HC Deb 14 March 1845 vol 78 cc938-45
Mr. Shaw

rose to move, according to his Notice, for a Select Committee to inquire into the merits of the Atmospheric System of Railway. He could have wished, at an earlier hour, to have dwelt upon the nature of the system, the progress it had made, and the great acquisition which he believed the discovery would prove in the science of railway locomotion; but at that period of the night, he would not trespass longer on the House than very briefly to state the grounds and refer to the Parliamentary documents upon which he hoped to gain the assent of the House to the inquiry which he sought. In the petition which he had presented to the House, and upon which he then moved, the patentees complained that they were prejudiced by the Report of the Railway Department of the Board of Trade on the Kentish and South-Eastern Railway; but he (Mr. Shaw) would greatly prefer to rest the case upon the public advantage to be derived from a preliminary inquiry being made upon a point of such vital importance, before the House became engaged in the unusually large amount of railway business they would have to discharge during the present Session. He should have liked to go through the various Reports of the Board of Trade relating to the subject; but as he fully appreciated the time of the House at that advanced hour, he should content himself by quoting from one Report, which, he thought, would sufficiently establish his case for a Committee—it was the Report upon the Newcastle and Berwick Railways. In that Report, the Board admitted that the result of the atmospheric system was likely to be "an acceleration of speed in travelling, combined with the general introduction of a system of very frequent trains and low fares," and that the experiment at Dalkey might be considered to a great extent conclusive as regarded the success of the system, considered as a mechanical problem; that it demonstrated that trains might be propelled by means of it at high velocities, with safety and convenience to the public; and that the same result might be attained, although the separate consecutive portions of the line should be multiplied indefinitely. But then they said, that in forming their judgment upon competing schemes, they could not assume the complete success of the atmospheric system "in a practical and commercial point of view"—meaning that of expense; and that therefore, in comparing two rival projects, they had thought themselves bound to regard them "apart from all considerations as to the atmospheric system." Now, he was not there to throw any imputation upon the Railway Department of the Board of Trade; on the contrary, he thought they had, on the whole, performed the very difficult functions that had been entrusted to them with great ability and impartiality; but still, in the instance of the atmospheric railway, he considered the conclusion they had come to was erroneous, and detrimental as well to the patentees, as to the public. While they acknowledged its merits, and that in a mechanical point of view its success had been proved, they excluded it from their consideration, because they were not yet satisfied of its success in regard of expense; and yet they had refused to examine witnesses upon that point. What he then wanted was, to supply evidence upon the question of expense, and to have an inquiry before a Select Committee of that House, instead of several before the various Railway Committees, which would have to consider competing lines, when any one of them was proposed to be constructed on the atmospheric principle. The proof that he understood would be offered was the practical experience of the working of the Dalkey and Kingstown line for the last eighteen months; and he might say that, as an Irishman, he had great pleasure in referring to that line, and stating that it was in Ireland the experiment of the atmospheric system had received its first practical trial. There could be also given in evidence the completion of contracts for the Drogheda line of eighteen miles in length, and the South Devon of fifty-two miles—both to be worked on the atmospheric plan, under the eminent engineers, Mr. Cubit and Mr. Brunel, and the contractors—such houses as Sir John Rennie, Maudsley and Feild, Boulton and Watt, and Grissell and Peto—who would prove not only that they had completed the contracts for the engines and air pumps at a cost not greater per mile than would be required for an establishment of locomotive engines; but that they would further engage to keep them in repair at an annual charge of about 5 per cent. on the first cost—whereas the wear and tear in the locomotive system was nearer 50 per cent. He did not want that those statements should be taken for granted, but merely inquired into, and that in a manner to prevent the great expenditure of public time and money—which otherwise it would cost to investigate them before separate Committees on Railway Bills. If it were said that the best test would be the experiment that was about being tried on the Croydon and South Devon lines, the answer was, that that could not take place before the month of July—that time was the very essence of the present question—and that in the intermediate period would occur that which might fairly be called the crisis of railway speculation. Considering then, that there were for that Session alone, 248 Railway Bills to be brought before the House—seeing that the House had conferred a new power on the Board of Trade—had appointed a Select Committee, on which he (Mr. Shaw) had sat, for the purpose of constituting particular tribunals—for disposing of the immense mass of railway business then pressing upon them—that they had adopted Committees of classification and selection, and a small number of selected Members, subject to compulsory attendance, and laid aside all private convenience, in order to meet the present emergency in respect of Railway Bills, he did hope that the House would not refuse a Committee to inquire into so important a branch of the subject as that which he had that night ventured to bring to their attention.

