HC Deb 04 February 1841 vol 56 cc312-21
Mr. Labouchere

rose, in pursuance of notice, to move for leave to bring in a bill for the better regulation of railways. He did not feel it necessary to trouble the House with any lengthened observations at this stage of the measure. It was a subject of equal difficulty and importance, and one which must engage the attention of the House at a future period. The bill which he was about to introduce; was to provide increased securities to persons travelling on railways. The House would agree with him after what occurred during the last few months in regard to travelling on railroads, that it was incumbent on her Majesty's Government to consider whether, by any interference, they could prevent the recurrence of those accidents, which had produced so much alarm in the public mind. And if, upon due consideration of the subject, it should appear to them that any arrangement could; be made, which would have a tendency to diminish the chance of those accidents and risks, he felt he should desert his duty if he did not propose to the House to adopt such measures as would lead to that result. Those accidents naturally became the subject of very minute investigation on the part of the railway department, which, by the bill of last Session, was attached to the Board of Trade; and the measure which he now proposed to introduce was founded upon the recommendations of that department, contained in a report, a copy of which he had laid upon the Table of the House a few days ago. That report set forth so much more fully and clearly than he could do the grounds upon which he asked leave to introduce this bill, that he felt it useless to take up the time of the House in detailing the facts and arguments in its support. He would content himself with mentioning the principle and main provision of the bill, just premising that the whole and sole object of the measure was directed exclusively to an attempt to increase the safety of travelling on railways. It was undoubtedly desirable that Government should not attempt any minute interfence with the particular province of the directors of railways, who were, as it were, the natural guardians of the public as well as of their own undertaking; but, upon long consideration, and after consulting with many parties interested in railways, while there were some points on which it would not not be well for Government to interpose, there were others on which it was thought that advantages would result from a limited superintendence. Great exaggeration had prevailed on the subject of accidents, and he had no hesitation in saying, that in his opinion there was no mode of conveyance so little liable to disasters as by railways. It was likely that the alarming nature of such accidents, and the shape in which a knowledge of them reached the public, would produce a strong impression, and it was above all necessary for the interests of the companies themselves, that the public should be satisfied that every means was adopted to diminish danger, and to lessen the chance of the loss of life, or of the injury to persons and property. While he admitted, that the risk was small when compared with the number of passengers conveyed, he rejoiced that even that risk, small as it was, might in every probability be rendered still smaller—he hoped that without any material interference with the directors of companies, travelling by railway might be made still more secure. The difficulty he felt was this:—though he acknowledged that the interference of Government ought to be restricted to narrow bounds, and that it ought not to be permitted without great caution, yet, if the department with which he was connected were to have efficient control (and if it were not efficient, it would better to have no control), it was absolutely necessary that the bill should be of a general nature, and that the Board of Trade should take upon itself the discretion and responsibility of applying it. Some hon. Members might feel alarmed at seeing, that by the bill a large power was asked; but after having again and again considered the subject, he could not see how the measure could be limited without crippling its efficacy by inconvenient details. A report of the officers of the railway department was now upon the Table, from which he would take the liberty of reading one or two extracts. The following passage related to the general principle of Government interference:— With regard to the nature and extent of these powers, the proper distinction appears to us to be, that the Government should not attempt to interfere in questions of an experimental nature, which are still subjects of discussion, and admit of a fair difference of opinion among practical men; nor should it attempt to regulate matters of detail, so as to take the management of the railways out of the hands of the parties immediately responsible, viz, the directors and their officers. The commissioners next proceeded to state the points on which it was thought Government interference would be beneficial:— On the other hand, the Government should have the power of enforcing, whenever it is found necessary, the observance of all pie-cautions and regulations which are approved by experience, and are obviously conducive to to the public safety. For instance, upon such points as the comparative advantages of six and four-wheeled engines, the best construction and mode of laying down rails, the best form and construction of wheels, axles, &c, and other points of a similar nature, upon which the practice of the best conducted railways differs, and the opinion of the most eminent engineers is by no means decided, it would be premature for the Government to interfere until experience has solved the questions which may still be fairly considered as doubtful. But with regard to other points, such as the propriety of introducing upon every railway such arrangements respecting time-tables and signals, as experience has shown to be necessary for preventing collision, of establishing a proper and uniform code of regulations for engine-drivers, guards, and other servants placed in a responsible situation, and for maintaining strict discipline; and generally of introducing upon all railways, whatever has been adopted, and proved to be conducive to safety, by the practice of those which are considered to be the best conducted; no difference of opinion can exist, and if the principle of Government supervision be admitted at all, it cannot find a more legitimate field for its exercise. With respect to the point of time tables, he might mention, that on the test lines the trains are worked by time tables; and to shew how proper it was that such should be the case, he might add, that on several railways where such a precaution was neglected, the most frightful accidents had occurred. He thought that a measure of this kind might safely be entrusted to a Government board, in order to enforce a principle which all who had investigated the subject, admitted to be essential to the public safety. He did not like to multiply instances, but he would notice one other. On most of the railways, a particular signal had been adopted to indicate danger—it was a red light; but on some lines danger was indicated by a light of a different colour: and an engine driver who had quitted a line on which a red light was used, and came upon a line where a blue light was used, might easily be confounded between the two, and the most disastrous consequences might be the result. This was another case in which power might safely be entrusted to a Government board to enforce one general and uniform regulation. It was utterly impossible that all such instances should be specified in a bill, but in asking the House to entrust such extensive powers to the Board of Trade he most readily acknowledged that they ought to be exercised with the utmost caution, and with as little interference as possible with the management of the directors of the different companies. Where the Board of Trade was satisfied that some general regulation was required, it ought to be enforced by some central authority. There was another point to which he attached great importance, viz., that all engine-drivers ought to be licensed. It was very anomalous that a license should be required for the driver of a vehicle in a public street, and yet that any man, however ignorant or incompetent, might be made an engine driver, and thus be entrusted with the lives and safety of hundreds of his fellow-creatures. He proposed, therefore, that a licensing system should be established, and that no man be permitted to drive an engine who had not previously obtained a license. A register would be kept of licensed engine-drivers, and in case of misconduct, he would be liable to be deprived of his license. He apprehended that this would operate as an important check on the employment of unfit persons, and thus lessen the chance of danger to the public. At present, men who had been turned off one railway sometimes got employment upon others, and fatal results had been the consequence. The report on the Table contained also various suggestions as to the obtaining of statistical information by the interference of Government; but recollecting that last Session the House pronounced an adverse opinion, on the ground that it was instituting an inquisitorial power, it was not his intention to include any such provision in the bill. All he desired was, that the House would duly consider the measure when brought before it, with a view to render it efficient for the public, safety, with as little interference as possible with the proper province of the directors. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by submitting his motion to the House.

