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  • Government, the Railways, and the Modernization of Britain: Beeching's Last Trains
  • Gerald Crompton (bio)
Government, the Railways, and the Modernization of Britain: Beeching's Last Trains. By Charles Loft. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xii+214. £70.

This is a book from which it is possible to learn a great deal about transport policy in Britain since 1945, and especially about the relationship between government and railways. The detail mostly concerns the first half of the period between nationalization and privatization, particularly the 1950s and 1960s, but a final chapter includes a good concise account of the twenty years or so from 1974 to privatization. Unlike some of the others, this chapter has an appropriate title ("The Management of Decline?"), and one of its component parts has an even more appropriate subtitle ("Privatisation—the Impossible Aim?"). Here, Charles Loft explains with admirable clarity how the present state of the privatized railway system negates all the main objectives of the earlier modernizers whose efforts he admires.

This is also, however, a book where the abundant positives are matched by some substantial defects—rather like the prose style, which attracts attention with elegant and pithy phrases and also with clumsy, over complex sentences. Much of the book is dominated by a sustained attempt to remove the "infamy" from the reputation of Dr. Richard Beeching and to relocate him firmly in a context of salutary modernization rather than one of callous, destructive meanness and conspiratorial antirailway bias. (As chairman of British Railways, Beeching was responsible for closing large portions of the system in the 1960s.) The emphasis on the nationalized railways' most famous chairman explains the book's silly subtitle, and also, more legitimately, the examination of contemporary media and culture to illustrate the vehemence of the opposition to rail closures—much of it rooted in nostalgia for redundant rural railways and for a disappearing village life. Academic transport historians or planners are unlikely to judge the [End Page 469] closures of the1960s from this perspective and will derive little benefit from Loft's assault on the extreme anti-Beeching position.

At first sight the silliest phrase in the entire work is the title of the third chapter: "The Success of the Modernisation Plan." This has not hitherto been regarded as a success by anyone else, since it was effectively abandoned in 1960, five years after its inception. In fact, it is more plausibly regarded as the worst failure by the management of the nationalized railway over a period of forty years. If satirical intent is ruled out, Loft's purpose in using the word "success" is perhaps to be explained by his remarks in the conclusion, on the penultimate page, where he writes that "the plan succeeded in providing quicker, safer, more reliable, more efficient and more comfortable services and by 1979 Britain had probably the most cost-effective railway in Europe." This in effect elides a vast number of events and factors to conclude that virtually everything that happened subsequently by way of modernization was the result of the plan. One significant omission from this happy ending is the fact that by that date Britain had one of the lowest levels of railway investment per mile in Europe. The conclusion refers to underinvestment only "prior to 1955."

The modernization which in a sense is the hero of this book consisted basically of improvements in railway management, including stronger central control, and in more active and better-informed government supervision, aided by such nascent techniques as project appraisal and cost-benefit analysis. The interaction of these processes did indeed produce the beneficial results discussed in Loft's conclusion. The constant theme was trying to focus activity on what railways did best and adapting more promptly to changing economic circumstances. By these criteria most, though not all, of the closures that actually took place were justified. Few would wish to quarrel with this, but few would be able to sustain the enthusiasm with which Loft's interpretation celebrates the progress of modernization. He is too good a historian to deny readers the information which deserves more emphasis and which explains why criticism of railway policy was not confined...


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