In 1963 the British railway network, once the pride of the industrial world, started to undergo a process that would leave the way open for the auto industry to dominate UK transportation. It was no surprise that this was the plan put in place by Ernest Marples, then Minister for Transport, who had until 1950 been co-director of the road construction company Marples Ridgeway. In a Hansard statement from 1960, Marples made the point that he had to avoid a conflict of interest:
When I became Minister of Transport, last October, I realised that there was a risk of a conflict of interest appearing 381 to arise in consequence of my holding a controlling interest in the company. I immediately took steps to effect a sale of my shares. It has taken some time to arrange this as the company is a private one engaged in long-term contracts in civil engineering, but I hope that it will be completed very soon. Then I shall have no financial interest in the company. But I think that I should tell the House that the prospective purchasers have required me to undertake to buy the shares back from them at the price they are to pay if they ask me to do so after I have ceased to hold office. I myself have no option to buy the shares back.
I have not, of course, had anything whatsoever to do with any tenders put in by the company while I have been a member of the Government.
It was subsequently revealed that the shares had been signed over to his wife; something that was never denied by Marples. This conflict of interest was not the only one related to the “Beeching” Axe that was subsequently to fall.
“As revealed in the book “The Great Railway Conspiracy the fall and rise of Britain’s railways since the 1950’s” by David Henshaw, John Hay, the senior civil servant under Marples was deeply in league with the road transport lobby:
John Hay, Mr Marples’ Parliamentary Secretary, generally put emphasis on the age and inadequacy of the railways, with remarks such as that “the existing system was laid down for horse-and-cart delivery and collection”. Such remarks were deliberately intended to clear the way for a programme of railway closures.
Other claims were more defensive, such as Mr Marples’ own Parliamentary reply that “traffic is going onto the roads because the people wish it to go onto the roads; I am not forcing it!”.
Another slogan that caught the attention of the press was an implication that closures would increase road congestion by no more than one per cent, equivalent to two months’ normal traffic growth. This claim was quite false, being based upon a most dubious accounting procedure, but it was widely quoted.
Back in May 1960, as the Government/Road Haulage public relations campaign reached its zenith, John Hay had spoken at the Road Haulage Association Annual Dinner. Relaxing in the company of friends, the Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary made a speech which included the following tantalising items:
‘I know that our idea of getting advice on the detailed application of Government policy towards the railways from a group of businessmen… is a sensible approach which will commend itself to those present at this dinner.
We were very glad to know what you thought… and the views of your Association have been brought to the attention of Sir Ivan Stedeford’s group.
…in the search for transport efficiency, the Government is prepared in a most practical way to do what it can to help. I refer of course to the road programme. It would be too optimistic to expect you to say that what we are doing is enough. No Ministry of Transport spokesman will ever expect that from his friends in the industry.
You and we worked together against the threat of nationalisation of road haulage. We won that battle. Now we must show that we were right to win it…
We in the Government will back you all we can… we shall try to make sure that the roads we have and the new roads we build give the best possible dividend… sometimes in this we shall be forced to require some sacrifices by individuals or by groups in the interests of the many. Road haulage will enjoy many of the benefits…’
The “road programme” referred to in Hay’s remarks was released into the public domain in 1990, and was the keystone of Ernest Marples plans for British transportation. It includes a phrase which must have had the road lobby salivating: “Roads should match vehicles.”
The kick-off for what was to become the infamous “Beeching Axe” (although it should have more rightly been called the “Marples Axe” rather than scapegoat the for ICI director drafted in to deliver the railway closure project) happened during a Cabinet meeting on Thursday 14th March, 1963. In the cabinet papers are notes that make it clear that the UK Government was worried how the public would take the closures – originally to take out two-thirds of the entire network – so was prepared to manipulate the delivery of the news to soften the blow and play up the, since discredited, concept that the roads would pay for themselves.
This whole event, which should go down in history as a despicable example of how much politics is under the thumb of corporate interests and personal greed, was a charade from start to finish. Nevertheless, this type of behaviour continues in all industrial nations. If such discussions and personal interests could be leaked immediately then politics would, by necessity, become a far cleaner, more democratic operation.
The chairman of the Board, Dr. Beeching, would announce that day that the Report would be published on 27th March; and the Committee had therefore considered in what terms a statement might simultaneously be made on the Government's behalf and what arrangements should be made to ensure appropriate presentation of the Report to the public. The statement should refer to the social and other factors involved in the closure of passenger lines and should give examples of the types of service to which special considerations might apply. It should also indicate the advantages to be derived from the Board's constructive proposals for the more efficient transport of freight; and it should seek to set in proper perspective the delicate question of staff redundancy.
In discussion, the following points were raised:
(a) The list of stations and lines which it was proposed to close would give rise to much public protest. The Government's aim, however, should be to convince the public that, while changes on the scale required could not be made without causing individual inconvenience, an efficient railway system would make an invaluable contribution to the economic well-being of the country.
(b) The eventual elimination of the Board's annual deficit would be of considerable benefit to the Exchequer. But the emphasis should be laid not so much on the Governments concern to make the railways pay as on the fact that losses were incurred at present because the system was not adapted to modern needs. Moreover, an economic railway system would facilitate a co-ordinated transport policy, which would enable adequate services to be provided on the roads as well as on the railways.
(c) Special publicity should be given to the map appended to the Report, which illustrated the extensive network of bus services, and to the willingness of the operators concerned to expand these services in areas where railway services were withdrawn.
(d) The examination by Transport Users' Consultative Committees of objections to proposals for closure of passenger lines would be a lengthy process; and during this time sectional and local discontent would be liable to obscure the favourable impression which effective initial presentation of the Report might create. The procedure, however, was statutory; and it would not be practicable to alter it at this stage. But consideration should be given to other means of accelerating it, e.g., by increasing the number of Committees.
(e) In addition, piecemeal announcement of decisions about closures should be avoided, so far as possible. If these decisions could be announced in groups, it would be easier to present convincing arguments in their defence and to limit the amount of Parliamentary criticism to which they would be liable to give rise.
(f) Steps should also be taken to encourage industrial and other interests to give public support to the proposals in the Report on economic grounds.