Colonel Sibthorp

had always considered all railways public frauds and private robberies, by gambling speculators. The capital, at present, embarked in these undertakings was not less than sixty-four or sixty-five millions, and by the last returns there were not fewer than 108 railways. On these, the accidents had been much more numerous than appeared from the papers on the Table. Hardly one accident in ten came before the public, and the directors did their utmost to prevent publicity. Innkeepers and other most respectable classes of persons had been ruined or thrown out of employment, and on his way to town he had made inquiries and found that not a single Member of Parliament had travelled post; while the post-boy, to whom he gave 5s., declared that it was the first he had received in as many weeks. He looked with the utmost jealousy at every measure emanating from the present Ministers; and when he found that a new system of licensing was to be established, he wished to know, as the budget of the Chancellor of the Exchequer was likely to be a melancholy one, how many pounds or pence of the deficiency in the revenue he expected to make up by this new experiment? He hoped that, if this bill were passed, a clause would be introduced to compel the proprietors of railways to pay the parties whom they deprived of their properly the sums they had promised to allow by way of compensation. He pronounced it as his decided opinion, that these nefarious schemes would ere long appear before the public in their true light—that all the railway companies would be bankrupt, and that the old and happy mode of travelling on turnpike roads in chaises, carriages, and stages, would be restored.

Mr. Ewart

thought that the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade had drawn a most judicious distinction in wishing to centralise, for the sake of information, without needless interference with the directors of the various companies. Last year, he had doubled the policy of any interposition on the part of Government, but he now acknowledged the fitness of it, in the way and to the extent proposed. With regard to the danger of travelling on railways, if the gallant Colonel, who was so much alarmed, would read such an orthodox publication as the Quarterly Review, he would see that the accidents by railway were fewer than by any other mode of travelling. He (Mr. Ewart), would now say what had been a while ago observed by the hon. and gallant Colonel, that facts were stubborn things. He (Mr. Ewart) was for giving such powers as would render the acts of the railway commissioners not abortive of but productive of some good effect. His right hon. Friend had alluded to the system of licenses. He hoped that it would be found to succeed, but he had some doubt as to whether the system of licensing was necessary. They all knew that the system of stage-coaches was admirably conducted—to be sure, the number of accidents that occurred on them was more numerous than that which took place on railways, but yet they were admirably conducted, and that without licenses, He, then, had his doubts to whether licenses were so indispensably necessary. There was another recommendation of the commissioners, respecting the information that should be given in cases of serious accident or injury being sustained by persons. Now, there were occasions where information was desirable to the public in cases of accident, even where they were not attended with serious injury. He also acquiesced, though he confessed he had something to do with railroads, in the suggestion that the commissioners should get notice before a railway was opened, so that it might be seen that no danger was likely to be incurred on these lines by the public. Those powers were demanded by the public, and to them no reasonable railway company could refuse to assent. It was also required that acts of interference be sub-milted to Parliament before being adopted. Without that he thought that there might be some danger of too great an extension of the powers of the commissioners. It was worthy of remark, that those railways were least liable to accidents which had been longest in use. On the Liverpool and Manchester, for instance, accidents were very rare, and the same remark would apply to the London and Birmingham line. On the Grand Junction, half a million of persons had been conveyed in half a-year without the occurrence of the slightest casualty. In this country, all great undertakings owed their success to the absence of interference and the freedom of competition, and the French were beginning to find and to admit the truth of the axiom. He believed, that if the measure to be introduced were confined to regulation, without unnecessary interference, it would be received as a boon by the public, and would not be unwelcome to the directors of railways.

