to try cycling to work. Moreover, and perhaps most obviously, rail trails provide easy access to a green spaces within urban areas that are quiet, pollution-free and welcome to all.

 

Before and after Beeching. Click to expand.

But there’s still work to be done – many potential “rail trails” are in the administrative doldrums despite the relative ease of their creation. In my home county of Suffolk, there’s a rail trail that runs halfway between Ipswich and Hadleigh, but it abruptly ends: one can only presume that farmers bought up the disused railway land.

Meanwhile, there are council areas where building new cycle infrastructure simply isn’t a priority; road building still holds the sway. Before we can build more rail trails, people need convincing of their benefits. Of course, that’s simply done; just point to the nearest one and give it a go. After all, they’re ubiquitous in some pockets of the UK.

There shouldn’t be a single disused railway line left in this country when the cycle paths they could become provide such an excellent blueprint for new cycling infrastructure. They’re not just a swan song to Victorian railway innovation; rail trails are our chance to approach cycling today with the same zeal and enthusiasm as we did with trains in the age of railway mania. The best is yet to come, and, oddly, it’s all thanks to the venerable Dr. Beeching.

 
 
 
 

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.