HC Deb 06 March 1865 vol 177 cc1124-36

, who had given notice of a Motion upon this subject said, as his name stood first upon the list, he must state in reply to the appeal of the noble Lord that nothing could give him more regret than to do anything which might appear discourteous to the noble Lord or to those who had the conduct of the public business. But he must beg to differ from the noble Lord as to the propriety of hon. Members losing their rights. The noble Lord had said that hon. Members who wished to bring forward Motions relating to other subjects had an ample opportunity of doing so. But the noble Lord was under a misconception, for since the change was made in conducting the business of the House, and Friday was assigned to private Members, they had no security for being able to bring on their Motions, In numberless instances the House had been counted out on such occasions. He should, therefore, proceed with the Motion of which he had given notice. The subject to which he was anxious to call attention was one which certainly did not possess any great political interest, and therefore, would not excite much feeling within that House. But it was one upon which great anxiety was felt throughout the length and breadth of the land. The frequent occurrence of accidents in railway travelling was a subject which excited the greatest possible interest, and the prevailing feeling of insecurity was very much on the increase. Nor could it be said that those who complained might avoid the liability to accident by refusing to travel on railways, for railways had monopolized the whole system of travelling, and had left no other means of locomotion open. Everybody was compelled to travel by railway. Most people, too, believed that the majority of railway accidents might be prevented by the adoption of very simple and easy means; and what the country complained of was that these precautions were not adopted, and that there was no power to enforce them. A Committee of this House, over which he had presided, investigated the whole subject some years ago, examining all the highest railway authorities in the kingdom, and devoting many months to the inquiry. They reported to this effect— It is therefore the opinion of the Committee that it is incumbent on the Board of Trade to apply to Parliament for such further powers as might enable them to carry out the recommendations which the Committee believed to be calculated to diminish the number of railway accidents. With one or two trifling exceptions, however, none of the recommendations of the Committee had been carried out; and though the country was always being told that something would be done, nothing, in fact, had been done. He was at present perfectly acquainted with the views of his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade upon that subject, and he thought he could give to the arguments of his right hon. Friend against the Motion the most complete answer. The first, and what he might call the "great stock-in-trade" argument of his right hon. Friend, was that they ought not to interfere in the matter, because if they did they would destroy the responsibility of railway directors. Now, that was an argument which in his (Mr. Bentinck's) opinion was entirely inapplicable in the present case. It was not possible to prove that by investing some department of the State with powers to issue certain regula- tions for the conduct of railway traffic, you would in any way diminish the responsibility of railway directors. So far from this, you would thereby add greatly to such responsibility, because in addition to the various precautions which railway Boards now took, new precautions would be enforced by the Government. Another argument was, that the heavy penalties to which railway companies were subjected in the payment of damages for accidents occurring on their respective lines were perfectly sufficient to insure the adoption of every possible precaution. No doubt these penalties were very large. But the argument that they were sufficient was entirely disposed of by the fact that in the last year they had increased in the ratio of 50 per cent. It should also be remembered that these penalties represented nothing like the money annually paid by the companies as compensations for railway accidents. What the sums paid in compromised cases really were he did not know; but he believed they were pretty nearly as large as those awarded by juries, and perhaps even were in excess of them. There was another important aspect of that question. A medical gentleman, whose attention had been directed to the subject, and whose work had been sent the other day to him (Mr. Bentinck), stated that many persons who were at first supposed to have sustained no injury from railway accidents were afterwards ascertained to have suffered from the effects of concussions even more severely than people whose cases had originally attracted considerable notice. It followed, therefore, that there were many accidents arising out of railway travelling which did not appear in any Return, that serious consequences often arose, and though, in the first instance, no damage was supposed to be done. This resulted from collision, and though no bones might be broken, very serious injury from concussions frequently ensued. He would now refer to what