What Remains of Rural Railways After Dr Beeching Wielded His Axe

You’re never far from a rural branch line in the English countryside.

It might be a heritage line that’s been resurrected and lovingly run by a group of ardent steam enthusiasts, or it could be that the path you walk or cycle on is a former track bed or railway cutting.

Many old lines have been converted into access routes to supplement the existing network of footpaths and bridleways and offer managed natural corridors brimming with wildlife and different species of flora.

Abandoned Droxford railway station
The remains of Droxford’s platforms in 1990. Credit: Ben Brooksbank CC BY-SA 2.0 The well-preserved station house is off frame to the right and keep your eye on the red phone box – you see the reference further down

Dr Richard Beeching, was not just a Doctor, he was an engineer and physicist and, for a short and very influential time, the chairman of British Railways.

In the early 1960s, his report, The Reshaping of British Railways, led to far-reaching changes in the rail network, namely the closing of many branch lines and local railways for which he was roundly blamed forever more.


Who was Doctor Beeching?

Richard Beeching
Richard Beeching became a household name in Britain in the early 1960s for his report The Reshaping of British Railways

This report became popularly known as the ‘Beeching Axe’ and 4,000 miles of railway were removed from the network on the grounds of cost and efficiency with a further 2,000 miles disappearing by the end of the 1960s. Some lines closed to passenger traffic and became freight only.

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To be fair to Baron Beeching, his report only summarised the truth which is that the financial position of British Railways was precarious, to say the least.

Despite large investments in the 1955 Modernisation Plan, the railways were recording increasing losses, around £15.6 million in 1956, increasing to £42 million by 1960. Many now say that Beeching’s axe was unavoidable, but he did become the roundly hated scapegoat for the closure of many rural branch lines.

Evercreech railway station 1952
Evercreech railway station 1952
Evercreech Junction after closure
Evercreech Junction after closure, note the weeds taking over the tracks
Evercreech Junction station on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway in early 1969, three years after closure
Evercreech Junction station on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway in early 1969, three years after closure. The tracks have gone.

The railways were actually losing out to the road and the rise of the motorcar and increased haulage for commercial goods. By 1960, one in nine households had a car. Beeching was appointed to return the railways to profitability, and this was the way forward as he saw it.

The Rise of Heritage Railways

In the 21st century, almost every county in the country has some sort of heritage railway line run by volunteers and people didn’t hang around when it came to remembering those glory days of steam.

One of the first heritage railways to open was the line between Totnes and Ashburton in Devon, known as the Dart Valley Railway. This was opened on 21 May 1969 with the official opening ceremony performed by Beeching, rather ironically.

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Perhaps because the demise of the branch lines also coincided with the end of the golden era of steam, nostalgia began to flourish quicker than weeds on the disused track bed.

Now, the network of heritage lines around the UK is thriving with successful largely volunteer-run railway groups keeping the old lines alive and, in many cases, extending them.

wickham railway station
Wickham railway station is a good example of why the The Reshaping of British Railways came into being. This once busy station on the Meon Valley Line closed to passengers on 7 February 1955, and to goods traffic on 30 April 1962. The demand simply wasn’t there to make it viable.
Wickham railway station, April 1968, 12 years after closure.
Wickham railway station, April 1968, 12 years after closure.
Wickham railway station
The former platform of Wickham railway station is on the left. The picture is facing north and the next station was Droxford station (now a private home). In 1944, amid World War II, Droxford station was used by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill as his base during preparations for the Normandy landings.


Seasonal offerings include afternoon cream tea specials, festive trains to see Father Christmas, and evening timetables with a fish and chip supper.

Re-enactment days are always popular and some stations are now licensed as wedding venues so you can get married trackside and have the reception on a private charter steam special, perfect for all your guests.

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There is no end to the inventiveness of the railway volunteers and supporters and seemingly no loss of appetite for this form of travel from the paying public including people too young to have been around at the time.

Rural Remnants

There are signs everywhere of old railway lines and stations. Just think how many small towns have a Station Road with apparently no station.

If you look hard enough, you can still find the buildings and sidings which are often converted for light industrial use or may now be converted into homes. Old bridges and former level crossings provide a clue in rural areas as to where the railway ran. Isolated houses are often called ‘halts’ where the train would stop nearby just for that property.

Railways Returning to Nature

Lots of old and forgotten railway lines have returned to nature with cuttings, and embankments turned into wildlife highways and many of these are protected by different Wildlife Trusts. There are examples dotted all over the country but here is a couple.

The station building and former platform in 2012
Station and a former platform in 2012. Credit: Steven Brown CC BY-SA 2.0

The Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust runs The Green Line, once part of the Old Midland railway running from St. Pancras in London to Nottingham. In 1989, this was transformed into a beautiful nature reserve owned by Rushcliffe Borough Council and maintained by The Friends of the Green Line. The cutting supports an amazing array of wildlife and flora.

