Dr Beeching is remembered as a kind of vandal by many in the heritage railway movement. That’s much too harsh: there were plenty of branch lines and village halts which made no social or economic sense.
Yet fifty years on, Dr Beeching’s conviction that the motor-car was the future, while trains were dinosaur-like survivals of the Victorian age, has run into the buffers. We travellers are using the railways more than we have for decades. Old routes, like the Waverley line into Edinburgh, are being resurrected from the dead, despite the expense. Here in Cambridge, we are about to build a brand new, second railway station, to relieve congestion on the roads.
The most obvious lesson, made by Beeching’s opponents at the time, was that a purely economic assessment of a major national asset might turn out to be so narrow that it failed even on its own terms. Accountants are not prophets.
But as we survey the map, it seems that something else, quite unlike the trains, is crying out for major rationalisation. This is Britain’s still vast religious infrastructure. As with the map of the railways, the religious landscape is filled with reminders of an age of competition. In many cities, there are mosques of different denominations built next to each other. Time for rationalisation, certainly; although the Muslim community is not at all ready for that.
But the Beeching story has another moral. What if our predictions of an increasingly secular, unchurched and unmosqued Britain turn out to be as disastrously wrong as were Dr Beeching’s certainties about the railways? What if that moribund place of worship opposite your house, that might soon be pulled down, or turned into chic offices, is filled with enthusiastic young believers.
In fact, the revival of religion is more likely than the revival of the rail network ever was. Faith is always unpredictable; but it seems to reach parts of us that nothing else can. We crave meaning, even more than we crave the ability to read emails and look at the scenery as we travel from A to B.
Don’t then, junk the infrastructure, imagining that the future will be Godless. Whilst the temptation is to rationalise and to update. Nothing in the history of the human spirit is predicable.
And in particular, let us avoid surrendering to the spirit of the age, blindly conforming to today’s intellectual fashions in the hope of delaying our demise.
The ancient structures of belief, tried and tested through generations, have a way to go yet.