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1961: Train services in the pre-Beeching era


photo © Motherhupit /

photo © Motherhupit /

Two towns in Yorkshire: Penistone and Barnsley. Nowadays, they are linked by hourly trains in each direction. But cast back to the pre-Beeching era and things were not so good. Local trains on the line had been axed in the 1950s, and by 1961 there was just a single daily train which rattled east from Penistone and down to Barnsley. Just after two in the morning, even on a Sunday, residents of Penistone could hop on a train for the 15-minute ride to Barnsley. There were no trains at all in the reverse direction.

The surveys of passenger numbers which underpinned Richard Beeching’s 1963 report on the future of Britain’s railways (a bleak future in his perception) were conducted in the last week of April 1961. So it is interesting to look at the pattern of train services which prevailed at that time.

With just one train a day, and that in the small hours of the morning, that Penistone to Barnsley service surely wasn’t packed, so no surprise that Beeching marked that line out for closure. Happily, it reopened in 1983. Other lines closed in the wake of the Beeching Report were not so lucky.

Passengers deterred by poor timetabling

In spring 1961, when those critical passenger surveys took place, hardly anyone used the 53-km line from Brecon to Neath. No surprise, perhaps, as on weekdays there was just a single train each day, leaving Neath late afternoon and returning from Brecon in the evening.

The notion that Britain’s railways all had decent train services in the pre-Beeching era is plain wrong. There were very many routes where trains ran only at inconvenient times or on specific days of the week. In so far as there was any logic behind some timetables, it was surely only to deter passengers from using the train. In that respect, many communities across Britain had already lost a proper train service even before the passenger surveys of April 1961 confirmed that the respective lines were not profitable.

With only one train a day from Cheltenham via Cirencester to Swindon, it was surely no surprise that passenger numbers were low. That route didn’t even survive until the publication of the Beeching Report. It closed to passengers in September 1961.

In looking at the railway schedules for spring 1961, we’ve spotted a stretch of line in County Durham, running south from Washington, which was also served by just one train each day, viz. a service to Durham which left Newcastle at 04.30 but routed via the Leamside line through Washington to Durham rather than taking the main route south from Newcastle. The Leamside line was closed in 1964, the same year in which Washington was designated as a New Town. Half a century later, this town of over 60,000 is one of the largest communities in Europe not to have any rail services.

In early 1961, there was just one train a day from Driffield to Market Weighton. Traffic numbers had fallen off after all the intermediate stations on the line were closed in 1954, and the sole surviving daily train was not timed to meet the needs of either shoppers or commuters. It left Driffield at 07.50 and returned from Market Weighton at 09.40. The line was closed in 1964.

No trains on Mondays or Tuesdays

Those 1961 train schedules reveal some deliciously eccentric timetabling. Why did no eastbound trains stop at Woodhead on Mondays or Tuesdays? On any other day of the week it was possible to join a train in Woodhead and be in Sheffield 30 minutes later. But not on a Monday or Tuesday.

There was just one train per day from Brackley to High Wycombe via Haddenham. It ran in the late evening. One can only wonder if on a damp winter night there were any passengers on this train.

Ghost trains

Much is made nowadays of ghost trains (sometimes called parliamentary services) which still run, often at the oddest times of the day, to maintain the pretence that a rail route is still open. Back in pre-Beeching days there were plenty of those.

The main-line platforms at Greenford (as opposed to the Central Line platforms) had absolutely no northbound trains in early 1961. But a lunchtime train from Thame to London stopped at the southbound main-line platform at Greenford at 13.26 on its way into Paddington. For more than a decade, this train was the only service to use the main-line platforms at Greenford.

The main-line platforms at Greenford closed in 1963. The line, however, has survived, though the service these days is very sparse – a once-daily train (Mondays to Fridays only) from South Ruislip to Paddington and back. Passenger numbers are surely very low and there is talk that the line will close before long to allow for construction work on the new HS2 route from London to Birmingham and beyond.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.


Matthew Shaw, 21 November 2018

With the growth in passenger traffic over the last decade, it is easy to judge Beeching as having lacked foresight. Certainly some serious errors were made. For instance, the cost of reinstating Edinburgh to Tweedbank exceeded the subsidies that would have been paid over the 40 years since the line originally closed. But Beeching was dealing with a badly run-down network that had been starved of investment following the UK's virtual-bankrupcy after WW2. The UK was 15 years behind the US in switching to diesel because the state-owned system ranked behind other priorities and currency controls made domestic coal supplies easier to guarantee than foreign petroleum. Steam engines could only be fully eliminated in the 1960s by reducing the number of units required. Steam continued in (West) Germany until 1975, seven years longer than UK, largely because it did not shrink its network so quickly.

Nick, 16 May 2017

Of course for railway enthusiasts and all lovers of nostalgia, the loss of quaint ageing country branch lines was a sad loss: as you show the loss to some of those communities losing their rail services was sometimes negligible in that people at that time travelled less anyway and more importantly weren't able to travel on routes with poor connections (most!). Those lines were never going to last. The sad thing about Beeching is his total lack of foresight in seeing the railways as a completely separate and viable alternative transport network to road - and one that might be needed in the (then) future. He axed not just branch lines but main & secondary main lines that were a vital part of that network. He failed to see potential future use in these lines, let alone see the dangers of relying on road transport. Closing the Great Central main line - the last main line built in Britain, was inexcusable and a loss subsequently keenly felt. So many other lines similarly, the Midland main line to Manchester, the Carstairs line to Edinburgh, the LSWR route beyond Exeter and so many others. Unfortunately Dr Beeching was a man of his time only, with no conception of a (near)different future...

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