Colin Divall, former Professor of Railway Studies at York University, now resident again in his native Dorset, gave a fascinating overview of the background to and impact of Dr Richard Beeching’s (now eponymous) 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways. Colin grew up within sight of the Wimborne line and witnessed the last trains to run along that branch of the Southampton and Dorchester railway before its closure in 1974. The keen interest in railway history was evidenced by a full house at Dorset History Centre with an audience of 70.
Colin has researched the background the closures in Dorset, with particular emphasis on the lines in the east of the county serving Wimborne, Blandford and the conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole. He has analysed archives from the period including financial reports, newspapers and even correspondence from members of the public to build up a picture of the times – and of the hard-headed economics which drove the cuts to the railway system. Contrary to Beeching’s modern reputation as the wrecker of the railways, Colin demonstrated that there was little actual contemporary protest against the closures, although the quote from his talk’s title was taken from a letter from a Dorset woman written directly to the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. Colin also pointed out that although many of the railways which were closed were shut on the basis of hard economics, the actual case for closure in some cases was actually far more marginal.
He left us with a series of ‘what if?’ scenarios relating to the railways. With the benefits of hindsight it is entirely possible that the Wimborne line in particular, but other Dorset railways too, would be in service today – given the expansion of the conurbation and east Dorset and the preference many of us have for taking the train over driving. Sadly, the reinstatement of this line seems very unlikely with railway bed having been built on.
On display during the evening were several of Dorset History Centre’s large collection of historic railway plans.