HC Deb 27 February 1873 vol 214 cc1042-56

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Chichester Fortescue.)


said, he did not rise to object to the second reading of the Bill, but to make a few remarks upon its main feature. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, in the able speech he made on introducing this Bill, said this was not the first time Parliament had been asked to transfer its jurisdiction to a tribunal. This was no doubt so; but eminent Members of the Legislature had expressed themselves adversely to it. Lord Campbell had, upon a similar proposal being made in the House of Lords, expressed the opinion that the duties it was proposed to lay upon the tribunal were such as the Judges, himself included, felt themselves incompetent to discharge. Lord Campbell, as a lawyer, objected to a Court of Law as the tribunal for the decision of questions which might arise under the Act; but if that noble and learned Lord had been a layman he would probably have objected to a lay tribunal. And what, after all, was a lawyer but a layman with a knowledge of law? His right hon. Friend, in introducing the Bill, said that the failure was owing to the nature of the tribunal. Now, he ventured to think that it was not the nature of the tribunal but of the subject-matter which caused the failure; and though in the Bill the tribunal was changed, the subject-matter remained the same. Under the Act which it was intended to amend, a discretionary power was given to the Court of Common Pleas, not only to administer the law but to lay down a code of regulations, and in fact to say what the law was to be. The Common Pleas, however, proved unequal to the task; and now it was proposed that a tribunal should be created composed of three gentlemen—one of them a lawyer —the very class of men condemned by Lord Campbell—another, a man possessed of practical experience in railway matters; and, as to the third, it was not stated what he was to be. He admitted that if the companies were willing to go before this tribunal for arbitration, it might be able to discharge its duties in a manner satisfactory to the companies and to the public. But it appeared to him that in order to have arbitrators to decide between the conflicting claims of companies it was not necessary to pay them out of the public money. If two companies were anxious to have arbitrators, they could select them themselves and pay them without coming to the public. The principal functions delegated to this tribunal were to decide questions as to through rates and as to proper facilities given to the public. In his opinion, the tribunal would have the same difficulty in deciding what were "proper facilities" as the Court of Common Pleas had experienced. The tribunal would have to decide what were the duties of those who managed those great commercial undertakings — the railways. Their only duty, subject to the conditions imposed upon them by law with regard to the public, was to earn the highest dividend they could for their shareholders. But this tribunal might say— "Your regulations may be well calculated to produce the highest possible dividend for your shareholders, but they are not well adapted for giving the greatest possible facilities to the public; and as the interests of the company and the interests of the public do not coincide, we shall force you to sacrifice the interests of the shareholders to those of the public." He wanted to know what body of directors would be able to carry on their duties if their action was to be overborne by the interference of this tribunal? What, if the effect of such interference was to subtract a certain amount of dividend from the shareholders of Company A and to put it into the pockets of the shareholders of Company B? It might lessen the dividends of both companies, while operating to the advantage of the public. He prophesied that the tribunal would shrink from any such functions. Where the interests of the public and of the companies were the same, they wanted no tribunals; where there was a wide divergence between them, the tribunal would not venture to interfere, because the outcry of those immediately affected would be so great that the powers of the Commissioners would soon come to an end. It might be asked, if such was his opinion why not move the rejection of the Bill on the second reading? The reason was because he was one of a small minority in the Joint Committee — a minority of 2 on vital points. He was supported, however, by a Gentleman on whom the House placed the greatest reliance—his right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. S. Cave), whose absence to-night in consequence of ill-health they all regretted. His right hon. Friend was not only a man of calm judgment, but he had official experience in the Department over which the right hon. Gentleman opposite presided. But then they had not only numbers against them, but also the weight of official experience and men who were generally looked up to for guiding the country in its public affairs. In the teeth of this preponderance of authority he was not prepared to offer opposition to the Bill on the second reading. He was not sanguine as to the result, but let the experiment be tried. Let the Bill pass into law with such modifications as might be introduced in this and the other House of Parliament. He was anxious to give every opportunity for trying the experiment; but he was bound to say that, in his opinion, this was the last experiment that would be tried in the matter. They had before the experiment of a Court of Law, and now they were going to have the experiment of a special tribunal. He was not prepared to say that the tribunal would be of no use; but he believed that for the main purpose it would be inoperative. Another still greater question had been suggested —namely, whether in the progress of combination the companies in course of time might not become so great and so powerful as to render it expedient on political, not commercial, grounds, to change the relations between the railways and the State. Now, the purchase of railways by the State was most strongly urged by Captain Tyler, who put it in a very terse way. That gentleman said —"If the State does not manage the railways, the railways will soon manage the State." The difficulties of a State purchase wore, no doubt, very formidable, politically and financially, and he quite assented to the course which the Joint Committee took in passing it over at the time. But he held that the consideration of the question could not be very much longer deferred. Day by day public opinion was growing more and. more in favour of the purchase; and in his opinion the only way in which the public could be fairly, properly, and advantageously dealt with was by the State taking over the administration of the railways. He was not prepared to say when that would be done—whether it would be done in his lifetime or not—but that it would be done he had no doubt, and he held it to be the duty of public men even now to consider the mode in which it might be best brought about.


