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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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