The bend widens out, and before me lies a toy train platform, built lifesized.
I crunch up, moving from a path of gravel ballast onto sloping wooden planking. Before and behind me, the rails curve lazily away through the narrow valley, high escarpments on either side pressing inwards and making a sweaty day even closer. Barring the steel lines set ablaze by the sunshine it’s a natural-looking landscape – into which Newton Dale Halt has been dropped like a shoddy special effect.
On either end of the wooden stop there are inward-facing signs, both unreadable as I approached along the trackside path. Upon making the top of the platform, I discover they say “Danger: Do Not Walk Along The Trackside Path”. Great. Cursing my knack for finding turnings where none exist, I unshoulder my rucksack and sit down on the moss-greased planking.
Silence falls, roaring in my ears as I strain to hear the approach of a train returned from the dead.
Every country has its villains. It’s uniquely British that one of ours is a one-time chairman of the railway network.
In 1961 Doctor Richard Beeching was tasked with turning Britain’s 21,000 miles of train services into something more cost effective. With a background in physics and bureaucracy, Beeching viewed the problem as a simple accountancy puzzle: slash overheads, profits will rise. Job’s a good ‘un.
The overheads in this case were the rail lines, already being whittled away year by year since the early ’50s, but not fast enough to show a corresponding financial return. In his March 1963 report The Reshaping Of British Railways, Beeching proposed sweeping changes: a third of the network (6,000 miles of services) for the chop, including the line running through East Yorkshire to Hornsea, the town in which I spent my teenage years.
To say that posterity has taken a dim view is like saying the British like a bit of football. In popular opinion, Beeching is ranked somewhere south of Paul Burrell (ex royal butler turned feckless peddler of Princess Diana’s alleged confidences) and only a few rungs above the Yorkshire Ripper. His name has become synonymous with arrogant, unfeeling top-down cost-cutting, the kind that ruins livelihoods and destroys communities. In short, his name is mud.
If Dr Beeching’s vision of a slimlined national railway network had endured, I’d be standing on abandoned lines, waiting for a train than never arrived. But the steam locomotive approaching me, puffing solid-looking clots of steam like it’s firing pillows into the air, looks very real. Just to doubly reassure me, it lets out a shrill, breathy blast from its horn – an evocative sound, weakening the knees of train enthusiasts the world over and bringing to mind Harry Potter for the kids, Jenny Agutter for their parents.
It takes an age to stop completely, and in my impatience I grab a still-moving door handle. From up the train a voice accustomed to drowning out steam locomotives shouts “OY – WAIT!” and I leap away as if scalded. Oops. Dignity shredded, I nervously wait for the wall of metal to stop moving (I have less than ten quid in my pocket and no idea what the fare to Pickering is from here. What do they do to people who don’t pay up? Shovelling coal? Waiting tables in the dining car? Flogging?).
Finding a compartment that’s less than full (not an easy task), I sit down and wait for the conductor to track me down. There’s a strong smell of something I immediately want to call sandalwood without precisely knowing what that is. (I do now: I was right). Original fittings abound, left in situ even when they’re rendered obsolete by a graceless-looking modern alternative. You can see the brush strokes on the painted surfaces. I couldn’t be more charmed.
So how much of a villain was Doctor Beeching? In his 1967 book I Tried To Run A Railway, British Rail regional chairman Gerry Fiennes was broadly sympathetic to Beeching’s plight, and so critical of the Labour management of the railway that B.R. sacked Fiennes upon his book’s publication. The public response was less accepting: popular magazines condemned Beeching’s cold-blooded approach, petitions rattled the letterbox of Downing Street and the public-facing Private Eye offered a wry cartoon of Beeching with his limbs missing. Beeching himself would challenge his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest train-robbers: “I suppose I’ll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping”.
With that in mind, let’s see how Britain’s rail network would look if all of Beeching’s proposals had borne fruit.
The routes in black would be the survivors. For the rest it’s cheerie-bye – and in some cases they’ve disappeared anyway thanks to further closures in the ’70s and ’80s. But it’s hard to deny that vast swathes of Britain would have been turned from high-speed core to limping periphery. (You’re trying to get to Wales – on the train? Are you mad?). If it’s surgery, it’s anything but reconstructive. Modern critics point to Beeching’s crude determination of whether a line was profitable, suggesting he had little clue about how to revitalise existing services, which is perhaps why he didn’t even try. But how fair is it to blame one man for a poorly-conceived transport policy supported by two governments in their plans to expand the national road network? As Ian Hislop notes, Beeching was undoubtedly “very useful to politicians”.
The Malton to Whitby service fell under the axe on March 8th, 1965. End of the line? Not in this country. Within a couple of years passionate amateurs stepping into the breach, seeking permission for private events and organising themselves into a public charity. Today it’s known as the North York Moors Railway, administered by around a hundred paid staff (presumably including the conductor who has popped up the train to get me a hand-written ticket to Pickering, price £5) and countless volunteers and enthusiasts.
It’s there because enough people cared. Warm fuzzy glow? This is the place.
I poke my head out the window and watch the woodland slowly roll past. We’re going at that deceptive lick that steam trains are masters of; you think it’s merely a brisk trot, then some adventurous soul will gun their bicycle down an adjacent road, all madly-pumping legs and elbows, and they’ll entirely fail to keep up. It’s a mode of travel that seems to demand you stick your head out a window, the way that cars similarly affect dogs. It encourages contemplation and conviviality. This is what’s wrong with train travel nowadays: it’s too damn efficient.
I receive my ticket from the conductor (we exchange enough words for me to identify him as the owner of a certain locomotive-drowning shout) and I get back to watching the scenery. There’s no sense of urgency. A survivor of hostile governmental transport policies and the infamous Beeching Axe, this train has few worries, little to fear from anything beyond the next bend. It’s in no hurry to arrive, and neither am I.