HC Deb 01 August 1867 vol 189 cc606-29

rose to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Whether Her Majesty's Government intended to propose any measure for the consolidation of the Irish railway system? His noble Friend knew well that upon the necessity for such a measure hon. Members from all parts of Ireland were agreed. He might also say, for fear that hon. Members representing other parts of the United Kingdom should be alarmed, that the scheme he desired to press upon the Government would not involve the expenditure of a single half-penny on the part of the taxpayers of the United Kingdom. From the Report of the Board of Trade for 1865 it appeared that 1,838 miles of Irish railways now open were divided amongst thirty-five separate companies, each having its separate Board of Directors, and its separate secretary and general staff, their aggregate income being £1,700,000; while that of the English North-Western Railway Company, which was under one management, alone amounted to upwards of £6,000,000. Therefore, in Ireland, they had thirty-five separate boards to manage a concern which was not one-third as great financially as a system in England managed by one Board of Directors. The results of the divided management in Ireland were obvious. Mr. Cawkwell, of the London and North Western Railway, said, if the Irish railways were amalgamated, the result would be that the rates would be reduced, trade developed, and larger returns obtained. The rates charged on the Irish railways were as high, and frequently higher than those on the English lines, and very much higher than those on the Continental lines of railway. If they compared the rates of the Great Southern and Western Company, the best managed line in Ireland, with those of the Caledonian Company and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Company, they would find for travelling 100 miles first-class in Ireland 18s. 4d. was charged on the Great Southern and Western line, while on the Caledonian line the fare was only 10s. 2d., and on the Lancashire and Yorkshire 11s. The rates of the other classes showed the same difference. Taking the foreign railways, which were managed upon a system which they desired to see adopted in Ireland, they would find the difference far greater. From Brussels to Ostend, a distance of ninety miles, the first-class fare by express was only 4s. 4d., second-class 3s. 2d., and third-class 2s. 4d. The difference in the case of goods traffic was still more remarkable. In the article of coal the price of its conveyance was in many instances more than double that on the English lines. Captain Huish, who was for eighteen years manager of the London and North Western Railway, stated the result of this system in a few words—namely, that as regarded the Irish railways, the rates were very high, the speed was very low, the trains were very few, while the remuneration to the shareholders was very small. This was a tolerably fair account of the working of the Irish railway system. Hon. Gentlemen could not be surprised that throughout Ireland there existed a general and earnest desire that this system so unsatisfactory, both as to its working and its financial results, should be changed. This feeling was intensified by the knowledge of the fact that this was not the system originally intended for Ireland. The Irish Railway Commission in 1838 reported in favour of a system of Governmental management and central control. Mr. Drummond prophecied, in the absence of some such system, precisely those results which they now witnessed. Many of the greatest landed proprietors in Ireland were prepared to give their land without compensation if the system recommended by the Commission were adopted. The measures necessary to carry it out were submitted to Parliament by the late Lord Carlisle. Parliament refused to sanction them. Could it be wondered at then that great dissatisfaction prevailed in Ireland at the condition of the railway system? He had ventured in 1865 to give expression to that dissatisfaction, when the right hon. Member for South Lancashire referred the matter to the Royal Commission which was then sitting to hear evidence on the subject of the railways of the United Kingdom. There was great dismay among the Irish people, who were interested in the matter, when the Report of that Commission was published, which, ignoring altogether the evidence that had been laid before them, advocated the maintenance of the present system. Nor was the astonishment of the Irish people lessened by the reasons which the Commissioners gave in their Report for coming to that determination. Their first reason for not interfering with the existing Irish railway system was that it was of more importance to encourage private enterprize and self-reliance in Ireland than it was to do so in Great Britain. They taunted the people of Ireland with a want of private enterprize and self-reliance in this particular matter; but when it was considered that in Ireland there had been a greater number of railways made, which had afterwards turned out unremunerative, than in any other part of the kingdom, that taunt would be appreciated at its value. The next statement of the Commissioners was that the admitted failure of the Irish railway system was owing to the want of commercial activity and mineral productions in the country, and that in countries where commercial activity and mineral productions did not exist it was utterly impossible that railways should prosper. But the evidence taken before the Royal Commissioners showed that that was not the case in foreign countries and particularly in some parts of Prussia, where, with quite as little manufactures as there are in Ireland, the railways were prosperous. They also stated that cheap fares would be of little importance in Ireland because the mileage to be travelled was so small; but they appeared to forget that the produce of the country travelled eastward for England, and not to the nearest seaport; and, consequently, a larger extent was travelled over in Ireland in proportion to its size than in England. Another statement which took the people of Ireland with surprise was that no particular object would be gained by reducing the cost of the transit of coal, because there was so much bog in the country that the people usually burnt turf; but, in reality, there were large portions of Ireland where there were no bogs at all. Besides, the difficulty of transporting turf was very considerable, on account of its great bulk, and experience had shown that coal at no great distance from a bog would be cheaper than turf if English coal rates were introduced into Ireland. It was further said that if the railways were subsidized the canals must be subsidized also. Now, no one ever desired that the railways should be subsidized, but it was a remarkable circumstance that the canals were subsidized already, and that one of them was absolutely in the hands and under the management