Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cycling along Disused Railway Lines

"People have always had a fascination with disused railway lines and stations. Following the opening of the first railway lines in the 1820’s, stations have been closing; many in the last century because they were resited to a more suitable location. This is particularly true in London where many of the London termini were originally built some distance short of their present site.

In the early 20th century, stations and lines began to close with the introduction of new bus services, the increased popularity of the car and the improvements in roads. Other lines and stations never lived up to the expectations of their promoters.

Many rural stations were badly sited, well away from the towns and villages that they were designed to serve and this too led to a rapid decline in passenger numbers when more convenient forms of transport became available.

The steady trickle of railway closures increased in the 1950’s turning into a torrent in the 1960’s with the rationalization of our railway network under the infamous Dr. Richard Beeching, the chairman of British Railways from 1961 - 1965.

In March 1963 his report “The reshaping of British Railways” was published. The “Beeching Axe” as it became known proposed a massive closure programme. He recommended the closure of one third of Britain’s 18,000 mile railway network, mainly rural branches and cross country lines and 2,128 stations on lines that were to be kept open. The following year his second report “The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes” was even more scathing with a proposal that all lines should be closed apart from the major intercity routes and important profit making commuter lines around the big cities leaving Britain with little more than a skeleton railway system and a large parts of the country entirely devoid of railways. The report was rejected by the government and Dr. Beeching resigned in 1965.

Although Beeching was gone, the closure programme that he started under the Conservatives in the early 1960’s continued unabated under Labour until it was brought to a halt in the early 1970’s; but by that time the damage had been done. In 1955 the British railway system had 20,000 miles of track and 6,000 stations. By 1975 this had shrunk to 12,000 miles of track and 2,000 stations, roughly the same size it is today.

Gradually the memory of these lost lines and stations began to fade as the urban sites were redeveloped with only a road name to remind people of their former existence. Most of the rural sites were returned to nature and agriculture although many of the stations still survive in some form or another, some transformed into attractive country dwellings while others linger on in the undergrowth abandoned and forgotten."

Today, many of these disused railway lines have become public bridalways, the beauty of which is that you can cycle and walk along them! Anyone who has cycled or walked along the South Downs Way will have, at some point, crossed the disused Meon Valley railway line.


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