I had never heard of Dr. Richard Beeching before I moved to Britain, and if it were not for one thing then the vast majority of British people would never have heard of him either. Unfortunately, that one thing had to do with a beloved British institution — railways — which Beeching oversaw for a short time as the first chairman of what later became British Rail, a position to which he was appointed in 1961.
If he had imagined that his position was that of a figurehead only, he was sadly mistaken. Not long after becoming chairman, he was tasked with looking at the alarmingly poor financial health and sustainability of the British rail system, and in 1963 the results were published in a report called The Reshaping of British Railways. It was nothing less than a bombshell, calling for the closure of some 6,000 miles of track and one-third of the country’s 7,000 train stations, with an eventual loss of 70,000 jobs.
To say that it caused an uproar would be an understatement. Some 4,000 miles of track were shut down between 1964 and the early 1970s; the equivalent of tearing out two rail lines stretching from Vancouver to Toronto. In a country as small as Britain, the loss of that much rail line was devastating, leaving hundreds of communities without rail service and reliant on sketchy bus transport or expensive automobiles.
The protests over “the Beeching axe” would have been greeted with disbelief 130 years earlier, when Britain’s rail network was in its infancy. The world’s first inter-city passenger railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830, but railways were not exactly warmly embraced; far from it.
Companies trying to build rail lines found themselves dealing with legal challenges and protests at every turn. Landowners worried about tumbling property values. Country dwellers worried about peaceful landscapes being blighted. Historians worried about the potential devastation of historic sites. Farmers worried about smoke from trains staining the wool of their sheep. People in general worried about the potential harmful effects on the human body of travelling at the incredible speed of 30 miles per hour. Trains were ugly, smelly, and noisy, and a good many folks didn’t want anything to do with them.
Others, however — and not just the companies building railways — saw the tremendous possibilities of trains. Goods could quickly and easily be transported from one end of the country to the other in hours instead of days. The postal service would be revolutionized. People could easily and inexpensively travel to places that were otherwise inaccessible. The railway was not a threat, or a blight, or a fad: it was transformative.
You can see this in a painting by J.M.W. Turner called “Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway”, which was first exhibited in 1844. Like most great works of art — and it is one of the greatest works of one of Britain’s greatest artists — it can be interpreted in different ways, depending on who is looking at it.
Is the train barreling down on the viewer, belching smoke behind it, an iron monster staining and destroying the landscape, or is it the gleaming future, promising prosperity? A man in a boat far below the train gazes up at it: is his look one of fear or wonder? The barely visible figure of a hare can be seen sprinting along the track ahead of the train: is it fleeing in terror, or joyfully competing to see if it can outrun this new animal?
All of which is to say that change — fundamental change, the kind that transforms places, the people in them, the way we live — is often frightening. It can appear ugly, or intrusive, or unnecessary, or all of the above. Without change, however, there is no progress. In the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Forward, forward let us range / Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change.”