agreed with many of the criticisms of the right hon. Gentleman. The Order of Reference confined the Committee strictly to the question of amalgamation, and even to the Amalgamation Bills brought before the House that Session; but the Committee seemed to have strained the matter and to have gone very much beyond their Order. A great deal of the evidence before the Committee was given by men of great experience in railway and canal management. The Report was drafted on the evidence adduced, and they came to the conclusion that it was impossible to lay down any general rules determining the limits or character of future amalgamations, and they went on to say with reference to the general position of railways as affecting the public interests, that the introduction of Bills for amalgamation afforded opportunities for imposing conditions on companies which were desirable in the public interest. This Bill dealt with existing railways rather than with the question of amalgamation. With regard to the appointment of the Commission, one of the Commissioners was to be a lawyer of great eminence, another was to be a man of experience in railways, and of the third they had no description at all. Such was the tribunal to which was confided a trust affecting the £600,000,000 of capital which Parliament had given the companies power to raise. The Commissioners were to be paid at the rate of £3,000 a-year each, a sum that would not secure the services of men required for the discharge of such important duties as they would have to perform; in fact, they would be paid salaries inferior to that received by many railway managers. They were to have the full discretion of deciding all matters of fact and law without any appeal whatever. Being himself engaged in trade he depended very much on the through rates on rail- ways; but he very much doubted how far Parliament could sanction the powers which this Bill gave to revise every special Act and special toll, and to treat as waste paper, agreements between existing companies which had been sanctioned by Committees of both Houses, and by the House itself. He would not go into the details of the Bill, which could be dealt with in Committee; but the great fundamental principle of the measure—which proposed to transfer the whole railway power of the kingdom to three Commissioners — deserved the gravest consideration on the part of the House.