and control of the Government. The House would not be surprised to learn that these reasons weighed very little with the Irish people. In consequence of the prevalent feeling, a meeting was held of Gentlemen connected with Ireland belonging to both Houses of Parliament to consider the evidence taken by the Royal Commissioners and their Report. The suggestion that the Government should advance money to the railways in order to relieve them from their liabilities was considered. That, however, was regarded as an inadmissible proposition—its adoption, though it might benefit shareholders, would be of no advantage to the public. Another suggestion that voluntary arrangements for promoting the amalgamation of the Irish railways should be facilitated was likewise rejected, and the meeting eventually came to the conclusion—he believed unanimously—that the only means of putting the railways on a sound basis was their purchase by the Government. They had then to ascertain for what sum the railway's could be purchased, and in so doing they considered, of course not what the railways originally cost, but what they were now worth; the liabilities of the railways were not taken into account. That was a question as to the distribution of purchase money and in no way affected the value. The conclusion arrived at that the market value of the railways was somewhere about £19,525,083, calculating the ordinary shares at twenty years' purchase, the preference shares at twenty-two and a half years' purchase, and the debenture loans at their market value, and adding 10 per cent to the two first on account of the sale being compulsory. These figures had been verified by the officers of the Board of Trade, and the only point which was open to controversy was the sum to be paid for those railways which at present paid no dividend. He was informed that experienced persons could estimate their value, as easily as the value of land or houses could be estimated. The original shares of the non-paying railways amount to £2,534,946, and the non-paying preference shares to £1,231,108. The contingent value of such shares, dependent as it is upon the future prospects of the railways, must, of course, vary much according to the circumstances of each railway; but the best calculations lead to the conclusion that an amount which would average 20 per cent on the original, and 30 per cent on the preference shares, distributed according to the circumstances and probable prospects of each railway, would be a sufficient payment. Now, the yearly interest on £19,525,083 at 3¼ per cent would be £634,560, whereas the annual net profits of the railways at the present time amounted to £900,500, so that there would be about £260,000 a year, which might be applied to reducing the fares and giving increased railway accommodation. Several persons, and among them the late Mr. Dargan, stated before the Commissioners that a saving of from £100,000 to £120,000 a year would be effected if the various railways were consolidated. The Commissioners inquired what were the real working expenses of the Irish railways at present, and found that they were on an average from 75 to 37 per cent; the Drogheda and Dublin was 40, and the Great Southern and Western was 43½. They thereupon took 42½ per cent, the mean between these two, and concluded that the Irish railways generally might be worked at that figure; and on pursuing the inquiry, they found the reduction would result in a saving of about £80,000, which, with the £260,000 already spoken of, would make a saving of £340,000, and with this the Government might commence to carry out any scheme they might determine upon for the reduction of the fares on the Irish railways, and the increasing the opportunities of using them. The next question was as to how the Government, alter they had completed the purchase of the railways, should work them. The Belgian Government railways had been managed so satisfactorily that in 1885 it was probable that the whole of the capital would be re-paid, and that the State would be able to apply any revenue derived from them to the reduction of taxation. Nevertheless, we were aware that beside other objections a strong feeling prevailed in this country against any system of Government management; we therefore turned our attention to the view most able witnesses examined before the Royal Commission, among whom was Mr. Bidder, and came to the conclusion that it would be best to lease out the lines in accordance with the plan proposed by the late Lord Canning with regard to the Post Office contracts — namely, that the rent should be the interest of the debt contracted for the purchase, and that the company offering the largest reduction on rates and charges, and giving the greatest accommodation to the public, should be accepted as lessee; but persons of great authority said it would be impossible to induce companies to form themselves for the purpose of competing for the Irish railway system unless a lease of some length—say, from twenty to twenty-five years—were offered. To let a lease for so long was, of course, out of the question until whatever scheme was decided on had been tried; it was therefore decided that the best plan would be to work the system by a Commission appointed by both Houses of Parliament for a short time, and when the system was consolidated, and so brought into economical working order, no doubt there would be ample competition. The next question was the finishing and making of new lines. In our opinion, the Government ought to have nothing to do with either the one or the other. To do anything of the kind would lead to endless jobs; but the Government should have, as Mr. Drummond proposed it should have under his scheme, an absolute veto upon the construction of new lines. In cases where new lines were constructed, the representatives of the Government should be obliged to work them, provided those lines paid their working expenses, and, if there were any profits realized, those profits should be distributed in the way in which it was customary to do so under arrangement between different railway companies. Such were the principal recommendations made to the Crown, and nothing could have been fairer than the way in which the Government received them. It was, of course, impossible for the Government to take any decided steps in the matter without appointing a Commission to ascertain the condition and the exact value of the railways; he believed his noble Friend (Lord Naas) had stated that such a conclusion had been come to by the Government; his noble Friend felt as strongly as he how vitally important this matter was to Ireland. [Lord NAAS: Hear, hear!] It touched every class in the community. In the hope that his noble Friend would be able to give some satisfactory answer to him, he asked the Question of which he had given Notice as to whether the Government intended to propose any measure for the consolidation of the Irish railway system?


