Tony Crosland as Secretary of State in the 1970s saw a future for "a smaller, sensible little railway". By this, so railwaymen said, he meant a through carriage (first class) to his constituency at Grimsby. Even this scaled-down model would not have survived the advice of Alfred Sherman, who urged Margaret Thatcher to pour concrete on the railways and run buses down them. Rail, he told her, was an anachronism, and had been since the invention of the pneumatic tyre.
He would have been vexed to find that the railways are still with us, and apoplectic to learn that old lines had been reopened and new ones were being planned and even built. More surprising still, people are actually using them — more passengers, indeed, than at any time since their heyday. Ministers and advisers before Crosland and Sherman had assumed that the railways were an exercise in managing decline. Their defence was a long rearguard action, and now Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, who were guerrilla generals in this campaign, have told the story.
It can be traced, oddly enough, to a plan to modernise the railways, which meant spending a fortune to keep them going on familiar principles, steam traction included. This coincided with a strike which caused Royal Ascot to be cancelled and drove traffic to the roads. Something different was needed. Enter Richard Beeching in 1963, the technocrat from industry, with a plan designed to focus the railways on what they did best, by developing the main lines and transforming the freight business. He is unjustly remembered as the demon axeman.
Branch lines and wayside stations had been pruned before he came, but no one seemed to know what they cost, or might cost, if they could be run without stationmasters and signal boxes. Pruning them was never going to transform the railways' fortunes — and, in time, it ran into political buffer-stops. The rural line from Craven Arms to Swansea traversed five marginal constituencies and is still in being. The lowlands of Scotland lacked clout and became a railway desert.