said, there were three points to which he desired to direct particular attention. The first was that, it appeared to him, the Board of Trade had no power to enforce the Reports of their own Inspectors. The city of Hereford, with a population of 18,000 inhabitants, was cursed with three railway stations, and from a Return he obtained two years ago he found that the duties of the Government Inspectors were to investigate complaints of corporations or individuals with reference to level crossings and stations that were dangerous to the public. The Herefordshire Quarter Sessions presented a petition to the Board of Trade, requesting that an Inspector should be sent down to inspect the stations, two of which were considered dangerous. Some time afterwards they received a very lengthy and exhaustive Report from the Inspector, which began by stating that the magistrates of the county had substantially made out their case, that two of the three stations were positively dangerous, and that the railway companies ought to make one good station for their whole passenger traffic. But what was the conclusion? It was this—if the railway companies did not take that step, he recommended the magistrates to present a humble Petition to Parliament. A most lame and impotent conclusion. He, therefore, hoped these Commissioners would have power to act on the Report of the Inspectors if railway companies did not do so within a reasonable time. The second point was clearly matter for a rule of the Board of Trade. A year and a half ago he had asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he was aware that on the Great Western and other lines the practice prevailed of running trains during the day time through long tunnels without lights in passengers' carriages. The answer he received was there was no law to compel the companies to light the carriages. Hereford was an inland county, and practically, owing to the squabbles of railway companies, shut off from the sea; and Malvern was consequently their sanatorium, as although Hereford was close to the coast, it took seven hours to go there. In order to get to Malvern they had to go through two fearfully long tunnels, and the whole Midland traffic had been put recently on the line, which was overworked and positively dangerous. He had letters from all parts of the country on the subject. One of these came from an eminent member of a publishing firm, who was in the habit of travelling by the line once a month, and who said that he had never gone through the Box Tunnel by a second-class carriage with a light. He had been told that ladies suffered greatly from nervousness in consequence of there being no lights in the carriages when the trains passed through the tunnel in the day time, and they had resort to all kinds of absurd precautions to protect themselves. He was informed by a middle-aged clergyman that on one occasion when he was travelling, his companions being two elderly females, one of them said to him—"I believe we are coming to a tunnel." He replied, "You are." Just as the train entered the tunnel he heard a match struck, and immediately one flashed a bull's-eye lantern in his face, and the other brandished a knife over his head. In reply to his expression of astonishment, they said they found it necessary to take these precautions. "Although," they added, "you probably are what you look, an inoffensive clergyman and gentleman, yet there are so many wolves in sheep's clothing now about, that we do not know whose appearance we can trust." It was not always that excursion trains were lighted even at night. On one occasion a number of Odd Fellows had gone from Hereford to Aberystwith, and on their return they had been huddled, men, women, and children together, in third-class carriages from 7 p.m. till 3 next morning without lights. He thought that a most disgraceful state of things. The third point was this. There had been a railway accident at Hereford in August last, owing to some neglect of a signalman, who was overworked. He was present at the inquest. The man was committed for trial. There were many railway officials present to give evidence, and on the following Monday the Assizes took place at Hereford, and he had the honour, as foreman of the Grand Jury, of again examining all these railway officials; but where was the Government Railway Inspector? He went down six weeks after to hold his inquiry, when the man, who was acquitted, had been released, and all the witnesses were dispersed over the country. He thought it most important that the Government Railway Inspector should be present at every inquest. He thanked the House for listening to the observations which a strong sense of the duty he owed to his constituents had induced him to make.


said, he was by no means insensible to the difficulties which had been so well pointed out by his right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Hunt) as likely to arise in the working of that Bill if it became law. At the same time, he wished to draw attention to a particular class of grievances for which he thought it was high time that some remedy should be found. The hon. Baronet who had preceded him had alluded to one or two grievances; but he now desired to refer to one of a more serious character, because it seemed to involve something like a direct breach of faith with the public on the part of an important and powerful railway company; and he represented on that occasion not the railway interest but the public at large. The case, he believed, was one of the most flagrant which could be found throughout the length and breadth of the country. In the year 1846 an Act of Parliament was passed authorizing the formation of a company called the Reading and Reigate Railway Company. He held the Act in his hand. The company was to construct a railway from Reigate to Reading, with power and also an obligation to make a branch line to connect that railway with the South-Western line at the Farnborough Station. And so strongly did the Legislature of that day wish to express its sense of the necessity of proper correspondence between those lines that, in the words of the Act, it declared that no other portion of the same railway should be opened for public traffic until that portion be- tween Reading and the Farnborough Station of the London and South-Western Railway should first be completed and opened for public traffic as aforesaid. It would, he thought, be difficult to find language to express more clearly the intention of the Legislature in passing that Act. Three years afterwards a supplementary Act was passed giving further powers to the company, and not only taking it for granted that the said junction would be made, but containing a clause prescribing what kind of tolls should be levied on that branch. The House would hardly believe it when he stated that although that line was made at the time to which he had referred, in 1849 or thereabouts, it had never been used, he believed, but upon one occasion, and that, he thought, was when Her Majesty once passed along it. The consequence was that in the part of the country to which he alluded, which included Blackwater, Wellington College, Sandhurst, and that portion of Berkshire, passengers who were desirous of proceeding from either of those stations, from Wellington College or from Black-water to London, were obliged to travel by the South-Eastern Railway to Farnborough, and then instead of being allowed, as the Act intended, to join the South-Western line and get up to London by the quickest route, they were taken on to Reigate and brought by a circuitous route to London. He had the pleasure of occasionally travelling by that line. Being one of the Governors of Wellington College he paid an annual visit to that institution, and he went there by the South-Eastern Railway. It was a charming and a heap croute, extending over 60 miles — the proper distance being 40 miles. That was an instance of that want of due correspondence and harmonious action between rival railway companies which the Committee of last year strongly commented upon, and declared to be an increasing evil—an evil which demanded the interference of Parliament, and which he took it for granted it was one of the principal objects of the present Bill to remedy. He was not sure that without the light thrown on the Bill by the very lucid speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade he should have been able to discover in its provisions adequate power to redress that grievance. He would assume, how- ever, that the right hon. Gentleman knew the meaning of the language of his own Bill better than he did, and that it would be found sufficient to deal with the case he had just described. He gave his hearty support to the second reading, and believed that the House would desire to provide an adequate remedy for the evils against which such a measure should be directed.