appeared to him a most untenable argument put forward by his right hon. Friend against any interference with railways. His right hon. Friend stated the large number of persons travelling annually by railway, and then added that out of that number only a small portion were killed. Nevertheless, if it could be shown that that percentage, however small, could be reduced by the adoption of certain precautions, it became the duty of the Government to see that those precautions were adopted. There was another class of accidents which never found its way into the Reports; namely, the accidents to the actual servants employed by the railway companies. It had been stated to him by a Member of that House, actively employed in the management of one of the greatest railway companies, that within a very short space of time nineteen of the company's servants had been killed,' and forty-five wounded in the performance of their duty on the line. These accidents arose from the termini stations having so little space and standing room that the railway servants were liable to be run over and cut to pieces. The Gentleman who made that statement to him admitted that the stations in question ought to be enlarged, but added, that as the alteration would cost £20,000, and would consequently diminish the dividends, the shareholders would complain. The director of another great line told him very much the same thing only yesterday, observing that the adoption of certain precautions would tend very greatly to diminish the number of accidents, but that it would also diminish the dividends, and then the shareholders would turn out the directors, and appoint others to replace them. It came, then, to a question of money, and a certain amount of blood was to be sacrificed for the purpose of saving railway shareholders from a certain degree of expense; and it was for the House to consider whether they ought not to compel railway companies to adopt reasonable precautions for the security of life, although these companies should thereby incur an increased expenditure. There was one point in respect to which the present state of the law was anomalous, and he might almost say absurd. Before a railway could be opened for the purpose of traffic it must be inspected and certified to be safe by an engineer from the Board of Trade; but, afterwards, when once the line was opened, all further power of interference on the part of the Board of Trade ceased. The moment their certificate was granted neither they nor any other public body could in the slightest degree interfere for the protection of the lives of travellers. That was an anomaly which he (Mr. Bentinck) proposed to remove by the first portion of his Resolution. When an accident occurred the Board of Trade had no power to institute an inquiry respecting it. Railway directors, it was true, offered no opposition to inquiries respecting accidents, but he contended that that ought not to be the condi- tion of things, and that some department of the Government should have full and ample power to institute such inquiries; and the intention of the first part of the Resolution he meant to move was to carry out that view. If a few simple precautions had been adopted there was good reason to believe that many serious accidents which had occurred might have been prevented. If that were so, and those precautions were not enforced, a very grave responsibility devolved on the House and the Government. There was not one reasonable precaution for preventing these accidents which might not be adopted by railway companies at a moderate expense, and therefore it could hardly be contended that the lives and limbs of the travelling public should continue to be sacrificed for the sole purpose of increasing the dividends of these companies. He would not go into the minute details, but what he asked for was prospective legislation; that security for inquiry, and that means of suppressing mal-practices which did not now exist. He wanted the Board of Trade, or some other department of the Government, to take means to lessen the probability of future accidents. Omission of duty on the part of railway companies or their agents, had led to accidents, and he wanted the Government to say to the railway companies, "You shall enforce certain precautions." As to the second part of the Resolution a strong responsibility rested with the Government. The question to be decided was whether the Government would allow the continuance of a state of things which caused annually a great sacrifice of human life, and many broken limbs, occasioned by the desire to increase dividends. He trusted that the House of Commons would not sanction this state of things. He was not making a charge against railway directors, who had the difficult task to perform of protecting the public on the one hand, and giving satisfaction to the shareholders on the other; but his opinion was, that a large body of the railway directors were in favour of the powers which he proposed to grant. He hoped the House would not be carried away by the arguments of his right hon. Friend or of the able men who filled the office of railway directors, but would perform the duty which they owed to almost every man, woman, and child in the kingdom by taking those steps to ensure the public safety for which they must be held responsible.


