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Railway Giants: Breaking the Neck of Automotive Dominance! Beeching and His Journey from Unknown Official to the Throne of British Railways

Railway Giants: Breaking the Neck of Automotive Dominance! Beeching and His Journey from Unknown Official to the Throne of British Railways
photo: Jan Saudek / PDM 1.0 DEED / Flickr/Protesting British Railways staff oppose Beeching reforms
27 / 04 / 2024

In today's episode of the Railway Giants series, we look at the story of a man who rose from zero to the top of British business. At the same time, he played a key role in transforming the rail sector and challenging the automotive dominance of the day.

I Want to Be a Physicist

It is April 1913, and we are in the United Kingdom, specifically in the town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in the southeast of England. Richard comes into the world as the 2nd of 4 children of Kent Messenger reporter Hubert Josiah Beeching. His mother is a teacher at a local school. Shortly after Richard's birth, the family moves to nearby Maidstone. Richard and his brothers will attend the local Church of England primary school. He will then go to secondary school in Maidstone and go to university in London. Here, he will attend the Imperial College of Science & Technology, where he and his brother will study physics. His other 2 brothers will study at the University of Cambridge.

After graduation, Richard will stay on at the school, where he will receive his PhD under the guidance of Sir George Thomson. In the years to come, Richard will pursue research in engineering, metallurgy, and physics. As well as success in research, good fortune would also favor Richard in his personal life. In 1938 he married Ella Margaret Tiley, whom he had known since his schooldays. They initially settle together in Solihull and remain together for the rest of Richard's life. Their relationship will only be missed by the children they will never have together.

Steep Growth

Shortly after their marriage and the start of World War II, Richard changes employers, leaving Firth Brown Steels to join the Ministry of Supply, working in the Ordnance Design and Research Department at Fort Halstead. His supervisor will be Frank Smith, a former employee of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). It is Frank who will play a very important role in Richard's story. After the end of the war, he would return to ICI, taking our Richard with him in 1948. Here he will spend about 18 months working on the production lines of various products such as zippers, paints, and leather fabrics to increase efficiency and reduce production costs. Then, because of his excellent work, he will be appointed to the Terylene Board and then to the Board of Directors of the ICI Fibres Division.

Then it's off to the races, and in 1953 Richard leaves for Canada, where he will be put in charge of the Ontario plants. Richard's star would continue to rise in the years following his return home. Thanks to the connections he had made during the war, he would work his way up to a member of the ICI board of directors. He would also work his way up to the position of ICI's Technical Director and would even briefly be ICI's Director of Development.

Time to Save Britain's Railways

Another turning point in his life comes in 1961 when he is appointed by the British Parliament as Chairman of the Board of British Railways. At the same time, he becomes chairman of the British Transport Commission. The main railway issue of this time is the improvement of the British Railway. To devote his full attention to his tasks for British Rail, Richard is granted a 5-year leave of absence by the ICI. British Rail has been fighting an unsuccessful battle in recent years with competition from the car, which more and more people prefer, and the railway is losing passengers as a result. As a result, British Rail is in increasing financial difficulties.

Richard takes his task of creating a profitable railway to heart. Despite the opposition of many forces, especially from the left, he proposes the abolition of many lines on British soil with the simple aim of making the system more efficient. Richard's plans are halted by Labour, who come to power in 1965, prompting his return to ICI. However, the general wave of line closures continues. Under Richard's proposals, by 1975 Britain's rail network of 33,800 km and 6,000 stations would be reduced to 19,300 km and 2,000 stations. These reforms, which will go down in history as the Beeching Cuts, allow the railway to raise funds for further modernization. Essentially, these reforms save it in the battle for passengers with road transport, as it is then able to reduce journey times through modernization, making it more competitive. It should be noted, however, that it is not until the 1990s, during the period of privatization, that British rail would see a definitive increase in passenger numbers.

However, some of the lines canceled by Richard are eventually restored as time goes on.

Wikimedia commons/ Trevor Rickard/CC BY-SA 2.0

Upon his return to ICI, Richard is appointed Director of Liaison with the Agricultural Division. From 1966-1968, he serves as vice-chairman of ICI's board of directors. In later years, Richard Beeching is duly recognized for his contribution to British society. Among other honors, he is made Baron Beeching of East Grinstead in Sussex. He leads several more companies in the years to come before retiring. Richard Beeching dies in 1985 at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead.

This concludes the story of a man who rose from virtually nothing to the top of a major British company. Moreover, he played a key role in rescuing the British Railway from increasing competition from individual car transport. Many will protest his cancellation of lines, others will accuse him of acting in the interests of various lobbies. But the fact remains that his cuts have kept Britain's railway one of the best in the world.