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Friday, March 14, 2003
End of the line?

These evocative photo collections of the Grand Central Railway in Leicester catalogue the dismantling of great swathes of Britain's transport infrastructure. For those of us born after this era of savage cuts, yet forced to struggle by on an increasingly desperate rail network, the whole concept of taking up track and demolishing stations seems insane.

The mythological bogeyman of Britain's post-war rail collapse is one Doctor Richard Beeching, and it seemed instructive to find more about him. The railways had been nationalised in 1948, combining the various lines into one organisation, British Rail. In the two decades that followed, the roads lobby became an unstoppable force, while rail was increasingly seen as an anachronism, hamstrung by strange systems of rates and artificially low fares. For modernisers, rail was a throwback to the Victorian era, at odds with the age of the 'white heat of technology' epitomised by the new, fast motorways (see The Motorway Archive for more details about road-building).

Beeching, a former technical director at ICI, replaced Sir Brian Robertson, who was essentially pro-rail, as chairman of the British Transport Commission. Straight away, Beeching went on the offensive, and announced that he would ferret out the inefficiencies in the rail system (which was underfunded and under-exploited). His quest for efficiency culminated in the infamous Beeching Report, published on 27th March 1963. The findings were convincing, and had central government rubbing their hands with glee. For example, half of the country's 7,000 stations generated only 2% of passenger traffic. Beeching recommended closing 2,363 stations, eviscerating the system, cutting off rural communities and leaving many major towns without adequate passenger services (much more detail can be found at the excellent page at Timmonet, from which many of these figures have been taken). Deeply depressing maps are available here: Beeching's proposed withdrawals: country-wide, London area. Compare and contrast: passenger network in 1961/1969. Joyce's site also links to contemporary opposition to Beeching (pdf), and notes that the report wasn't a complete disaster as it laid the foundations for the excellent Inter-city service.

Today, the Great Central is a struggling tourist operation, running steam engines for enthusiasts, and railway heritage remains under threat (especially in towns like Swindon, which owe their existence to the railway in the first place: I, II). Of course, Britain isn't the only country with railway problems (see Poland and the US for starters), but the Beeching era is notable for its wilful bloody-mindedness: houses were often swiftly built over removed track to prevent any return to rail. Like that other great rail-related symbol of needless destruction, the Euston Arch, Beeching's 'reforms' paved the way for the mediocre service that ciy dwellers have to endure today, the total reliance on cars in rural areas and the fragmentation of cities into dismal pockets of commuter-belt.

Another transport obituary. Will the Zil soon be no more? The wilfully boxy Russian limousine used to be a Party staple, but in a free market, these automotive behemoths compare very unfavourably to the top-line products from BMW, Audi, and Mercedes, etc. Apparently, more top-spec S-Class Mercedes are sold in Moscow than the whole of Germany, so the escalating emphasis on lunatic levels of luxury at the upper of the market (see the Maybach) will find a natural home on the city's broad avenues.

Bear in mind too that many of these Russian enthusiasts might not necessarily fund their hobbies in a strictly legal way. The market for armoured cars is booming (buoyed, too, by general global jumpiness) and all the major carmakers can turn their products into mobile panic rooms for a premium. There are a fair few private companies who'll do the same - Trasco and Cloer International to name just two (we love the levels of armour specification: 'Magnum-Class', 'NATO-Class' and, presumably toughest of all, 'Dragunov-Class'. This is presumably named after Evgeniy Fedorovich Dragunov, sniper rifle pioneer). Vaguely related. Russian classic car show details. More Zil pics (descriptions in Italian). Russian toy cars.

Sorry for the lack of links yesterday - Blogger was playing up. Elsewhere. Posters and pamphlets, snipped from various weblogs (apologies for lack of attribution): Saigon, Iraq, China, Switzerland. Collections of backstage passes, via dailyjive: I, II, III. Railway food. All about train tickets, which takes you to the Transport Ticket Society. Railway history pamphlet collection at the LSE.