Mr. Warburton

said, he should not allow the Motion to pass without dividing the House upon it. If mechanical improvements had taken place in the construction of railways, they afforded no more ground for a Committee of Inquiry than would be furnished by an improvement in watchmaking, shipbuilding, or engineering. The whole question resolved itself into this, whether railways constructed on the atmospheric principle could be worked more cheaply than other railways. This was a question which he thought could only be decided by experience.

Mr. H. Hinde

agreed with a great portion of what had been stated by the hon. Member opposite. He had no objection to a preliminary inquiry. However, he believed that under the motives of his hon. Friend there lurked a desire to delay General Railway Bills. The Board of Trade had reported in favour of those railways in every sense; but in a mercantile point of view, the witnesses who had been examined did not go the length of the Board of Trade in the opinions which they had expressed with respect to the disadvantage of this railway in a mercantile point of view. If this were merely a matter of philosophic inquiry, it might be a proper subject to refer to the inquiry of a Select Committee.

Viscount Howick

did not think that his hon. Friend behind him (Mr. Warburton) had exercised his usual acuteness in the objections which he had urged to the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman. He (Viscount Howick) had been a Member of the Select Committee which had inquired into this subject, and he thought that it was an object of interest to the public to know whether this system should be adopted or not. He thought that this Motion ought to be adopted. He thought that the inquiry was called for under circumstances that would in every way justify the House in granting the inquiry. In the present year, a great number of Railway Bills would be before the House. In two or three cases there was a competition between the atmospheric railway and the locomotive system. It was the great advantage of the atmospheric system, that it was able to overcome gradients, to produce a great advantage in reducing the amount of construction. The Board of Trade had admitted that this system was greatly superior in point of speed, in point of safety; but they doubted its success on the ground of its mercantile advantage. Now, that was a question with which he (Viscount Howick) did not think that the Board of Trade had any right to interfere. These were transactions which were proposed to be carried on by private speculation, and he did not see why the Board of Trade should interpose. As a Member of the Committee which had inquired into the subject, he thought that it was proved that the atmospheric system possessed great superiority, in point of safety and speed; and in a mercantile point of view, under every disadvantage, with the worst possible gradients, and with many difficulties to contend against, it appeared that the advantage in point of expense was, as a comparison between both, 9d. per mile for the atmospheric, and 14½d. per mile for the locomotive. The Committees appointed upon these subjects would have to investigate those matters; and he thought that it would be a great saving of time to Committees if an investigation took place on this subject. He thought that it was very desirable that those Committees should have the benefit of any experience that might have been acquired on the subject. It would be a great advantage when the question of competing lines came before those Committees, to have the benefit which this inquiry would produce. He was sure that any want of sufficient information on the subject might have the effect of delaying to a distant day the application of the atmospheric system. Whatever might have been said to the contrary, he thought that the best course would be to have an inquiry at once, before a Select Committee, into the merits of that system. He thought that it would be better to have a Committee at once, to inquire into this subject. The effect would be to save time, as these questions must necessarily come to be considered before Railway Committees. Now with respect to any delay which this Committee could produce, he believed that it was not likely that any of the Railway Bills would be referred to a Committee before Easter. Now he thought that if this question was referred to a Select Committee, that Committee would be able to give its Report in time so as to assist those Committees. For these reasons he supported the Motion.

Sir G. Clerk

felt obliged to object to the Motion of his right hon. Friend. The noble Lord had stated that he had been last year a Member of a Committee to inquire into this subject, and that the evidence had justified him as to the merits of the atmospheric system alone; that was in itself an argument why the Committee should not be granted. With respect to the merits of this system, it was quite easy to conceive that in the neighbourhood of a large city like Dublin, with a neighbourhood like Kingston, it was likely to be successful. But how could they say that it would be equally successful where the traffic would not be so much in its favour? He thought that the Board of Trade was quite right in reporting in favour of the locomotive system. The advantage of the locomotive system was, that it would always apply, however it might be adopted, and if it was found inapplicable, it would be very easy to lay down tubes and apply the atmospheric system. To show that he had no hostility to the atmospheric system, he begged to remind the House that, last Session, on the Motion of the hon. Member for Kildare, he had, when connected with the Treasury, granted those parties facilities for trying their principle on a larger scale than they could have been disposed to do out of their private means. He thought that the decision to which the Board of Trade had come was a perfectly sound and just one, and for these reasons he should feel obliged to oppose the Motion of his right hon. Friend.

