HC Deb 04 July 1865 vol 180 cc1165-73

in calling the attention of the President of the Board of Trade to the verdict of the jury at the inquest on the bodies of Thomas Sweter, George Kent, and William Anderton, and to move for Papers relating thereto, said he could not admit the proposition laid down by the right hon. Gentleman, that it was very unwise for the Legislature to interfere with the management of railways, and that it was very much better to leave the public to the remedy which the Jaw put into their hands. The right hon. Gentleman was of opinion that the heavy damages which the railways would have to pay would be sufficient to protect the public. In that proposition he could not agree. On the contrary, that remedy would only add to the disease, for the constant imposition of heavy penalties might render the company less able to support such a number of servants and to maintain such care as might be required to prevent those accidents. In the case to which he now called attention he had the report of Captain Tyler, who stated that the accident happened chiefly from one of the engines being unfit to draw a train at the speed at which it was then going. He quite agreed with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be extremely unwise and injudicious for Government to interfere in the general ordering and management of railways; but he thought the Government was bound to lay down certain rules and regulations for the safety of human life; and he could prove that such had always been the opinion of Parliament, because, for the special purposes of railways and with a view to the public safety, a Railway Department had been created in the Board of Trade. What was the use of this department if it did not make full and searching inquiry into the causes of such accidents as he was then bringing under the notice of the House? In 1864 the public feeling was so much roused in consequence of the numerous accidents which took place that a pressure was put on the Board of Trade, and they addressed a circular to the railway companies, in which they suggested various means for promoting the public safety; and, among others, that communication should be established between the passengers and the guards. A shocking death which took place had particularly stirred the public mind. A long correspondence took place between the Chairman of the Railway Clearing House and the Secretary to the Board of Trade; and, as was generally the case when a body was asked to reform itself, the railways found it impossible to carry out any of the recommendations of the Board of Trade. With regard to signals, it was worthy of consideration whether drivers and others should not undergo examination before appointment, in order to ascertain whether they suffered from colour-blindness, and whether they could distinguish between green and red. According to the right hon. Gentleman everything was to be left to the railway companies, and the Board of Trade were not to see that common precautions were taken to insure public safety. Now, when a railway paid small dividends the notorious practice was to reduce the staff with a view to economy; and he had received a letter, the writer of which said that he believed pointsmen were often eighteen hours on duty, and frequently longer. This, if true, was worthy of attention by the Board of Trade, for the lives of all who travelled by railway must be risked if they were at the mercy of men who were kept at work this length of time without rest. The frequent accidents which had taken place lately on the Great Western Railway pointed to the necessity of inquiry, which the Board of Trade ought to institute in all these cases; and if the Board of Trade had not sufficient power to interfere for the protection of the public, the right hon. Gentleman ought to call upon Parliament to give it this power. At present the railway interest, valuable as it was to the country, was a vast monopoly; and as to the influence of public opinion upon them, railway directors were quite beyond public opinion, and did not care a fig for The Times and the whole press of the country. When so many accidents had recently happened on one line which paid smaller dividends, and on which the officials were fewer and the men more overworked, than on any other railway of equal importance in the kingdom, it was time for the Board of Trade to interfere in the interest, not only of rich men, but of working men, whose lives were of the highest value to their families.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That there be laid before this House, Copy of any Papers relating to the inquest on the bodies of Thomas Sweter, George Kent, and William Anderton."—(Sir Lawrence Palk.)


said, this was a subject of great importance, but it had been treated with indifference by the House. The right hon. Gentleman, notwithstanding his humane disposition, had given extremely unsatisfactory answers, both in matter and manner, when questioned on the subject. The right hon. Gentleman generally rose with a happy smile on his countenance, and addressed himself to the subject as to which he was about to speak with a levity, which he was ready to admit was not real but apparent; therefore, if the right hon. Gentleman really deplored these disasters, and desired to prevent them, he had good ground of action against his countenance, and might recover heavy damages against it. The other day a fatal accident occurred to the tidal train from Folkestone through the maladministration of the line. The causes of these accidents were patent, and it required nothing but common care to prevent them. The railway companies were not in the position of ordinary companies, for they constituted monopolies; and yet when accidents occurred the representatives of the Board of Trade in Parliament seemed to do nothing in the matter. A few days back a question arose about locking the doors of railway carriages in consequence of an accident occurring. A railway carriage being upset, the locked door happened to be placed uppermost, the unlocked door placed against the ground. What was the use of that door being unlocked? In old times when people travelled by coaches, post-chaises, and diligences, they never heard of such things as locked doors. It happened on one occasion that a passenger fortunately had a railway-carriage key—an article which was now advertised for sale in the shops of London; but he should like to know whether it was legal to lock the passengers in the railway carriages.


