From the 1920s onward, the number of rail passengers declined due to the rapid growth in car ownership. By the 1950s, the newly state-owned British Rail consistently lost money, especially after it began to invest large sums in converting steam engines to electricity and diesel.
This led many experts to predict that cars and busses would eventually replace most rail services. Such views would find a sympathetic hearing from transport minister, Ernest Marples, who had set up a road construction company, Marples Ridgeway, before becoming a minister – clearly a conflict of interests.
Marples asked Dr Richard Beeching, a director of the chemical company ICI, to head a study group looking at how the rail network could be made more efficient. After public disquiet about the secret nature of the group’s discussions, he was formally appointed as head of the British Transport Commission, which oversaw British Rail, in 1961 (the body was renamed the British Railways Board in 1963).
Beeching would then produce the infamous “Beeching Report” in 1963. It argued that since a large number of stations had only a handful of passengers, it would make sense to close up to half the network.
While the report generated a huge amount of controversy, which was enough to save a few of the most prominent lines, it was largely implemented. As a result, over 6,000km worth of lines were closed from 1963 to 1970s.
While the idea was to replace discarded lines with bus services, these were usually much slower and were quickly withdrawn in many cases.
However, increasing traffic congestion and population growth have led to a resurgence in passenger numbers since the early 1990s, which have nearly reached their pre-WW1 peak. As a result the trend is towards increased investment in rail, as shown by plans for High Speed Rail 2.