Mr. Parker

said, that he was disposed to vote in favour of this Committee. He thought that the House ought not to be deprived of any experience that existed on this subject, which was one of importance to the public at large. He thought that the public had a right to expect a fair examination into the principle of the atmospheric railway.

Mr. M. J. O'Connell

said, he was sensible of the difficulty of getting a Committee impartially constituted; but if there were any possibility of good arising out of it, he hoped the Government would not oppose the Motion.

Mr. Ricardo

supported the appointment of the Committee. The question was a national one, for it involved the expenditure of a large amount of capital. Before two years had passed, either the atmospheric or the locomotive principle would be established; and whichever was successful, all the capital expended in the opposite direction would be completely wasted. Let, then, a Committee be appointed, in order to enable the House to judge which principle they would adopt.

Sir R. Peel

said, he thought, if there were doubts upon this subject, considering the particular position of the House with regard to railways, those doubts ought to be solved in favour of the appointment of a Committee. The weight which the Committee would carry with it would depend very much upon its constitution being without the least suspicion of its being formed with the view of favouring any particular system. He confessed, that upon the whole, considering the number of Railway Bills before the House, considering also the possibility that the appointment of one Committee might save some time in others, he was inclined to try the experiment; but, at the same time, he could not anticipate any very good effect from it. He did not, for instance, believe, that if the right hon. Gentleman obtained the Committee, it would determine any speculative point, for example, whether the Archimedean screw or the paddle-wheel was the best. Those points could only be determined after a vast number of experiments by practical men had been brought before the public, which would form its opinion, not upon the Report of any Select Committee, but upon the test of practical operations. If the Committee were appointed, he had also some doubts whether the object in view would be effected, although, let it be understood, that his impressions were strongly in favour of the atmospheric system; nor did he think the Report would be made in sufficient time to influence the decision of any other Committee; but he did think that a Committee appointed now, and proceeding to the consideration of evidence, might be able to suggest to individual Committees several important points. For instance, they could get exact and useful information concerning the Dalkey line, and upon the application of the system upon the Continent, imperfect as that system must be at present. They might collect a body of evidence which might be valuable in saving time; but the question still would remain, whether the system would succeed commercially. It was possible the Committee might clear up all doubts upon the mechanical part of the question—they might ascertain the exact expense of working; but the commercial success of the system depended upon a thousand considerations which no Committee of the House of Commons could decide upon. But upon the whole he should vote for the Committee, although there might be great difficulty in constituting it so as to save the labour of other Committees; and seeing the amount of capital involved—though not foreseeing the probability of any great benefit being derived from it, he advised his right hon. Friend to constitute the Committee of men not prejudiced in favour of any particular system.

Lord Ebrington

rejoiced exceedingly that the right hon. Baronet had consented to the appointment of this Committee.

Mr. Gill

said, the expense of a railway formed on the atmospheric principle was less than that of a locomotive line. In many parts of the Continent in which the atmospheric principle had been established, a locomotive line could not be introduced; and even in many parts of England, though not so mountainous, it would be beneficial to introduce the atmospheric in preference to the locomotive principle.

Mr. Shaw

, in reply, thanked the House for the attention which, at that late hour, they had given to the subject, and expressed his obligation to the Government for having granted the Committee. He would not then, as the Committee was conceded, detain them longer by replying to some of the objections, to which he thought he could have given an easy answer—he would only express his entire concurrence in the sentiment of his right hon. Friend (Sir Robert Peel), that the value of the Committee would depend upon its being constituted with the most perfect impartiality—and in that spirit he would, on Monday, propose to nominate it.

Mr. Warburton

said, that after the speech which had been made by the right hon. Baronet at the head of Her Majesty's Government, he would not divide the House upon the question.

Appointment of the Committee agreed to.

House adjourned at half-past one o'clock.