said, it seemed to him most unjust to attack the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. He had served with the right hon. Gentleman on a Committee, and he must say that he could not imagine any more anxious and indefatigable public servant with respect to the duties intrusted to him. He believed that the true remedy for the evils adverted to consisted in the investigations instituted by the Board of Trade with respect to accidents, and in the establishment of rules, the best which ingenuity could devise, for the safety of the public. If those rules generally approved should be disregarded, of course the penalties imposed on railway companies in the event of accidents would be commensurately heavy. However, the best remedy was competition; but during the present Session nearly £2,000,000 of capital had left this country and gone elsewhere in consequence of ordinary facilities and ordinary fairness not being extended to schemes for making new competing railway lines. With regard to the Great Western Railway, to which the hon. Member had applied strong observations, he could only say that it always appeared to him that that line was exceedingly well managed, that the officers were sufficient in number, and efficient for the duties intrusted to them, and that accidents were not more frequent on that line than on our other railways.


believed that the very serious loss of life which had arisen from recent railway accidents might be traced to the want of three or four precautions, the observance of which should be made imperative on the companies. One great cause of these accidents proving so fatal was the insufficiency of the amount of break power employed, and he asked whether it would not be easy to enact that every train should have an amount of break power commensurate with its weight and length? Again, the officials engaged on railways were frequently overworked; and surely it might be enacted that they should not be employed more than a cetain number of hours out of the twenty-four. Another cause of the deplorable loss of life attending these catastrophes was that the rolling stock was not in an efficient and proper condition. He was led to believe that there was no inspection of rolling stock made by the Government before it was put in use. Another precaution which it was said would tend to prevent these casualties from being so fatal was that every train should have attached to each extremity three or four empty vans to break the shock in case of a collision occurring. He wished, therefore, to put it to the President of the Board of Trade whether they might not legislate on the points which he had just indicated?


