When it was nationalized in 1948, the UK rail system was already inefficient. It had evolved piecemeal over the previous century into an overextended sprawling network. Passenger numbers had been hit by the increased use of motor vehicles and continued to decline in the post-war period. A commitment to full employment by the Labour government and increasing union power due to the post-war economic boom set the scene for a two-week rail strike in 1955, forcing rail freight users onto the roads, where many of them stayed. A White Paper in 1960 recommended splitting the integrated national transport system. Rail – then making a significant annual loss – would be run by a new British Railways Board, and a programme of complete modernization was proposed.
Richard Beeching was a research physicist who had risen through the ranks of ICI to become technical director when in 1961 he was appointed chairman of British Railways. His task was to make the nationalised rail network profitable. Quite why someone with no experience of the rail industry was appointed to this post remains a mystery. Maybe it was thought a physicist would understand the technicalities of rail. Perhaps it was felt that someone with a rail background wouldn’t be sufficiently ruthless. Or maybe Beeching was considered thick-skinned enough to take the blame for savage cuts. I won’t speculate on the motivation of Ernest Marples, then Minister of Transport.
According to Robin Jones’ fascinating account Beeching: 50 Years of the Axeman, one of Beeching’s criteria as to whether or not a service should be spared his now legendary axe, was direct profitability. On the face of it this seems perfectly reasonable. It certainly made sense to replace a branch line carrying a dozen passengers a week, with a bus service. Unfortunately for Beeching, many unprofitable branch lines contributed much of the traffic that made mainlines profitable. And according to Robin Jones, Beeching assumed that long-distance passengers whose branch line had closed would drive would drive to their nearest mainline station and complete their journey by rail. Instead, partly because of the new motorways, car owners found it more convenient to keep driving.
The way Beeching wielded his axe is an example of a classic systems-change error, known as sub-system optimization at the expense of system optimization. In an interconnected system, changing one component of the system will affect other connected components. The tighter the connection, the greater the risk of unintended or unwanted outcomes. Since rail branch lines are tightly coupled to mainlines, the effect of closing branch lines was considerable.
In addition, Beeching committed a second common systems-change error; making unfounded assumptions about another interacting system – in this case human behaviour.
The problem that we humans have with complex systems is that they are complex. With incomplete knowledge and a working memory that can hold seven-plus-or-minus-two bits of information, it’s very difficult for us to look at systems as a whole. That creates a lot of problems. We tend to optimize our own immediate situation regardless of the impact that has on other people or on our own long-term outcomes. Governments tweak sub-systems oblivious of the impact on whole systems and then have to tweak other sub-systems to compensate.
Beeching’s systems errors and Marples’ policies had a lasting impact on the transport infrastructure of the UK, with incalculable cost implications for the economy as a whole. It’s only been since privatization in the 1990s that rail passenger numbers have recovered to levels comparable to those prior to the Beeching cuts. (Whether or not the increase in passenger numbers is due to privatization or due to traffic congestion, petrol prices and difficulty parking at stations is a moot point.)
It’s interesting to speculate on how a biologist might have approached the task of making the railways efficient, since the systems that biologists are familiar with are significantly more complex than those that engage the attention of physicists.
Next, I plan to look at levels of complexity in systems.
Jones, R. (2011). Beeching: 50 years of the axeman. Mortons Media Group.
Miller, G. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.