HC Deb 06 December 1852 vol 123 cc1048-57

, in rising to move the appointment of a Select Committee on the subject of Railway Amalgamation, as applied to Railway and Canal Bills about to be brought under the consideration of Parliament, said he hoped the House would allow him to make a few remarks, and at that late hour he would promise that they should be but few. The House was aware that at the present moment public notice had been given of a considerable number of Railway Bills that were to be brought before them in the course of the Session—he believed to the number of 150 or 160—and amongst that number there were some twenty of what were called Amalgamation Bills; and of that twenty, some of them were of a nature so large, that the House had, perhaps, never had to deal with Bills of such magnitude. It was hardly necessary for him to call the attention of the House to the vast magnitude and importance of this subject, because it must be fully apparent to every one who considered the matter, that if all these amalgamations, or any of them, went on, they would be laying the foundation for a state of things which, at no very distant period, might bring the House to consider whether or not the whole locomotion of the Kingdom should be allowed to pass into the hands of one management. For instance, some of the Bills related to groups of the same country, and if these groups were allowed to be united, what was there to prevent these groups afterwards joining again, and so proceeding on from step to step until you came to have all the railways converted into one great concern? Now, in considering this matter, the first practical question they had to turn their attention to was, what was to become of these Bills when they should be sent by the ordinary process of the House into those various Select Committees whose duty it would be to examine into their merits? He thought all parties would agree with him that it would be hardly safe to refer each Bill to five Gentlemen, without, in the first place, if it was possible, establishing some general views which they should be required to take of the whole subject. It should first be ascertained whether it was possible that any general rules or practical regulations could he laid down, either in the shape of Standing Orders or otherwise, by which the attention of these several Committees might be drawn to the particular portion of each Bill, and upon which they should be required, or not, according as it might be determined, to expresss an opinion or to call the attention of the House to each particular point as it might arise in detail. Of course, if the House agreed to appoint such a Committee as he recommended, the first matter for them to consider and determine upon was the preliminary question of whether these large amalgamations should be sanctioned or not. Of course, it would naturally occur to hon. Members what power the railways had of effecting these amalgamations by arrangements concluded without reference to that House, and it would be a question for them to consider whether such an arrangement, over which they had no control, might not press much more severely upon the public than if they were made under the sanction and upon the conditions laid down by Par- liament. Suppose it should be considered prudent not to negative amalgamation, but to place them under sound regulations, the course of inquiry would naturally branch into three or four distinct heads. The first consideration would have relation to the parties who sought the amalgamation, and what conditions should be imposed upon them to protect their several interests, because many of those companies who proposed to amalgamate stood upon a by no means simple foundation, and before the amalgamation was allowed to take place they ought to be required to consolidate their laws, so that when all the parties came to be married, they should have a better chance of knowing what their respective interests would be, and how they would be affected by amalgamation. Another class of parties whose interests would have to be considered were the lessors of some of our great trunk lines of railway—a by no means insignificant or unimportant body. There were reversionary interests in these lessors which may or may not be injured by amalgamation. But Parliament should take care that their interests were properly looked after. A third class at present under the Standing Orders of the House had no locus standi before the Select Committees; he alluded to those parties who had an indirect interest in the questions of amalgamation, such as canals and competing lines running parallel with the railways proposed to be amalgamated and created into a monopoly. Care ought to be taken that those parties were properly represented in the inquiry, and had their interests fairly dealt with. Passing then from them, we come to those parties who were said to be more immediately concerned in this matter. He came to the larger and more important question of how the public interest was to be guarded against any injuries that were likely to result from these amalgamations. Now of course in this branch of the matter the first point that struck one was what measures should be taken, or what were the proper regulations to be laid down to secure ample and legitimate accommodation for the public from those railways that proposed to amalgamate. It should be provided distinctly that none of such railways, or any portion of them, should be shut up against the public, or kept only for private use. What information it would be necessary for each Committee to be furnished with, on this branch of the subject, and what returns the House should require such Company to produce, would be one of the most important points upon which this preliminary Committee would have to report. The next question was with regard to tolls and fares. He should state that at the present moment, speaking generally, every railway in the kingdom was running within the maximum fares and tolls allowed by law, and that being so, of course where the parties came to ask for great privileges, it would be the duty of the Legislature to consider what additional terms ought to be secured for the benefit of the public. That question should be carefully looked into by the general Committee, and something should be done to ascertain what provision should be made against the tolls and fares being unfairly raised. And then the Committee would have to decide what course should be taken with reference to the general financial position of each party to the Bill. Another point was as to the general power of regulating railways, and this must also come under the Committee's consideration, who, however, could not judge of it without looking closely, not only into the powers already existing by law, but also into the way in which they had been exercised. As regarded the desirability of any Government control, there was, he thought, no question that any such must be limited to this extent—that you should not in any way relieve the railway bodies of the responsibility of their acts; that you should not carry it to such a point as to run any risk of an interference which, under any pretence whatever, could be thought to relieve the railway bodies of their responsibilities in carrying on their affairs. At present no public body possessed sufficient authority to protect the public against any possible inconvenience that might arise from the creation in these concerns of a greater system of monopoly—he did not use the term invidiously—or through a closer system of management becoming the law of the land. He was bound to admit that, on the whole, railway management had shown no disposition to exceed their powers, or unjustly to use them against the public; on the contrary, they carried them on in a manner which had secured the general advantage and benefit of the public; but still, without interfering with the responsibility which attached to each, he repeated that something was necessary to be done, to enable the Government to exercise a further control over the amalgamated rail- ways, in the event of the public interest rendering it necessary. He had now stated the general views of the Government with regard to the appointment of this Committee; but there was another point which he had been requested to refer to. He had been asked to add the words, "And to consider the principles which ought to guide the House in Railway Bills and Amalgamations generally," to the Resolution; and certainly, so far as he himself was concerned, he could see no objection to the introduction of such words. Before he sat down, he must take the liberty of referring to one subject in connexion with railways upon which the public mind appeared to have been very much misinformed. It referred to the subject of accidents that occurred upon railways. There had been a general misapprehension abroad of late as to the number of accidents which had taken place this year. It was supposed that they had greatly increased; but certainly that was not the case. The different railway companies, according to law, were required to make a return to the Board of Trade of all accidents where any serious injury occurred to any person. No doubt the Returns did not comprise every accident that happened, because the term "serious injury" was a somewhat indefinite phrase, and there might be injuries which one man might call serious, while another would not. It was very possible, too, that railway parties viewed a serious injury through a different medium to other people; but he had no reason whatever to think that the railway authorities had looked at the cases this year in any different light than that which had guided them in former years, and therefore as far as a comparison went, the returns this year were probably sufficiently accurate. He found then that the number of accidents during the last three years arising from causes beyond the control of the parties injured, such as the engine running off the line, were in 1850, 117; in 1851, 122; and in 1852, up to the 30th of November, 104; so that railway accidents had certainly not increased, but had rather diminished. There was at the same time a very great increase in that particular species of traffic, out of which there was strong reason to think some of these accidents arose, namely, excursion trains. In 1850 there were 334 excursion trains run, while in 1852, dating only up to the 30th September, the number rose to 671. He had thought it right to make this latter statement to the House, because, as he had before observed, considerable misapprehension and very erroneous impressions existed in the public mind on the subject. Without a further statement at that late hour, he should conclude by moving for a Select Committee, for the purposes he had endeavoured to explain to the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the principle of Amalgamation as applied to Railway, or Railway and Canal Bills, about to be brought under the consideration of Parliament, and to consider the principles which ought to guide the House in Railway Legislation.