said, it was not to be wondered at that the accidents which had recently occurred on railways should have produced a good deal of uneasiness in the public mind, or that they should have been taken notice of in that House. But when the hon. Member for Devizes charged him with indifference to that subject and with treating it with levity—[Mr. DARBY GRIFFITH: Only apparent levity]—he was very sorry, because his manner must be very misleading if it induced any hon. Member to suppose that he felt indifferent to such dreadful casualties as had lately taken place. He could assure his hon. Friend, if he had the opinion he had expressed, that he was labouring under an entire misapprehension. He, for one, had never laid down or accepted any rule or abstract principle that Parliament was not to interfere on behalf of the public safety; but everybody must feel that it was very difficult to say how far Parliament ought to go, or could go, with advantage to the public, in the direction of interference with the management of railway travelling. Parliament had vested certain powers in the Board of Trade, and beyond these powers of course the Department could not go. Previous to the opening of any railway they were authorized to send an Inspector who should examine into the state of the rolling stock—which was not omitted from his review, as the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Percy Wyndham) seemed to suppose; also into the condition of the permanent way; into the sufficiency of the establishment, and into the state of the telegraphs and signals and such matters; and the Inspectors was to make a Report to the Board of Trade as to whether the condition of the line was such as to justify its being opened, having regard to the safety of the public. If the Board thought that the Report of the Inspector on the whole showed an amount of danger that justified them in preventing the line from being opened, they postponed the opening for a month, and made representations to the directors as to the grounds upon which the line had been reported dangerous; and it was generally the case that before the line was opened the source of danger which had been pointed out was removed, or undoubtedly it was the duty of the Board of Trade, if the case were sufficiently strong, to continue the postponement of the opening until a remedy had been provided. Well, after the line had been opened, all they could do was to send an Inspector from time to time—"when they thought fit," were the words of the Act—to examine into the state of the permanent way, the rolling stock, and so forth. If any person made a representation—a fair representation—to them of having observed an existing cause of danger, they communicated with the company which was concerned, and they generally found—not always, but for the most part—that attention was paid to their recommendations, and they were very often followed by a remedy for the danger. In the case of the late appalling railway accidents at Rednal and Staplehurst, what could they have done more? They sent down a skilled and disinterested gentleman who inquired into all the circumstances connected with the catastrophe, and ascertained its causes. In that way, they believed that by representing to the company what had been the cause of the accident, and that if they neglected to find a remedy for the future they rendered themselves not only liable to severe penalties in a court of law, but liable also undoubtedly to the further interference of Parliament, the Department did all that was in its power. The accident to which the hon. Baronet had alluded had really arisen principally from a cause which could hardly have been foreseen. He believed it had occurred mainly—judging from Captain Tyler's Report—from the fact of a signal flag being green and being exhibited against a green background, so that the driver of the first engine did not see it. That flag was exhibited 1,100 yards before the commencement of the defective part of the permanent way, so that there was ample distance to have stopped the excursion train before it arrived on the part of the permanent way that was dangerous. But, unfortunately, the driver of the first engine passed the green flag without observing it. There were two engines to the train, and the driver of the second engine did observe it; but he had no means of communicating with the other driver. [Sir LAWRENCE PALK: Were there no means of communications between the two engine drivers?] He believed not—although the first engine-driver said he did not know why the other engine-driver did not call his attention to the signal. When the train arrived on that part of the permanent way which was under repair, the first engine went with two of its wheels off along the line for a distance of 600 yards, and there was not sufficient break power to stop it. There were, he believed, thirty-two carriages full of excursionists, and instead of holding the engine back, the carriages, in fact, acted upon it only as a propelling power. The whole train was on an incline, and therefore without a considerable break power the excursion carriages would operate to propel rather than to hold back the train. But be that as it might, he was afraid there were no regulations which Parliament or the Government could make that would secure the public entirely against such accidents. The fact was, they might make the very best regulations; but there was the important matter of compelling the observance of those regulations. And where they had so great a number of persons as it must be necessary to employ on the railway system of this country, it was not to be expected that occasionally some one servant might not fail in his duty. Those recent accidents had arisen, not entirely, but he thought to a considerable extent, rather from neglect in observing the regulations than from the absence of good regulations. However, the subject was occupying a great deal of public attention. He, for one, should be quite ready to consider any means which could be devised to allay the sense of uneasiness that appeared to prevail, which could with public advantage be proposed either to that House or to the railway companies; but, as at present advised, he certainly did not feel that that department was in a condition to come to Parliament, and ask for powers to make regulations in detail for the management of railways, and to take upon itself the responsibility for the public safety which now rested upon the companies. He had no fault to find with those who stirred up the subject in Parliament. On the contrary, he thought the bringing of it forward might be useful, because the matter was one which, he might say, caused great alarm to all minds, especially when they found that even upon a line like the South Eastern, the management of which was believed to be of the first class, they had such an awful accident as that which occurred at Staplehurst. With regard to the question put to him by the hon. Member for Devizes, as to the locking of railway carriages, if the hon. Gentleman desired to have exact information as to the law on that point, he must refer him to some better authority than he could pretend to be; but he might say he believed that there was no law to prevent his hon. Friend from using his railway key in the case he had supposed.


said, he thought that the suggestion of the hon. Member near him (Mr. Percy Wyndham), that there should be attached to each train a breakage power proportioned to the length and weight, was well deserving of consideration; but to that the right hon. Gentleman had given no answer. Proper attention ought to be given to secure the proportionate amount of break power that ought to be applied. Care ought to be taken, before trains were despatched, that the public safety should be assured. He did not know whether any definite rule could be laid down; but he hoped that during the recess the Government would consider the subject with a view to legislation. As it was, in cases of neglect the unfortunate shareholders were those who bore the punishment, but he should be glad to see those who were guilty of neglect made penally responsible.


said, that one great cause of railway accidents was the want of punctuality, which put the public to very great inconvenience. Some railways were habitually unpunctual, and he would suggest that the Board of Trade should enforce punctuality. He would propose that every railway company should make a monthly return of the time that each train was behind its time; and, if necessary, the railway companies should be compelled to alter their time tables so that they might make the journeys within the specified times. It was the "hurry-scurry" which ensued in the endeavour to make up for lost time which occasioned many railway accidents. He remembered a case in which he was proceeding to Oxford, and when he arrived at the junction station he found that the train in correspondence had started. He insisted on a special train being sent on, and when it became known who he was this was done. Otherwise many persons—mostly poor people—would have been put to great inconvenience and some expense, as some of them were on their way to South Wales. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would take measures to enforce the observance of time by the railway companies.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at Six o'clock.