HC Deb 24 February 1857 vol 144 cc1266-71

rose to move for a "Select Committee to inquire into the causes of Accidents on Railways, and into the possibility of removing any such causes by further legislation." He should detain the House but a very few moments while he explained the motives which induced him to make that Motion. It would be recollected that a short time ago he put a question to the Vice President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Lowe), with a view of ascertaining whether it was the intention of the Government during the present Session to introduce any measure for the better prevention of railway accidents. He would not trouble the House with the details of the answer he received upon that occasion; but its effect was, that, in consequence of the diminution in the number of accidents within the last four or five years as proportioned to the great increase of railway travelling, the Government did not feel called upon to legislate upon the subject. Now, it appeared to him that that answer was capable of a construction which he felt sure the right hon. Gentleman never intended it should bear; for although it might be perfectly true that a very small number of accidents occurred in proportion to the enormous numbers that travelled by railways, and although it might also be perfectly true that the number of cases of accident were on the decrease, still it seemed to him that a very strong case for the interference of the Executive would be proved if it could be shown that nine out of every ten accidents might be prevented by further legislation. Giving every credit to the Gentlemen who were at the head of the great Railway Companies of the kingdom for a desire to adopt every means available for the avoidance of accidents, still every one must be aware that Railway Directors were to a certain extent under the control of shareholders, and unfortunately those gentlemen often preferred increased dividends rather than incur the extra expense necessary to diminish the risk of accidents. Having said that much, he should not trouble the House any longer, as he had reason to hope the Government did not intend to oppose the appointment of a Committee. Moved—"That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the causes of accidents on railways, and into the possibility of removing any such causes by further legislation.


did not think it possible for human invention to devise any means by which the watchfulness now exercised by Railway Directors for the prevention of accidents could be augmented. He thought the answer given by the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade on a former occasion to the hon. Member, fully demonstrated the extraordinary security now enjoyed by railway travellers. He very much doubted the policy of appointing such a Committee.


said, that, as a matter of opinion, he regretted it was not in his power to agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite as to the peculiar security of railway travelling. He thought there were other places somewhat safer than a railway carriage; and he, therefore, could not but feel regret that Government had not interfered more than hitherto had been done with railways. It should be remembered that the railway interest was the greatest monopoly in the country; the companies were the sole carriers of goods and passenger traffic, and they had exercised the great power which their wealth had given them, not for the accommodation of the public, but for the profit wholly and entirely of the shareholders. In his opinion, Government ought years ago to have stepped in, and had they done so the country would have been saved the great national nuisance of the "break of gauge." Upon that point he might mention that it was much easier sometimes to travel round by London than to go across the country a much shorter distance. He certainly thought that before a Committee some means might be devised for lessening the number of accidents which occurred on railways; and if, in the course of evidence taken, any suggestion should appear by which railways companies should be made to accommodate the public more than they did at present in the matter of running trains to correspond with arrivals and departures on adjoining lines, he thought the country at large would be greatly benefited; and although he had no great knowledge on railway matters, not possessing a single share in any line, he might be allowed to say that an amicable understanding between companies would be productive of greater benefit to themselves than the battle of the gauges which Parliament was obliged to witness Session after Session.


said, he was of opinion that the statistical facts quoted the other day by the Vice President of the Board of Trade were of more consequence than the theories of the hon. Gentleman. He believed that railway travelling was accompanied with less risks than any other kind of travelling, not even excepting travelling on foot. It should be remembered that no persons were more interested in preventing railway accidents than railway directors, and he felt sure that if the hon. Gentleman who brought forward this Motion had any suggestion to make, it would be readily entertained by railway companies; but he objected to the appointment of a Committee to do that which was purely within the province of the directors.


hoped that the Committee would be agreed to. At the same time he must observe that there was an idea very generally prevalent that companies were indifferent to the lives of passengers; that idea, according to his experience, was very ill founded. Unlike the Gentleman who sat below him (Mr. Palk), he did not believe that railway directors merely looked to the amount of dividends; he knew well that they had regard, above all other considerations, for the lives and safety of those entrusted to them, and the result of a Committee's deliberations must bring that to light. Now, if the Committee were not granted, the effect would be that, supposing an accident to occur which was attended with lamentable loss of life, it might be fairly urged that, had the Committee got the system adopted upon some particular line, it would have been brought into general use, and thus the accident in question might have been avoided. It would also be found that, although parsimony was the rule in some instances, liberality was the rule in others; and he believed that it would be made fully clear that commercial parsimony was a false economy. As one who had taken a considerable interest in the management of railway matters, but as no longer connected with any railway, he could not avoid making these few observations upon the subject now before the House.