said, his right hon. Friend had not in the least exaggerated the great importance of this question to Ireland. There was, in fact, no question upon which all parties in that country were more thoroughly agreed than that something ought to be done with regard to the state of Irish railways, with a view to their being placed in a more satisfactory condition than at present; and he quite agreed with all his right hon. Friend had stated with regard to the great evils which had arisen on account of the want of consolidation of these railways; he would say also that the thanks of the country were due to his right hon. Friend for the trouble he had taken in the matter from the time when it was first mooted. The whole capital of the railways of Ireland was originally something like £27,000,000, but that was comparatively a small sum compared with that of England. Small, however, as that sum was, it was distributed over a number of lines, which were worked by separate Boards of Directors, and the consequence was that little or no attention was paid to the convenience of the public as to the mode in which they dealt with the traffic. That was always the case where there were many Boards of Directors, because whether or not they had separate interests, they always imagined they had, and looked with jealousy towards others, whether they were injurious to them or not. The first thing that strikes every one in considering this subject was the different managements and varieties of interest. They had, in dealing with this subject, to consider whether the anticipations that had been raised as to the advantages that must immediately occur from centralization would be altogether realized, or would lead to an immediate and extensive reduction of fares. A considerable reduction might, of course, be made; but it would be found impossible to realize the extravagant expectation which prevailed of a reduction of 30 or 35 per cent. Any alteration in the Irish railway system must be gradual to be effective; the reduction of fares must be a tentative process, because nothing would defeat the end in view so successfully as an endeavour to carry on the traffic at a loss on the working expenses. The subject must be dealt with in a business-like manner, and that, he believed, was in accordance with the views of his right hon. Friend. He was sure the House would not expect him to follow his right hon. Friend through all the details of his plan. That plan had been fairly considered; but with regard to the action of the Government, he was sure the House would be of opinion that it would be perfectly impossible for them, at the present late period of the Session, to invite Parliament to take into consideration a subject of such great importance. Indeed, if the House were now at the commencement of the Session, according to even the right hon. Gentleman himself, it would be impossible for the Government to propose a distinct scheme to Parliament without having more information on which to proceed than they now possessed. Before any steps were taken in the matter it would, he thought, be necessary that the Government should adopt some effective means to inquire into the accuracy of the statements which had been made in regard, not only to the financial position, the revenues, and the working expenses of the Irish railways, but also as to the position of the rolling stock and all the property belonging to the various lines. It was of the utmost consequence that a rigid inquiry should be instituted for the purpose of obtaining that information. He found that by the 5th section of the Act of 1844 it was provided that all railways should after a specified period make certain Returns as to their position and publish the accounts of their receipts and expenditure. Seventeen lines, extending over 952 miles in Ireland, were now liable to that provision; sixty-four miles of railway were not liable to it inasmuch as they were finished before the Act was passed, and there were 775 miles not liable as yet in consequence of the eighteen years prescribed by the Act not having expired since they were constructed. It was, under these circumstances, the intention of the Government to appoint, through the medium of the Treasury, in conformity with the provisions of the Act of 1844, certain competent persons to make the inquiries indicated by the 5th section. The Government also proposed, inasmuch as there was so large a proportion of the Irish lines at present outside the provisions of the Act, to lay before Parliament a short Bill which would enable the Commissioners appointed by the Treasury to exercise precisely the same powers in their case as the Act provided in the case of others. He intended to ask leave to-morrow to introduce this Bill. It would be a very short one; but he thought it would confer all the powers necessary in order to make the inquiry which he indicated. It would contain, perhaps, one additional power—namely, the power to summon all the witnesses before them whom they might deem it expedient to summon, and to examine them if they should think fit. Those Commissioners would, therefore, be empowered to examine into all financial matters connected with the railways in Ireland. There was, he might add, another Act which enabled the Board of Trade to inspect the works of a line. The provisions of that Act it was also proposed to extend to the present inquiry, so that the Commissioners would be enabled to investigate a very important branch of the subject, the exact state of the lines themselves, and to form a judgment as to the sums which it would be necessary to expend for the purpose of placing them in complete working order. If Parliament should see fit to agree to this proposal of the Government, he thought that by the commencement of next Session he should be in a position to lay before the House an accurate and full account of all the Irish railways, the exact value of the property and state of the lines, and, if Parliament should wish to take up the question either of purchasing or leasing them, the precise sum of money which would be required to carry out that object. The Government would, as far as possible, endeavour to engage in the inquiry the assistance of the ablest and most experienced men whom they could procure. It was an inquiry which was, in his opinion, absolutely necessary as a preliminary step, and he hoped the House would not think he was called upon to say anything further beyond the statement that the subject continued to engage the most anxious consideration of the Government. He could assure the House, both for himself and his Colleagues, that they were fully sensible of its enormous importance, and that they were desirous, as soon as they possessed the requisite information, to deal with it efficiently.