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The Warwickshire Wildlife Trust looks after the Ashlawn Cutting near Rugby which is home to more than twenty species of butterfly, the forester moth, the only location for this moth species in the county, plus a large population of birds and dragonflies.

Old railway lines provide a wildlife artery through areas that have now become urbanised or in intensively farmed landscapes, where nature is allowed to take over and do its own thing. Think of them as linear nature reserves.

Shillingstone Railway Station
Shillingstone Railway Station: Stuart Wells CC BY-SA 2.0

The design of the track beds and cuttings offer perfect access for walkers, cyclists, and horse riders, peaceful green lanes which are an escape from the relentlessness of 21st-century life and are surprisingly accessible.

Loss-Making Rural Railways Still Exist

Believe it or not, there are still loss-making rural railways rumbling around the British landscape. Generally characterised by old rolling stock and just a handful of passengers, most successive UK governments have been wary of wielding the axe for ‘social reasons’.

The nasty taste in the mouth after Doctor Beeching lingers on seemingly. A good example of a supposed loss-maker is the Settle to Carlisle route about which many assumptions were made especially that it was making a loss but when the route was studied more closely, it was actually found to be making a small profit.

Swanage Station in 1962
Swanage station in 1962
Swanage station
Swanage station. The last train ran from Swanage to Corfe Castle and Wareham on the evening of Saturday, 1 January, 1972.
Swanage railway
Swanage railway: Steam loco 80078 pulls into Corfe Castle station. The castle is visible in the background. The volunteer-led heritage railway that you see today has been the work of several generations of dedicated railway and community volunteers. Now contributing more than £15 million a year to the Isle of Purbeck economy, the Swanage railway was demolished in just seven weeks and it took volunteers 30 years to relay it.

Described by the late Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Rev. Eric Treacy as “the 8th wonder of the world”, many pundits believe that some of these underused lines could be given a new lease of life if they were allowed to partner with private sector initiatives.

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The Settle to Carlisle railway runs right through the middle of the Yorkshire Dales National Park – just think of the tourism potential of such a scenic route and the endless afternoon tea summer specials that could be running when the tourist season is at its peak.


Currently run by the Northern Rail franchise which largely operate commuter routes to Leeds, Manchester, and Sheffield, they wouldn’t know whether it should be jam or cream first on the scone and probably care even less.

They could learn a thing or two from the heritage lines who specialise in the entrepreneurial although, with such a beautiful route, it wouldn’t be hard to attract visitors and offer a service that delighted them and still kept the line open and functioning for local and remote rural communities.

Has Doctor Beeching Finally Been Forgiven?

How did the old song go…” Oh Doctor Beeching, what have you done, there once were lots of trains to catch but soon there will be none.”.

More than sixty years after the infamous Beeching report, plenty of rural railways are thriving and these include the ones which were overlooked and escaped the axe and the ones that have been re-born with painstaking time, volunteer effort, and heaps of fundraising.

Droxford station is now a private residence.
Droxford station is now a private residence.

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In the 1960s song, ‘The Slow Train’ by Flanders and Swann, the writers mourned that, “No one departs, no one arrives, from Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives.”.

In fact, the Devon and Cornwall Railway Partnership reports upwards of 200,000 passengers between St Erth and St Ives, numbers that Doctor Beeching could only dream of.

The countryside protests following the Beeching report are finally beginning to recede into the mists of time as local lines thrive and are often in better shape than they were when they closed some sixty years ago.

Platform dining: a covered terrace, the original station platform, runs the full length of the £1.5m property
Droxford station
Opened in 1903 as part of the 22-mile Meon Valley Railway, Old Droxford Station closed to passengers in the Fifties and is now a five-bedroom house set in more than two acres of grounds.

Pub Goers

The Cornish line to St Ives has been tenacious and inventive in its canvassing for outside funding. The three-mile link between St Ives and the national rail network is one of four West Country branch lines that run Rail Ale, a scheme that takes drinkers and pub goers safely to and from country pubs.

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On the Huddersfield-Pennistone line in West Yorkshire, they organise now famous music trains plus jazz and rock concerts as well as plays and operas. This line was one of Beeching’s intended victims but resistance was so great that it was spared.

Attempts to close the line continued well into the 1980s when railway bosses finally admitted defeat. Now that the Beeching reforms are a good few years down the track, some people are viewing Doctor Beeching as something of a saviour.

If he hadn’t intervened when he did then the whole railway network might have collapsed. Beeching took an axe to the branches in order to save the trunk, the main body of the tree.

The flaw in the Beeching reforms and the reason why they were felt so keenly was the clear failure of the Conservative government to understand and factor in the social impact these railway closures would have on rural communities.

As well as the complete absence on their part to either try to find a different solution or to mitigate the effects of their shutdown. What a difference half a century makes…