said, the Government had no objection whatever to the appointment of this Committee, and he hoped that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bentinck) would be able to devise some plan whereby railway travelling might be made safer. He, however, should not deal candidly with the House if he refrained from saying that the interference of any department of the Government in matters of this sort would not be attended with the good results which the hon. Gentleman anticipated. He believed that Lord Campbell's Act had been of great service to the country, because it made the interests of railway proprietors, and of those who travelled upon their lines, identical. He thought that railways were at present managed in a comparatively satisfactory manner, but he should be glad, indeed, if the hon. Gentleman should succeed in devising any plan for the more effectual prevention of the evils of which he had complained.


thought the great source of accidents was the non-adoption of the American plan of allowing a communication between the passengers and the engine-driver. A brother of his was once in a carriage on the Great Northern line, which got off the rails, and was dragged along in that way for four miles, before the attention of the driver could be attracted to the circumstance.


said, that, owing to the recommendations of a former Committee, a cord had been made to run along the bottoms to the carriages of the Great Northern Railway, but it would be more than a passenger's life was worth to attempt to make use of it in case of an alarm of accident—it only admitted of guards using it as a means of communication. He thought that the Committee might be of great advantage if it confined itself to listening to the suggestions of practical engineers, carefully avoiding to enter into the question as to the means by which Government could compel the prevention of these accidents.


cordially supported the Committee, but observed that it was the House itself that interfered formerly to prevent many wholesome restrictions upon companies from being carried out—restrictions devised when the Marquess of Dalhousie was at the head of the Board of Trade.


believed that railway directors were anxious to do everything in their power to add to the safety and comfort of their passengers, and that they would be glad to receive any suggestions with that object. Every feasible plan for preventing accidents had been tried on the North-western lines.


thought it would be desirable that the Committee should extend its inquiries to ascertain how far railway companies had in certain instances been guilty of a breach of faith with the public in not carrying out the powers conferred on them by Act of Parliament? At present the railway department of the Board of Trade was a perfect farce in respect of its power of enforcing on railway companies that which common justice and in many cases common decency required. When the railway from Reigate to Reading was proposed, eleven years ago, a promise was given that a junction should be formed with the South-western line. That pledge had, however, never been redeemed, and the Board of Trade was quite powerless to compel its fulfilment.


said, he did not anticipate much good from the labours of the Committee. It was not in the nature of things that they could travel at the pace of express trains with perfect security; and if the public insisted on extreme speed, it must pay the penalty by incurring some risk. The companies were sometimes rather hardly dealt with under Lord Campbell's Act, which inflicted very heavy penalties on them for accidents due in some measure to the public taste for too rapid travelling.


thought that if the Committee gave satisfaction to the public mind it would do no harm, and might be of some good. Trains were often despatched in such quick succession that the public must trust for its safety, not so much to any communication between the passengers and the guard, as to the enforcement of sound discipline among their servants on the part of the railway companies; and any attempt to enforce precautions, under such circumstances, must prove fallacious.


thought that no great benefit would result from the labours of the Committee. He hoped, at all events, however, that gentlemen acquainted with railway matters would be nominated on it.


said, he believed it was to the want of punctuality in the starting and arrival of trains that accidents were mainly attributed in this country. On the Continent, much greater punctuality was observed, and he hoped the Committee would not overlook that consideration.


said, that when introducing the Motion, he had not deemed it necessary to strengthen his case by lengthened arguments because he was aware that the Government did not intend to offer him any opposition. The great majority of railway accidents arose from two causes—firstly, the irregular arrivals of trains; secondly, the starting of too many trains in the day. These were causes not beyond the control of the Directors, and therefore he thought a Committee might fairly consider how, by further legislation, they could devise means to diminish the number of railway accidents occurring in this country.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointed, "To inquire into the causes of Accidents on Railways, and into the possibility of removing any such causes by further legislation."