, in seconding the Amendment, thought a divided responsibility one of the worst evils that could exist in this matter. The Government would not take upon themselves any responsibility for the management of the railways, and yet they claimed the power of overriding them. A line could hardly be opened without their consent, and they sent down men to inspect railways who had never assisted in the making of a single mile—putting inexperienced men over men who were experienced. But while they assumed all that power they declined to adopt any responsibility, and the public did not know to whom they were to look. It seemed to him singular that the Board of Trade should be averse to do that by law which they at present did illegally.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the question, in order to add the words "in consequence of the frequency and of the increasing number of Accidents on Railways, and the absence of any power in the executive Government to interfere for their better prevention, it is, in the opinion of this House, desirable that power should be vested by Act of Parliament in the Board of Trade, or in some other Department of the Government, to institute an inquiry into the causes of any accidents which may occur on Railways, with powers to call for all papers and to examine witnesses on oath; and that powers should be vested in such Department to frame and issue from time to time any regulations for the conduct of the traffic on Railways which it may deem necessary for the safety and convenience of the public; and that all Companies or persons engaged in the conduct of Railway traffic shall be bound to adhere to such regulations under such penalties as may be prescribed by Act of Parliament,"—(Mr. Bentinck,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


believed, that there was nothing which railway directors had so much at heart as the prevention of accidents; and if he thought one serious accident would be prevented by that Resolution he would give it his most cordial support. Instead, however, of its doing that, he was decidedly of opinion that the first part of the Resolution was unnecessary, and that the second would be mischievous. The first part was unnecessary because the Board of Trade now had and constantly exercised the power of instituting inquiry in cases of accidents and of calling for papers. The second part, requiring the Board of Trade to frame regulations for the management of railways, would be mischievous, because it would lead to a divided responsibility, which must inevitably increase the number of accidents. The result would be that when the regulations were issued there would be a conflict of authority on the occurrence of an accident, those who were concerned in it throwing the blame upon the regulations, and the Board of Trade in turn, naturally saying that the blame rested with those who had not carried them out properly. The wisest course was to keep the full responsibility on the companies; but, speaking merely as a director, he would be extremely glad if the Board of Trade undertook the responsibility of making regulations for the prevention of accidents. He should be happy to give the hon. Member for West Norfolk an order enabling him to travel a few miles on an engine where there was a good number of crossings and junctions, and if the hon. Gentleman would only look at the working of a line in that way, and would spend a few hours in that part of a crowded station where the work was done, he would soon become convinced that to meet the ever-varying requirements of railway traffic it was absolutely necessary that those who had to manage and control that traffic should have power to alter their regulations so as to adapt them to circumstances. On these grounds, then, and remembering also that a Royal Commission would shortly issue to consider many important points connected with railway management, it was to be hoped that the House would negative that Resolution and leave responsibility where it now was, and where alone it could safely rest.


said, that as far back as 1841 the question had been before the House. It was gravely considered, and a Select Committee was appointed to ascertain whether or not it was desirable that the Government should exercise control over the railways. Mr. Labouchere, now Lord Taunton, was then at the Board of Trade, and was of opinion that that power should be vested in his department. Being himself at that time Inspector General of Railways, and the first officer appointed to that post, he was himself also then of opinion that power should be vested, as now proposed by his hon. Friend, in the Board of Trade. The proposition was, however, opposed by the Stephensons, the Brunels, and all the leading men of that day connected with railways, and after a long investigation it was the opinion of the Committee, which was composed of many of the most distinguished Members of the Legislature, such as Sir Robert Peel, Sir James Graham, Lord Granville Somerset, &c, presided over by the present Duke of Somerset, that it was very undesirable to interfere with the control of the working of the railways in any manner. Since the Committee had made its Report, the companies had shown every disposition to acquiesce in the suggestions of the Board of Trade; and looking at the immense amount of capital which was invested in railways, the vast interest which the proprietors had at stake, and the extensive experience which the managers possessed, it seemed very questionable to him whether any officers of engineers, however talented, would be able to issue regulations that would be better than those already in force. No doubt in the early days of railways the suggestions made by the Board of Trade, which were discussed very frankly with engineers and directors of companies, led to great good, and sound regulations were established by the different railway companies. But it would be much more difficult for a public department with officers constantly changing to establish sound regulations, and to take on itself the great responsibility that at present rested entirely on railway companies. Engineers were very competent to decide as to the soundness and safety of a railway, but it was a different matter to call on them to say what regulations should be adopted to prevent accidents. The Board of Trade would take on itself a great responsibility if the Government adopted this Motion. To a certain extent he agreed with his hon. Friend that there ought to be power to examine on oath and to call for papers, but when he came to the issuing of regulations for the guidance of railways he did not think they were competent to that. They had not a staff to carry it out. They would almost require an officer of engineers on every railway in the kingdom to see its daily working. For how did accidents arise? Not from want of system, or very rarely so, but from some laxity in the persons employed. The men employed were generally well calculated for the work, but sometimes they were overworked, and men were naturally less on the alert at one time than at another. Then there was the great amount of traffic. Accidents probably could not be altogether prevented, and though their number might perhaps be lessened, it must be by using greater vigilance and caution, and not by the adoption of any regulations such as the Government would be likely to issue. At any rate, he did not think the regulations of the Board of Trade would have that result, and when an accident occurred caused by adherence to the regulations of the Board the Government would appear to have undertaken an enormous responsibility. When an accident now occurred the railway company had heavy charges to meet. There was the cost of the carriages destroyed, the destruction of the road, the loss of traffic, and the compensation to the sufferers. These were equivalent to a heavy fine, and nothing more could be done than to levy a fine if the regulations issued by the Board were broken. Why take on themselves the responsibility of doing in a great degree the work of the railway companies? The railway companies were bound to consider what was sufficient for the public, and what was most economical for themselves. The prevention of accidents was, after all, the most economical system of management. He could not support the Motion of his hon. Friend.