said, his objection to the Bill was that it was only a feeble step in the right direction, because it did not deal with numerous complicated grievances which the public had established against railway companies. The only Department of the Government which took any cognizance of the proceedings of the railway companies was the Board of Trade. Without attacking any particular Board of Trade, their conduct with reference to railways had been always very much the same; and it was probably owing to the want of adequate powers for dealing effectually with the subject. The Board of Trade had a certain amount of jurisdiction over railways; but it could not now remedy obvious and glaring grievances. This Bill would establish another feeble and inadequate tribunal, and the consequence would be that, instead of having one tribunal not possessing the required powers for dealing with the subject, they would have two tribunals equally powerless, which would be likely to impair rather than improve the present state of things. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Northamptonshire (Mr. Hunt) had truly said that the interests of the public and that of railway companies were at variance, and it was because it was so that it was of the utmost importance there should be but one tribunal, with sufficient powers to deal with the whole railway question. The power of the Railway Inspectors appointed by the Board of Trade amounted to nothing. They could report on the lâches or the misconduct of the companies; but they had no power to inflict punishment or to prescribe a remedy which would prevent the recurrence of such misconduct. At present the public were at the mercy of the companies; and Parliament should provide some controlling power which could step in and afford real protection to the interests of the public. The question referred to by the hon. Member for Berkshire (Mr. Walter) was a question of personal convenience; and the matter referred to by the hon. Member for Herefordshire (Sir Herbert Croft) was one of the miscarriage of justice and of the tardiness of officials in investigating the causes of accidents. But there was a much wider question in connection with that subject which would come before the House in a few days; and he could only express his regret that the President of the Board of Trade had not sought much larger powers for that Department and for the new Commission in dealing with the companies. Hundreds of people had been killed in railway accidents which might easily have been averted. These remarks were probably not agreeable to many whom he was addressing, because there were a great number of hon. Gentlemen in that House who were connected with railways. It was but fair that both sides should be heard. He contended that many fatal accidents might be prevented by the commonest precautions. That was the opinion of the railway authorities who gave evidence before the Committee on Railway Accidents, of which he was Chairman. The fact was, the railway companies were allowed to compete with one another and to travel at a rate of speed which made punctuality impossible; and it was well known that want of punctuality was one of the chief causes of accidents. It was high time, therefore, to put a stop to the reckless proceedings by which, under the present system of railway management, the lives and limbs of the travelling public were endangered and sacrificed, and he should like to see the Government take the necessary powers to secure that object. He was informed that the greater number of hon. Members who were connected with the management of railways were strongly opposed to the Bill. If that was so, it was a measure in the right direction.


said, great interest was taken in this question by his constituents in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and on their behalf he thanked the Government for having so promptly acted on the recommendations of the Committee by introducing the Bill. Almost every town in the Riding was affected by the amalgamation between the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the London and North-Western; and, if this amalgamation took place, others were likely to follow. There were three principal routes communicating between the East and West Coast, through the hills which form part of the backbone of England. One of these was the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the other the Rochdale Canal, and the third the Huddersfield and Ashton Canal, and all of them, by means of leases or arrangements with these and other railway companies, were now practically closed to the public, so far as through traffic was concerned. Owing to the depreciation of the property, many canals had not even been kept in repair, and of the few on which capital was expended, it rarely happened that plant for carrying purposes had been provided by the companies analogous to the rolling stock of railways. Conveyance of goods by canal was attended with some advantages which could not be afforded by railway traffic. An owner of goods could have them removed in his own boat from his own wharf to any given point on the canal, and without interrupting the general through traffic. These matters were of considerable importance to the mercantile community of Yorkshire. They were of opinion that if these canals were emancipated from railroad control they would form a very useful adjunct in facilitating traffic, especially at times when railroads happened to be blocked up, and they were anxious that the main provisions of the Bill should receive the assent of Parliament. He hoped, under these circumstances, that the Government would stand firm to the proposals which they had made, and that they would not allow the measure to be impaired in any material particular.