said, the plan which had been sketched in the House was one which met the approval of every class in Ireland. He was prepared to offer statistics to the House, if necessary, to confirm the views of the right hon. Member for Limerick; but after the statement of the noble Lord the Secretary for Ireland, he would only congratulate the Government on the step which they were about to take, and which he thought was a liberal instalment of that policy he expected from the present administration.


said, he had no objection to the introduction of the Bill to which the noble Lord had alluded; but must urge on the Government the necessity of great caution before pledging themselves to the purchase of Irish railways. There were English railways in distress as well as Irish, and it was but fitting that the one should be left to take the same means as the other to get over their difficulties.


, as one of the Members of the Royal Commission, protested against the course which the right hon. Gentleman had taken upon himself, in attacking that Commission.


denied that he had made any attack on the Commission.


said, the right hon. Member had attacked the Report of the Commission in a most unwarrantable manner. The right hon. Gentleman ought to have had the common courtesy to have intimated to the Members that he intended to bring their Report under the consideration of the House; and when this was done in accordance with the usages of the House, he (Mr. Horsfall) would be fully prepared to defend that Report. The Royal Commission sat for nearly two years; but the right hon. Gentleman, although he attended the investigation for a portion only of two days, succeeded in getting his Report adopted as the Report of the dissentient portion of the Committee. He hoped the day was very far off when the Government should take charge of Irish railways. When they did so, they would confer on Ireland, not a boon, but the very reverse.


, although one of the Commissioners, did not rise to defend either them or their Report. He had no notice that the Report was to be attacked; and he would leave the defence in abler hands. Although he signed the Report, stating the opinion of the Commission was that the purchase of the Irish railways by the Government would be objectionable, he would be really glad if any scheme could be framed that would be beneficial to the people of Ireland; but he was afraid that what had been stated to-night would raise expectations which would never be realized. The more he considered the subject, the more he was convinced that the purchase of the Irish railways would be no advantage to the country. He understood his right hon. Friend's scheme to be, that these railways should be acquired by the State at a certain number of years' purchase upon the dividends now paying. Well, nothing could be more fallacious.


said, he had distinctly stated that the principle upon which they were to be purchased should be their value.


That was a very vague principle, and he was afraid that it would be very difficult of explanation. As to amalgamation, if it was likely to be so beneficial, why on earth did not the Irish shareholders adopt it as English shareholders did? All the evidence taken by the Royal Commission went to show that an immense advantage would arise from the general lowering of fares; but the noble Lord opposite stated that a lowering of fares was not likely to be carried out. For what purpose, then, was all that evidence taken, if it were not to be acted upon?


said, that as it was important that the Legislature should arrive at some sound practical conclusion next Session, it might be convenient that those intimately acquainted with railways should offer a few suggestions on this occasion. It seemed to him that the chance of arriving at a sound conclusion on the subject depended, not merely on the Government collecting information during the Recess, but on their applying their minds to a consideration of the subject so as to tell Parliament at their next meeting that they were ready to propose a scheme for their adoption. The first thing was to dismiss from the mind all notion of analogy between Irish and English railways. If anything at all was to be done in the matter, it was not to be done on principles adapted to English railways. His own feeling was adverse to State interference on behalf of distressed railways. Whatever might be the result of our legislation with regard to railways in England, it was too late to go back and introduce the system adopted in France, or recommended in the Report of Lord Dalhousie. Railways in this country must, he believed, be left very much on the footing of private enterprise. Whether Ireland were in such an exceptional position that the assistance of Government could be advantageously given, without the risk of incurring any heavy loss to the Exchequer, was another question. During the Irish famine, and some years afterwards, things were done which were not justifiable according to the prin- ciples of political economy, and would not be justifiable in England. The recommendation of the Commission in favour of cheap fares seemed to be regarded as of very little value. That Commission was appointed to investigate a question raised by Mr. Gait, whether Government ought not to purchase railways generally; and the Commissioners, in reporting against such purchase, threw overboard the Irish question, and recommended the introduction of cheap fares. He (Mr. Laing) thought that great advantage would result in a country like Ireland from a lower railway tariff. It would not be worth while to run counter to the ordinary rules of political economy unless they did not a little thing but a great thing—unless they established, a tariff approaching that of the cheapest railway tariff in Europe—namely, that of Belgium. If the Irish railways could be purchased by the State for £20,000,000, the money being obtained at 3½ per cent, £700,000 would be required for the annual interest; and if in this way Ireland could obtain a cheap tariff on railways, then, in his judgment, looking at the whole political and social circumstances of Ireland, it would be worth while to throw overboard the maxims of political economy, and take an exceptional view of Ireland. He would, therefore, suggest to the Government to consider carefully whether, if they did anything at all, they should go even farther than the scheme of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Limerick. That scheme was, that after the railways had been taken by the Government, and worked for a time by Commissioners, the future working should be put up to tender. He would suggest that this tendering should be for working the line at a tariff already fixed at a low rate. What the Government would have to guard against would be the making of too bad a bargain for the British taxpayers by buying insolvent railways at too high a rate. If the immediate loss did not go beyond such a sum in the first ten years as might reasonably be expected to be recouped in the next ten, then he thought the British public would not object. But he thought they might make a large reduction of tariff without any material risk of a heavy loss to the public. The net revenue was now £900,000. Well, if the tariff were made very low, the amount reduced would not be all loss; something would be got back by increased traffic. Suppose they lost one-third, there would be £600,000 left. But if there were thirty-five companies it was not an out-of-the-way expectation that there would, by amalgamation, be a saving effected of £2,000 a company, or £70,000 in all, and this would nearly make up the required £700,000 a year. It was clearly a question for inquiry, and he hoped the government would give their best attention to it during the Recess, so that when Parliament met next year some scheme might be produced by which the Irish, railways might be purchased at a fair price, with a prospect of their being worked at a low tariff. Very great political and social benefits would, he was sure, result from such a measure.