said, his hon. Friend had not quite correctly represented the responsibility which was now undertaken by the Board of Trade in reference to railways. The Board of Trade did not sanction or make itself responsible that any railway was as perfect as it could be previous to the opening. All it did was this—to send an inspecting officer, who was to report as to the condition of the permanent way, locomotive power, and so on; and if the Board of Trade thought on that Report there was such an amount of danger to the public that the line ought not to be opened, they prevented its being opened for public traffic. If they did nothing on the Inspector's Report the line would be opened "as a matter of course. With regard to the Board of Trade undertaking to make particular regulations for the traffic on railways he thought the remarks of the hon. and gallant Officer who had just sat down ought to have weight. The hon. and gallant Officer spoke with authority, for he had experience as one of the first Inspectors General of Railways; he, therefore, knew what power a Government Department could usefully exercise with reference to the regulation of the traffic on railways. With regard to the first part of the Motion of his hon. Friend, he thought it was unnecessary that on the occasion of every accident a public inquiry should take place and evidence be taken on oath. That would render necessary the creation of an expensive and troublesome machinery without any adequate public object in view. It could not be denied that the system of inquiries at present pursued was successful so far as ascertaining the cause of every accident. The present might or might not in the opinion of some be a bad mode of procedure, but as a matter of fact, looking at the results, they found that the Inspectors arrived at what was desired—namely, the cause of the accident. Whenever an accident occurred the Board of Trade sent down skilled and disinterested persons—the Inspectors of Railways, who examined into the matter in their own way; they had a right to look at the permanent way, and at all the rolling stock of the company. They got from the railway company any information they required (such information had never been denied); they made their Report, which was sent to the railway company, thus giving them an opportunity of replying to the statements that had been made, and also of taking the precautions that might appear to be necessary in consequence of the accident and the inquiry. That Report was afterwards laid on the table and published. He could conceive no better plan than the sending of skilled and disinterested persons to make inquiries in all cases of accident, and to publish the results, so as to bring public opinion to bear on railway companies, and compel them to take what appeared to be necessary precautions. It was said that Railway Inspectors did this by order of the Board of Trade without a distinct authority from any Act of Parliament. It might be true that these Railway Inspectors were not authorized by any Act of Parliament to make the examinations which were made whenever any accident took place; but, nevertheless, he thought it was clear that Parliament had contemplated such inquiries, because it was enacted that after every accident a Report should be made to the Board of Trade. It was further enacted that the Board of Trade should have power to send Inspectors to examine into the state of any railway at any time the Board should think fit, and the two enactments together—that there should be a Report in the case of every accident, and that Inspectors should have powers to examine into the state of any railway—led to the inference that Parliament must have contemplated these in-inquiries. These inquiries were conducted from that view of the state of the law, and it was his belief that they had been pro- ductive of very great benefit, and nothing would be more unadvisable than to interfere at this time with what was now going on. Why put compulsion on the railway directors when they were found voluntarily coming forward to give the information required? His belief was, if they established the course of procedure recommended by his hon. Friend (Mr. Bentinck)—a sort of public inquest, with all the witnesses examined on oath, counsel being probably employed on one side and the other—difficulties would be thrown in the way by railway companies, who would look on such as a sort of prosecution; and after all, they might not reach what they now arrived at—the real cause of the accident which occurred. There was another reason why he thought they should not adopt the Resolution of his hon. Friend. It had been stated by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Whitby (Mr. Thompson) that there was to be a Royal Commission to inquire into the railway system of the country. The primary object of that Royal Commission undoubtedly was not to inquire into the question of providing for the public safety; but