Ernest Marples: The Shadow Behind Beeching

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Ernest Marples: The Shadow Behind Beeching

Ernest Marples: The Shadow Behind Beeching

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By the age of 14 he was already active in the labour movement, as well as earning money by selling cigarettes and sweets to Manchester football crowds. Marples was a minister under Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home throughout the Conservative Government 1957–1964. By 1963, the tide was turning against the Conservative Government after well over a decade in power. However in the late 80s with the rail union’s neutered, British Rail operated with the lowest subsidy per passenger mile of any national railway system in the 1st world.

Richard 16378, there had been a slow decline in the rail network since the twenties when road transport started to appear as a threat and some railway lines were too unprofitable to continue.Although its closure followed the publication of the first "Beeching Report", it was included in his Report as " under Consideration for Closure before the Formulation of the Report". It was the energy crisis of October 1973 that first threw doubt onto the wisdom of closing so much of Britain’s rail network.

In 1965, Edward Heath succeeded Macmillan as leader of the Conservative Party and Marples was reassigned to a less prestigious position in the party’s Central Office. A final chapter covers Marples’ life from his poor relationship with McMillan’s successor, Ted Heath, until his death in 1978. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories.The conspiracy theory is that Marples, in cahoots with the road lobby, deliberately ran down the railways. At Housing (1951-1954) he delivered 300,000 new houses annually and as Postmaster General (1957-1959), he reformed Post Office accounting systems and launched postcodes and Subscriber Trunk Dialling. One name that still resonates today, over half a century since he left office, is that of Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport from 1959 to 1964. There was an alternative, to follow the Continental model and allow private companies to build the fast road network and charge a toll to the motorist to use it. The photographs were catalogued and added to the archive as MPLS 3/1/9-3/1/11, 3/2/11, 3/3/2, 3/4/7-3/4/16, 3/5/9-3/5/12, 3/6/1-3/6/11 and 3/7/1-3/7/3.

A regular contributor to rail related TV programmes, he seems to have lost his objectivity and believes in a Marples/Beeching conspiracy to destroy the railways. In the light of later events, I think we can safely dismiss any idea of a conspiracy between Ernest Marples, the road lobby and the oil and construction industries. If you want to understand why our railway system was transformed in the 1960s, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

It was he who introduced the 70mph speed limit in November 1965 in response to rising road fatalities. For Buchanan, providing infrastructure for cyclists was unthinkable: “ … cyclists should not be admitted to primary networks, for obvious reasons of safety and the free flow of vehicular traffic. Marples lived a colourful life, and this excellent book tells the whole story – not just the Beeching/motorway episode, but the equally eventful periods either side. But he mentions a statistic that around 1200 miles of profitable railway was carefully selected for closure.

Much of the book is devoted to Beeching and transport matters in general, and anyone interested in Britain’s railways will certainly enjoy the book. Although this portion of this book by Martin Upham and David Brandon draws heavily (and unsurprisingly) upon Terry Gourvish’s and Charles Loft’s earlier work, it has a highly readable and succinct explanation of events. Perhaps Marples is most infamous for appointing Dr Beeching to British Railways with a brief of devising a profitable railway network. Central Government had pinned its hopes on the British motor industry helping to pay for a better tomorrow and it backfired. But this background in construction also meant that he was the best choice in Westminster to push forward the modernisation of Britain’s road network, and the political consensus of the time was that this was the way forward.

In June 1962 they announced that passenger services would be completely withdrawn between Shrewsbury and Bewdley (and also reduced south of Bewdley). As well as commissioning Beeching’s infamous report he also commissioned the Buchanan Report of 1963, one of the most influential – and damaging – reports ever printed. Alec Douglas-Home was succeeded by Edward Heath, who had no place for Ernest Marples in his front bench team. Their fine work redresses the imbalance in our history that has focused on Beeching alone for too long.

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