said, he considered that the importance of this question was so great that it ought to be the subject of a rigid inquiry into the condition of the Irish railways, both as regarded the lines themselves and the rolling stock. Looking upon it as one of political expediency, they ought to consider whether it was not worth while to do more for the Irish railways than they did for the English? The House seemed quite to have forgotten what had been done in the case of the Indian railways. He believed that only 2 per cent of the holders of stock in those railways were natives; and it was by means of British capital, guaranteed by the revenues of the Government, that those railways had been constructed. The same, he understood, had been done to some extent in the case of the Canadian railways. Surely Ireland had quite as much claim upon the Parliament as India. He looked upon the question of purchasing the Irish railways by the Government with doubt and apprehension, because in the first place he was not an advocate for Government management generally, and secondly, he doubted whether they would be worked in such a manner as to be profitable to the country. He was rather inclined to think that if they purchased the lines and leased them, they would fall into the hands of some great English company who would work them more with a view to their own interests than to the interests of Ireland. Some preferable plan might be adopted by way of guaranteeing the capital advanced at a low rate of interest, coupled with the condition that the railways should run a Government train once a day as they did in England, and giving greater postal facilities. The adoption of some such scheme might lead to the consolidation of the lines in a manner which would be greatly to the benefit of the country. In any case, however, the question had now become an Imperial one; something must be done, and done efficiently, and he was not sorry that the question was to be left over for another year, because he was convinced that by that time the railways would be in such a condition that it would be impossible for the Government to remain passive. The difficulty they had to encounter in dealing with the Irish railways was, that they were dealing with a country in which, from political circumstance, capital was not forthcoming, because in all probability capital would be equally shy in England if circumstances were the same. There was also a declining population in Ireland, which was not the case in England. That the condition of the railways was attributable to a great extent to those causes was proved by the fact that in the neighbourhood of Belfast, where trade was active and the population not decreasing, the railways were prosperous, and the shareholders were by no means in favour of the proposition that the Government should purchase them. Indeed, for fifty miles round Belfast trade was active and the railways largely increasing. In conclusion, he would only say that he thought the Commissioners had fallen into an error in underrating the value of the mineral and coal traffic that might be developed on the Irish railways. In the part of the country where he lived, for instance, a large weaving establishment had been erected, involving the use of extensive machinery, worked by steam, and the coal had to be brought twenty or thirty miles by train to the place, and in this and many similar cases upon the price of the carriage depended whether the works could be profitably carried on or not. For his own part, he believed that the trade and prosperity of Ireland were capable of indefinite extension, and that nothing would move conduce to it than an improvement in her railway system.


