Exit Dr. Beeching
To understand why Dr. Beeching is going back to ICI calls for more than hints and guess- work about personal disagreements. In letting him go, the government has jerked awake from the cherished Socialist dream of an integrated transport system, with road-users squeezed into making railways show a paper profit.
When rumours of Dr. Beeching's promotion to the job of 'transport overlord' were reaching their abortive climax, the prospect was generally accepted as a fait accompli. The road transport organisations were declaring themselves ready to give the move a 'cautious welcome': the welcome based on a willy-nilly submission to the doctor's well-publicised commercial acumen, the caution arising from a fear of his drastic remedies. The figures on which he had based his study of track costs published last June made it clear that he regarded road freight transport as a sponger, whose 'true' costs were up to three times higher than lorries actually paid in excise. Given power to integrate transport along traditional Socialist lines, Dr. Beeching's inevitable medicine would have been higher licence fees for heavy goods vehicles, so as to attract enough freight back to liner trains even for journeys of less than 100 miles. No wonder the British Road Federation and its sister organisations were cautious. The unions most closely involved—the NUR and the TGWU—were equally wary of seeing Dr. Beeching as supremo.
The NUR, to which, besides railwaymen, the drivers of British Railways' 14,000 road vehicles also belong, feared that Dr. Beeching's reliance upon liner freight trains as the staple of railway profit might breach their monopoly of access to goods terminals. 'Cutting their own something throats' was a TGWU spokesman's comment upon this NUR intransigence. Even Mr. Cousins's union, whose huge membership includes the bulk of the drivers of British Road Services' 16,000 vehicles, showed only modest enthusiasm for transport integration ruthlessly enforced from the top.
Ruthlessness has come across as Dr.. Beeching's outstanding characteristic. So long as he could be regarded as the tough commercial boss implanted on the railways by the Conservatives, that picture suited him. Indeed, with BR's 1963 annual deficit actually reduced to around £80 million from its 1962 peak of £117 million, it looked as if his policies were on the way towards making railways pay in a competitive transport world. With the 1964 deficit expected to be back in nine figures, that hope seems forlorn. It is sobering to realise that railway closures, the most painful symptom of his toughness, have, in fact, been proceeding no faster than they did in the latter years of Sir Brian Robertson's quieter regime.
What finally exposed Dr. Beeching's plans for railway profitability as unrealisable was the pub- lication last month of the Transport Holding Company's summary of evidence on 'Road Revenues and Costs.' The figures it contained violently- contradicted and strongly criticised Dr. Beeching's earlier estimates of track costs. Argu- ing that heavy goods vehicles paid their way twice over, the economists maintained that the Beeching implication that road costs should be increased to the point where customers would prefer liner trains even for moderate distances would act against the public interest.
The Transport Holding Company, hived off under the 1962 Transport Act to run British Road Services, had earlier this year revealed its competitive bias when it became an associate member of the British Road Federation. In setting this precedent for a publicly owned organisation joining a private enterprise lobby, the THC showed British Railways their red light. The price of integration, with its inevitable featherbedding of the railways, and increase of transport costs all round, had become too high for the country to pay. The Minister of Transport's statement that he. if anyone, will act as 'transport overlord' is thus tantamount to an admission that railways cannot expect to pay.
Short of some such device as charging track maintenance and signalling costs (about £80 million a year) to the Treasury, on the analogy of police, lighting and other indirect road costs, and so balancing out the average annual deficit, the public will have to accept railways a money-loser. If calling railways a public service consoles people, then the traditional Socialist phrase has its public-relations value.