when his hon. Friend saw the terms of the Order of Reference he would find that the Commission was distinctly directed to report their opinion as to whether, by any change of the law or otherwise, it might be possible to provide more effectually for the safety of public traffic on the railways. It would, therefore, be premature, at this moment, at any rate, for the House to agree to such a Resolution as that moved by his hon. Friend, and he hoped that itself, without going further into the argument, would be a sufficient reason for him to give why the Government could not consent to this Resolution. He thought his hon. Friend had done good in having turned his attention to the subject of railway accidents, because inquiry had excited an amount of public notice which could not fail to influence to a considerable extent the action of railway directors throughout the country. He could not, however, at all concur in the idea that a Government Department could with advantage lay down any detailed regulations for the conduct of railway traffic. Whatever it could do in that direction must be very general in its character, and he hoped that his hon. Friend would under the circumstances, be satisfied with the statement which he had made, and not press his Motion to a division.


thought, that the public must feel deeply indebted to his hon. Friend for bringing this subject before the House. At the same time he (Mr. Lefroy) trusted that the explanation given by the President of the Board of Trade would remove any idea from the mind of his hon. Friend of dividing the House upon his Motion. That explanation, as regarded the appointment of a Royal Commission—by means of which he trusted that the doubt and uncertainty at present existing, as to the occurrence of Railway accidents would be removed—a Royal Commission to inquire into the whole matter was most satisfactory. Although, speaking generally, he was opposed to a divided responsibility, nevertheless, in the peculiar circumstances of the present case, he was of opinion that it was desirable that a portion of responsibility should be cast upon some Department of the Government.


observed, that one of the statements of his hon. Friend the Member for West Norfolk was almost incredible, namely, that, as he had been informed, no less than nineteen of the servants of a particular railway company had been killed and forty-five railway servants had been wounded, in consequence of the numbers of accidents which had occurred, occasioned by the failure on the part of the company to make arrangements, and afford proper accommodation at a particular junction and terminus, and that a sum of £20,000 would have been sufficient to have removed the cause of those disasters. Now, until he heard the name of the company and the place where the accidents happened, he (Mr. Hodgson) must withold his belief from the possibility of such a statement being true. He could not believe that any board of directors would run the risk of such a number of accidents for the sake of an expenditure of £20,000 to improve any station or junction. He for one should have no objection to such an alteration in the law as the hon. Member for West Norfolk suggested, provided that the Board of Trade, in issuing their regulations for the conduct of the railway traffic, would also assume the responsibility of any accidents occurring in consequence. He believed, however, that such a system, instead of preventing accidents, would tend greatly to increase their number. With regard to the preliminary investigation proposed to be made by the officers sent down by the Government in the case of accidents, it appeared to him that if power were given to the officers to administer oaths, truth would be more seldom elicted than at present under the inquiries which were made by the Board of Trade. The inquiry in such a case would assume all the features of a trial by law, and it would be the interest of all persons implicated to conceal the truth; whereas the examinations of the Board of Trade Inspectors frequently elicited facts which were readily made the ground of subsequent actions at law for damages against the companies, and at the trials the evidence both of the witnesses before the Inspectors, and of the Inspectors themselves, was available. Upon these grounds he was prepared to vote against the entire proposition of the hon. Gentleman, and he trusted that the House would never sanction the principle that a Government Department should interfere with the internal arrangements of railways, unless it was also proposed to accept the responsibility of securing the public against accidents.


said, that after the statement made by his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade (Mr, Milner Gibson) to the effect that this question would be considered by a Royal Commission which was about to issue, he would not trouble the House by dividing.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.