said, no subject could be more important than proper principles of legislation in reference to railways, but Parliament had not been successful in dealing with it. Rather more than twenty years ago the question as a whole had come under the consideration of Parliament under the auspices of the Government of Sir Robert Peel. Under the advice of the late Lord Dalhousie and of his hon. Friend the Member for Wick, a scheme had been devised which would have enabled a consistent line of policy on this question to be pursued, giving a department of Government a proper voice in the matter. The only sensible alternative was free trade in railways; due regard being had to the rights of landowners and to conditions of safety for the public; but neither course had been followed. They had allowed the legislation upon railways to be effected by Committees, at the instance of the companies themselves, acting under the advice of able lawyers, and there had been from year to year new lines sanctioned without the adoption of any uniform system, either as respected the principles on which permission to make new lines was granted, the financial arrangements, the tariff, or the nature of the securities. The consequence had been that in the present year they had witnessed a state of things which had probably never been paralleled in the history of England. It was of the utmost importance that on questions of this kind Parliament should be fully advised in the first instance, before it took any particular course. He thought Parliament should require very much fuller information upon the question before they decided to adopt a principle which was not in force in any other country to the extent proposed by the right hon. Gentleman. It would be a great misfortune for the owners of Irish railways were the present Government to hold out at present any promise that they would adopt the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman, and therefore he had heard with satisfaction the cautious statement of the noble Lord, in which he merely pledged the Government to inquire further into the question. As they were aware, it was in the power of the Government, under the Act of 1844, to purchase all railways in England after the 21st year of their existence, and the same Act provided that three years previously the Government should be furnished by each company with a detailed account of its capital and income, its receipts and expenditure, distinguishing between the main line and branches. Several of the railways came under the provisions of the Act five or six years ago, but they had never made any such Returns, and when he was at the Treasury last year he made some inquiry as to the reason of the omission. The answer he received was, that as the Railway Commission was then sitting, it would be improper for the Treasury to interfere. He considered that as Parliament had laid down the principle, it was the duty of the Treasury, in conjunction with the Board of Trade, to ascertain whether under the present system of Private Bill legislation it was possible for the railway companies to comply with that provision, and if not, they ought to consider whether it was worth while to retain such enactment on the statute book? He hoped, therefore, that the Government would extend any inquiry made into the condition of the Irish railways to the English lines also. While addressing the House upon this subject, he wished to point out what he regarded as being the chief reason for the failure of the Irish railway system. It might be stated as an axiom in railway finance that no lines pay well which did not run between great centres of industry—through large mining or manufacturing districts, or between populous inland towns and the sea. The financial position of English railways which did not fulfil those conditions was in almost every case unsatisfactory, and it would be found impossible, by any change of system, to make the Irish railways which ran through extensive agricultural districts profitable undertakings. Ireland was in the condition of an almost exclusively agricultural country, and no just comparison could be drawn between it and Belgium, which was comparatively one of the richest countries in the world, teeming with population engaged in manufactures. The truth was that the present unsatisfactory condition of the Irish railways was not solely owing to mismanagement, or the subdivision of management, but also to the fact that a larger mileage of expensively built railways had been laid down than an agricultural country could bear — there not being sufficient traffic to produce interest upon the capital that had been expended. He had introduced this subject for the purpose of giving the Government an additional inducement to fully inquire into the whole question before they committed the country to any definite course upon this important question.


said, that the observations made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wick (Mr. Laing) seemed to him of rather a startling character, since he began by laying down sound principles, and saying that any Bill brought before the House should have reference to the United Kingdom generally, and not to Ireland merely, but ended by saying that all our notions of political economy should be thrown to the winds for the sake of Ireland. With regard to the proposal to reduce the railway fares in that country 30 or 35 per cent, which it was said would assimilate them to those of Belgium, anyone who had attended to the operation of rates for railway fares must see that it was utterly fallacious. He (Mr. M'Laren) had had a good deal of experience in these matters, and, as a Director, had attended to the traffic for a number of years on a line of railway which passed through several important districts—some of them populous, and others thinly peopled. The result of his observations was to convince him that wherever a railway passed through a thickly-peopled country such as Belgium you might reduce the fares to almost any extent, and increase the traffic proportionably, thus making up a great part of the loss, if not the whole. The reason was that parties would go short distances in a populous country to do their business themselves, instead of writing or employing an agent to do it for them. In districts containing many towns the traffic might thus be increased indefinitely, and an instance might be found in the line between Newcastle and Shields, where, though the fares were fabulously low, the railway paid more per mile than other parts of the line where the fares were three times as high. From Glasgow to Greenock also the fares were very low, yet the line paid a higher rate per mile than any other in the district. But to apply this principle to thinly-peopled districts, as in Ireland, was most absurd, because there the people would not travel, having no business or adequate motive. It was not a reduction of 2s. 6d. or 7s. 6d. on a journey of 100 miles which would induce any one to undertake such a journey; but if you could reduce the fares to 1s. or 6d. for a journey of a few miles in thickly-peopled districts, many would then have no scruple in travelling ten times a week if they found occasion. The same reasoning applied to the goods traffic. The locomotive conveyed 200 tons of goods, on an average, at a cost of 1s. per mile. It was evident that with a load of 200 tons it could convey them very cheaply; but suppose; that in Ireland not more than 100 tons—or more probably 50 tons—of goods could be obtained to carry, the expense per ton must be proportionably greater, because the total cost for locomotive power would be as great for the small load as for the full load. It would, therefore, be of no avail to reduce fares by 30 per cent. If the people of Ireland wished to derive the utmost possible advantage from the railways that had been constructed, the plain system was to unite them by Act of Parliament, and to let the Commissioners appointed to manage them divide the net profits of the united lines according to the average earnings of the three previous years. That principle of amalgamating a system of important railways had been adopted many years ago with the lines centreing at York and Newcastle, and it was the right principle to adopt in Ireland. Then where reduced rates were found advisable, as the result of experience, the people of Ireland would derive the benefit; but he objected most decidedly to the railway shareholders of Ireland coming and putting their hands into the national purse, and claiming assistance which would not be conceded to those of England and Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Motion said that something should be done for Ireland, because, as compared with England, it was a small country, but Scotland was still smaller. There had lately been two distressed Scotch railways before Parliament—the North British and the North of Scotland, and if the distressed railways of Ireland were to be assisted, why should not these two which had a capital amounting to two-thirds of that of all the Irish railways? Then there were the London, Chatham, and Dover and the Great Eastern Railways, of which the united capital was greater than that of all the Irish railways; and why should they not be assisted on the same principle? He objected to this kind of sectional legislation, holding that justice ought to be done to Ireland in matters of far greater importance than cobbling up bankrupt railways. This was a scheme introduced to take away the attention of the people of Ireland, who demanded justice in the questions of the Land tenure and the Established Church. Because the House refused or hesitated to do justice in these matters, it was now proposed to treat the people of Ireland like children, offering them sweetmeats to still their crying for other griefs.