begged to express his gratification at the observations of the right hon. Gentleman, with reference to the decrease of railway accidents, which he was sure the public would learn with great satisfaction. He was also gratified at his statement, that the Committee was not to enter on the question of interference with the management of railway boards, for he was convinced that if the Government in any way lessened the responsibilities of the directors, there would not be a likelihood of a still greater decrease of accidents. If he understood the right hon. Gentleman correctly, the Committee was to inquire into the powers of railway companies, and also to inquire how far the powers allowed had been fulfilled. He would put this case:—A company came to Parliament, and asked for powers to complete a railway; these powers it allowed to expire, and after the lapse of a considerable time left the landowners and the country totally without the line they had expected. Such companies there were in Parliament this year, asking for other powers, whilst they had not executed those already granted them. That was a case requiring consideration. But he could instance a still stronger one. A railway company obtain- ed from that House power to execute a railway of given length; after three or four years their funds became deficient; they determined to stop all further proceedings; they appointed a committee; that committee recommended them to go half way, and no further; the shareholders agreed. What, he asked, would be the disposition of Parliament with reference to such a company—a company which, having obtained powers on the supposition that it was to go the whole distance, fancied subsequently that it had a right to make merely a portion of the line? He wanted to know whether a case of that kind would come under the operation of the proposed Committee? If so, he should be satisfied; if not, he must himself press it upon the attention of the House.


said, he hoped that Parliament would not force upon companies the execution of schemes which must involve considerable loss. He trusted that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would confine his Committee to the principles which he had laid down. They were extensive enough; indeed, he thought, far too extensive. Do not let them go into the question of abandoned railways, and call upon companies to complete worthless schemes. He was rather surprised to find the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Locke) proposing what he did.