Lord Stanley

expressed his entire concurrence with the observations which had fallen from the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Ewart), and he hoped that the gallant Colonel (Colonel Sibthorp) would derive some consolation from the fact, that in proportion to the experience of the different companies had been the diminution of danger. This fact had been illustrated, as the hon. Member for Wigan had remarked, in an extraordinary manner by the Liverpool and Manchester railway, upon which not a single accident to life or limb had happened within the last twelvemonth. Other railways would, bye and bye, arrive at similar security, and in the meantime it was extremely important that Government should exercise a control, especially over those undertakings which were comparatively in their infancy, No proposition in the report on the Table was more valuable than the suggestion that care should be taken that railways were not opened before they were in a state fit for traffic; for every company was naturally anxious as soon as possible to obtain some return for their capital. He had been told that one railway had been opened, notwithstanding a positive report from the commissioners against its fitness. This was an evil it was most important to avoid. All railroads must be more or less partial monopolies in the hands of the directors, and a vigilant control on the part of Government was, therefore, the more necessary. He understood that the bill was to be founded mainly on the report of the commissioners, and he should, therefore, be the more ready to concur in its provisions. As he was upon his legs, he would put a question to the President of the Board of Trade, or to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on a matter which he had already mentioned privately: it regarded the directions given by the Post-office respecting letters carried by the railway mails. Some nights since he had been unexpectedly summoned to town from Southampton, and he arrived at Basingstoke by the train which reached that station at two in the morning. After the train had been detained some time, he inquired the reason of the delay, and was informed that it was a general order from the Post-office, that the train should not start until after the arrival of the Exeter and Andover cross mails. The snow was on the ground, and the train was consequently kept waiting at Basingstoke for an hour and a quarter, without any sufficient or apparent reason. By this circumstance, not only inconvenience but great danger might have been incurred; and he wished to know whether it was consistent with the orders of the Post-office, that the train should thus have been stopped? Under the old system a mail coach might be detained, and it might afterwards proceed along the road as usual, avoiding the coaches or carts it might meet; but the case was widely different on a railway, where irregularity and derangement of system might be attended with imminent risk. This was a circumstance within his own knowledge; and what he wished to learn was, whether there was any objection on the other side to state what were the general orders of the Post-office as to the detention of trains for the cross mails, supposing they had not arrived at the station at the appointed time? If any orders for detention had been given, the sooner they were rescinded the better.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

believed, that the directions of the Post-office were very general, and that much was necessarily left to the discretion of the railroad companies. The mail was engaged by Government at a very large expense, but they had nothing to do with the passengers conveyed by the same train. He was very sorry that the noble Lord had been detained for an hour and a quarter in the cold, but he did not apprehend that the delay arose out of any order issued by the Post-office. If the mail train were not able to keep its time, the passengers conveyed by the company must be contented to suffer from the delay. As to danger, in the instance in question, he apprehended that there was none, as there was no train either behind or before that in which the noble Lord was seated.

Lord Stanley

had not mentioned the case on account of any personal inconvenience to which he had been exposed, but because he thought such delays might be dangerous at some time, although not so in the present instance. After the lapse of an hour and a quarter, the train had been obliged to start without the cross mails. He confessed, that he was by no means satisfied with the reply of the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Plumptre

said, that a strong feeling pervaded the country that it was quite unnecessary to use the railways on the Lord's day. It was necessary that the engine drivers should be men of the most unexceptionable character; and how could such be obtained, if they continued at their work day by day, without any opportunity for rest or for religious instruc- tion on the seventh day? The travelling on the Lord's day shut the door against many persons who could not conscientiously absent themselves from their religious duty, and rendered it impossible for the Wesleyans in particular to obtain situations. He believed, too, that many accidents had happened on the Lord's day. Wherever railways were established in Scotland, the directors never thought of running the trains on the Lord's day; no inconvenience was found there from the stoppage; and any necessity that might have existed for travelling on that day\by other modes of conveyance had been done away with in consequence of the additional speed now acquired.

Mr. Warburton

wished to press upon the consideration of the House the effect which the shutting up of the railways on a Sunday, when every other mode of public conveyance had ceased, would have upon the middle and lower classes; there was no other mode except the railway, by which these persons could travel cheaply, so that in case it should be necessary for a person of moderate fortune to travel from one place to another on a Sunday, the hon. Member's plan would absolutely cut off every mode of conveyance from those who could not afford to post. Where were they to end if they once began this interference? There were boys tending sheep on a Sunday. It was necessary; and there always were certain things, which, as well in profane times as in modern and Christian countries, were admitted to be done on festival days. The necessary consequence of putting away all other means of communication by which parties could travel cheaply was, that they must not cut off the opportunity now afforded to persons travelling by the railroads.

Leave given.

Bill brought in, and read a first time.