observed, that the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Childers) had stated that the general railway system of the United Kingdom had been a complete failure. Now, he took the liberty of protesting against that statement. [Mr. CHILDERS: I said financially.] If they had been a failure, they had, on the other hand, conferred an enormous benefit on the country. If the development of our roads and canals for the last hundred years had been as financially disastrous to the persons who undertook them as the railway system had been, still the enormous gain to the community had far over-balanced any possible loss in that direction; and where parties, for the sake of their own private gain, laid out their own money, or induced others to spend money for their own private gain, he did not think the country ought to be called upon to come in and stop the gap. He was glad to hear that his noble Friend was prepared to make an inquiry into the subject, but should be sorry to see the Government take these matters into their own hands. It would be the greatest curse to the country that could happen, whether it was done in Ireland or in England.


The right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down said that it would be a great mistake on the part of the Government to take into its hands the business of promoting the formation of railways, instead of leaving it to private enterprize. Now, that is a general principle, and, like all general principles—even the soundest—ought not to be pushed too rigidly and too universally, regardless of the peculiar circumstances of particular countries. If we look to the case of India, there are few among us who would think it has been unwise on the part of the Government to run very considerable pecuniary risks in order to promote railways in that country. Again, in some countries of Europe it is very likely that the intervention of Government has been perfectly justifiable. Even in Belgium, which has been mentioned this evening as being one of the richest countries in the world, and one in which the most signal successes have been achieved in regard to railways, I believe the interference of Government was of a most important and vital character. It is very difficult indeed to deal with general principles in reference to this subject; but, with respect to Ireland, I think it perfectly right that the formation of railways should be left to private enterprize. As to the question before us, we are not called upon to pledge ourselves to anything; but still I think it is desirable that some ideas which tend to encumber the consideration of it should be put aside. In the first place, it is to be assumed that we are considering this as a question of a principle which is applicable to Ireland and not to England. Now, with respect to Ireland, we have not, up to the present moment, pursued the same rule as in England, because we had become creditors of the Irish railways to a very large extent, having made loans to them at a low rate of interest. The mere ground of the actual embarrassment of Irish railway shareholders is no ground for the interference of Parliament; it is not for the Government to relieve their embarrassments more than those of any other distressed class. But then, again, I think it should be understood that under no circumstances should a question of this kind be entertained if it was likely to end in the management of railways by Government. I do not think there are any questions of expediency or policy which should be allowed to influence this House to permit Government interference in the Irish railways to end in their management of them. If Government is to become the proprietors of these railways, I apprehend, independently of the high authority of the hon. Member for Wick — and it is a high authority upon these matters—that it is evident there would be no difficulty whatever in providing for the management and conduct of them by independent parties. In my own opinion, we require very powerful considerations to justify even as much as is now about to be done, because we are about to call for information respecting Irish railways, not merely upon the general ground that railways are a matter of public interest, and the more information we have about public interests the better, but likewise there are circumstances and features of speciality in the case of the Irish railways as to make it desirable to examine their case more minutely, and to convey to certain parties greater powers to conduct that examination than we could give in the case of the English railways. When the Government propose their Bill I shall give my assent to that Bill, and we shall merely be affirming, to a certain extent, the existence of special circumstances in connection with the Irish railways which may hereafter form the foundation for special legislation. I think the effect of that inquiry will be, not to decide, but to raise for the decision of Parliament a question of great importance—namely, the question whether, upon grounds not connected with railway interest as such, but upon Imperial grounds connected with the general condition of Ireland and its relations to this country, it may be worth our while to depart, in a particular instance, from, the ordinary economical rules upon which we act with respect to the interference of Government, and to make an experiment which, besides being a departure from those ordinary rules, may involve a certain amount of pecuniary risk to the Exchequer. I wish to convey my own concurrence in the observations of the hon. Member for Wick (Mr. Laing). He said: "Do not contemplate this inquiry at all, and do not entertain any question of this special character, if the experiment you mean to make is to be small." No small experiment can justify a departure of that kind. If we were to embark in this matter—upon which I give no opinion at present—it must be with a view to great and important results. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh (Mr. M'Laren) has pointed out the difference between applying the principle of low fares in the hope of augmentation of traffic in thinly-populated districts, and applying the same principle with the same hope in thickly-peopled mining districts, and I trust the noble Lord will supply us with all the light upon the subject that he can possibly obtain. The question is as to whether, by a large reduction of fares, partly upon passengers, and much more upon goods of all descriptions, it is likely to stimulate, to a great extent, the industries of Ireland. If it cannot, the case at once falls through. If the evidence, however, lead to the conclusion that it is highly probable such stimulus would be given, I think an important question will come before the House as to whether it is wise to do in Ireland, under those circumstances, what, undoubtedly, none of us would dream of doing in England or Scotland? As regards the proposition of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Monsell), it is not so entirely novel as might be supposed, even if that proposition be, as I am inclined to think it would prove to be, one involving a risk to the Exchequer. We have for years, for generations, been endeavouring by the application of public money in forms not recognized in Great Britain, and which have been admitted only to a certain extent in Scotland, to stimulate Irish industry; but it has been by drifts, and it has necessarily been done with partiality. There has also been great inequality in the application, and very little success has followed. What has been done has had the effect of creating complicated arrangements and relations between particular places in Ireland and the Treasury, leading to a constant desire on the part of the inhabitants to obtain better terms, while on their part the Treasury have endeavoured to force upon those places a continuance of the terms then existing. A great deal of public money has been spent, and I must say spent in an unsatisfactory manner, for the development of traffic and industry in Ireland, without producing in the main that result. In fact, in many cases nothing but local dissatisfaction has been produced. Many of these transactions were necessarily small, and in a great degree secret, and not observed throughout their whole course by the public; therefore they did not fulfil one of the conditions which we deem necessary for a sound administration of the public funds. With respect to the Irish railways, at any rate, none of these objections apply. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Monsell) disclaims a demand for public aid; but I agree with the hon. Member for Wick that the public Exchequer should run some risk, and, if that risk should be run, I think a favourable comparison might be drawn between that mode of running risk and the mode which has hitherto been adopted, because whatever is to be done in this matter will be done in the face of day as an act of Imperial policy, and will be appreciated as such. It would not be done for the benefit of one class of the community of Ireland more than another—and the Government and Parliament would be responsible, and they would only agree to the measure at all after due and careful deliberation. I know of no way in which a benefit could be conferred upon an entire community better than by cheapening the means of railway communication. We must not rush, however, into any conclusion upon this subject without great consideration; but I think there are considerations of sufficient importance to warrant the preliminary steps which the Government propose to take, and I have only again to express a hope that the thinly-populated state of the country will be fully borne in mind by all who deal with the subject.