said, he was himself much interested in railways, and he begged to thank the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade for this measure, as well as for the terms in which he had spoken of that much-calumniated and rather unpopular class, the railway interest generally. These questions were of that importance that made it desirable they should be investigated and settled as soon as possible, on some sound and intelligible footing. No persons were more anxious than railway directors for this, and he did hope that an effort would now he made to remedy the evils of railway legislation, and settle it on a sounder and better basis for the future. In 1844 a Select Committee was appointed, and the subject was investigated by them with great care. The principles embodied in their report had never been impugned; but those principles were swept away in the vortex of speculation which afterwards took place, and the consequence was, that we had now in round numbers 7,000 miles of railway, which had cost us 36,000l per mile, equal to a sum of 250,000,000l. sterling. Look at the cost of railways in other countries—in France, for example—where, the price of iron and materials being higher, you might expect the cost of a railway to be greater even than in England; but it was, in fact, many thousands of pounds a mile less. He believed there was no more certain proposition than that the cost of anything, whether railway travelling, corn, or cotton, would in the long run be regulated by the prime cost of the article. If they, therefore, multiplied lines of railway where one would suffice, they incurred Be much the more expense, and in the long run the public would have to pay so much the more for the accommodation afforded. A great source of the complaints now so rife amongst the public arose from the state into which the property of the companies had been brought by legislation and other circumstances; for after so many years increasing traffic, it would be found, on looking at the share list, that the great of bulk of it was at a discount, or paying very inadequate returns for the capital invested. With regard to the accidents on railways, their number had been much overrated. Looking at the number and speed of the trains and the number of passengers they conveyed, the wonder was not that so many but that so few accidents should have taken place, and that the number should be small when compared either with what took place under the former system of travelling, or on the foreign railroads. The true interests of the public and the companies Were, he believed, identical; and if amalgamations were to be carried into effect, it must not be on the ground of advantage resulting to the railway interest, but to the public. The extravagant cost of the railways of this country sufficiently showed the vice of the system under which they had been constructed. We had, as he had previously stated, 7,000 miles of railway, which had cost at an average 36,000l. a mile, or 250,000,000l. in the whole; whereas the French lines had been constructed at an average of 25,000l. a mile, and from 15,000l. to 20,000l. for the branch lines. If we had the thing to do over again, every one acknowledged that it would be perfectly practicable to construct the railways in this country, at the same cost per mile as in France; and, even allowing 25,000l per mile, the actual cost being 36,000l it followed that there had been a useless outlay to the amount of something like 70,000,000l. of capital all wasted as completely as if it had been thrown into the sea. He doubted not that if our railways had to be made over again, the saving of cost might amount to fully this sum.


said, he was very glad that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bankes) proposed to appoint this Committee. It was quite obvious that the subject of railway amalgamation among the great companies deserved every attention. Even if it had not now been proposed to amalgamate those concerns, yet the state into which railway companies without legislative powers of regulation had come, would by this time have deserved the attention of Parliament, and the amatgamation which it was now proposed to effect gave a favourable opportunity of re-opening the whole question. He agreed entirely with what fell from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, so far as it went; but he could not help hoping that the matter would be carried a little further, and some solution attempted to the great difficulties which had heretofore attended the question of railway legislation. One great effort to solve those difficulties had been made by the Government of Sir Robert Peel in 1844 and 1845, which failed in the face of difficulties that had undoubtedly prevented its being followed up hitherto. At the same time he thought the experience of seven or eight years had produced great regret in the public that it had not been followed up. They had seen enormous evils resulting from the incapacity—he was sorry to use this term, and on no other subject would he consent to use it—or the cowardice of Parliament in dealing with the subject. Parliament had never grappled with its difficulties, and the consequences had been the loss of 70,000,000l. of capital, as stated by his hon. Friend who spoke last, the execution of the works in a less perfect style, and a great increase of public dissatisfaction. Not only this, but railway speculation in times of commercial prosperity assumed so extravagant and feverish a character that all parties ran mad with it, and it become one of the great causes of commercial derangement. He was one of those who thought no good was to be effected by the intermeddling of Government departments. The only method to which he looked with hope, as likely to yield advantageous results, and lead to a better system, was the establishment of a community of interests between the railway companies and the public. He hoped Her Majesty's Government would lay down a plan, not merely in reference to details, but embracing the whole question of railways; and he trusted some measure would be established—something like system—to guide Parliament on all future occasions.


said, he was convinced that many amalgamations, if properly carried out, would prove of great public advantage. He would suggest that some better means should be taken for procuring the aid of the railways, in providing for the mail service of the country; and he wished to Know How Bills about to be applied for in the present Session would be affected by the proposed Committee?


said, he was glad that the purview of the Committee was to be so extended as to include every description of case which implied amalgamation, such as leases and arrangements; for he was now satisfied that the inquiry would be as extensive as he could wish it. He was convinced that the system under which we were at present proceeding, was extremely injurious to all those who had invested capital in these concerns.


trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would not rest satisfied with the Report of the Committee, but that he would adopt some final legislation on the subject,


said, he considered that competition afforded no real security as regarded the conduct of railway companies, and that, if these measures of amalgamation were sanctioned, competition would become a mere dead letter. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would propose this Committee as soon as possible, and that it would meet before the recess, so as to arrange their course of proceeding, and to give such intimations as they could to guide the different railway companies


said, it would be for the Committee carefully to consider the question thrown out by the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Cowan), which he regarded as a most important one. As soon as the question of railway amalgamation should be disposed of, he should endeavour to lay down some definite rules of railway management which should prove satisfactory. He would only observe, with reference to some observations that had been made, that though under the system of this country hitherto railways had cost more money, and we had perhaps had more made than was necessary, we had yet attained to a higher speed than was generally accessible on the Continent. With reference to the Committee, he should wish it to consist as little as possible of Members connected with the railway interest,

Motion agreed to.

The House adjourned at a quarter before Two o'clock.