called the attention of the House to the proceedings of a Par- liamentary Committee on the subject of Railways in 1863, and that Committee anticipated very distinctly that state of railway property which they had had to contemplate with so much regret during the last year or two. The course of legislation in this country with regard to railways involved greater difficulties and greater expense and risk in railway construction than was found in any other country in the world. It was established before that Committee, that in the construction of railways in Wales—a country no more favourably circumstanced in that particular respect than Ireland—out of a sum of £3,000,000, no less than half had been lost or needlessly spent through the risk and uncertainty attending the administration of railway property by Committees of that House, instead of there being some permanent department to administer it on certain fixed rules by which capitalists and others would know how to proceed. The monopolizing tendencies of the large railway companies had also proved a great difficulty in the way of developing the resources of certain districts by the construction of new lines. The system of private Bill legislation was the cause of great disaster and injury to railway property and a great hindrance to future enterprise in that direction, and it was sustained mainly by the influence of the great railway companies in order to increase the difficulty of constructing new lines by other persons. The subject was brought under the notice of Lord Palmerston, when he was at the head of the Government; but, after the full consideration of the capability of the Government to check the influence of the great railway companies and to deprive them of the benefit which they derived from the enormous expense, and risk, and uncertainty created by the system of Private Bill legislation, it was determined by the Government of the day that they were not strong enough to contend with that influence. It was only by a majority of 1 in the Committee which he had referred to that the business of Private Bill legislation was retained in that House; but it was by a majority of more than 1 that a Resolution was agreed to, at one time by that Committee, declaring that competition should not be regarded as a ground of objection when raised by great companies as against new railways. That Resolution, however, was afterwards rescinded — a circumstance altogether with- out precedent, he believed, in the history of Select Committees of that nature. As it was, the great companies, by means of Private Bill Committees, were able to subject other companies to a process of litigation which was, without exception, in the history of any country, the most costly, uncertain, and unsatisfactory of any judicial tribunal ever devised for any purpose whatever.

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