said, he could not agree with the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. G. Bentinck) that the measure now before the House should be of a more stringent character in the direction of superseding companies in the control of their own railways, for he thought it was essential that those companies should feel the responsibility of working their lines in the way they considered best for the security of the public and for their own advantage. But what this Bill proposed was not to introduce any new principles, but to devise machinery for carrying out the intentions of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act of 1854. That was substantially the view of the Select Committee, and the view embodied in the Bill, which provided for enforcing those facilities and the equal treatment aimed at by the Traffic Act of 1854. That Act, though laying down sound principles, was deficient in proper machinery for ensuring that they were acted upon. The tribunal to be appointed under this Bill was not one which would take into its hands the control or administration of the railways; it would have no initiatory power whatever, but would simply discharge the function of a tribunal to which application might be made to give effect to the principles of the Traffic Act—a tribunal which was to take the place of the Court of Common Pleas in that respect. Again, the Bill, following the Report of the Joint Committee of last year, provided that the tribunal should discharge the functions of arbitrator, under the special Acts relating to railway companies, and in other cases where such companies had recourse to arbitration. Further, a limited power was transferred to it, which the Board of Trade now possessed under an Act of 1840, of deciding disputes as to the use to be made of a junction or station belonging to two companies in common. The Bill was not of a revolutionary character at all, but was intended simply to give effect to former Acts. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Hunt) that this measure must be looked upon as an experiment. Whether the tribunal it proposed to establish would answer its purposes was a matter that experience alone could demonstrate. It might succeed, or not; it might have a great deal too much to do, or very little; but, considering the state of feeling which existed in regard to the growing monopoly of railway companies, it was expedient that some attempt should be made to satisfy the public that there was a ready means of arbitration, and of requiring those companies to carry out the principles of the Traffic Act without recourse to the slow and costly machinery of a purely legal tribunal. The experiment was worth making, the Bill treated it as an experiment; and there was a disposition, he believed, on the part of the House to give it a fair trial. His right Hon. Friend (Mr. Hunt) looked forward to the purchase of the railways by the State as the final crisis to which we should come. Well, he wished his right hon. Friend a very long life; but he hoped however his life might be prolonged that he would not live to see that day. He had heard most opposite opinions expressed as to what the effect of the possession of the railways by the State would be. There were at present an army of about 200,000 men in the employment of the various railway companies, and that fact would throw immense patronage into the hands of the Government. It would rest with the Government to say what facilities for traffic should be given, and what rates should be adopted for the different trades and towns and ports of the kingdom, and it was obvious that that would place in the hands of any Government enormous powers—powers so enormous that it had been said no Government possessed of them could be turned out of office. If they had an Administration so pure as to be perfectly incapable of jobbery, even on the eve of a General Election, still people would be found not to believe in that purity. For his part, he was inclined to think that so enormous would be the patronage of the Ministry, and so great their power of favouring particular localities and interests, that they would be exposed to so much suspicion and odium as to render the fulfilment of their functions almost impossible. He was strongly disposed, therefore, to think that the possession of the railways by the State would endanger the cause of good government and the stability of all government. With respect to canals, while he was in favour of their being free from the control of the railway companies, he could not but see that they could not compete successfully with the railways, except for some special purposes, and under special circumstances. He agreed with the principles of the Bill, and hoped the House would consent to try the experiment which it proposed.


said, he was convinced if this tribunal were to be merely experimental it would fail. What amount lawyers might ask for their services he did not know; but if it was intended to have a railway manager and an engineer on the Commission, undoubtedly they would not get men of that kind in which the public would have confidence for the amount of money prescribed by the Bill. Unless men of larger calibre could be put on the tribunal, the public would have no confidence in them. Rather than see a Commission set up merely to be experimented upon, he would like to see one established in a position far more likely to command success than the proposed tribunal.


observed that the existing tribunal for carrying out the Act of 1854 was expensive and defective, and it was therefore desirable to create another which could speedily and cheaply determine questions arising between the public and the railway companies and between one company and another. In the locality he represented (Waterford) attempts had been made to divert the traffic from its natural direction. He had known cases where two railways joined, where the cattle and goods traffic had been taken out of the waggons of the one railway for the purpose of being transferred to the waggons of the other. The Judges in the Court of Common Pleas were, no doubt, very good lawyers, but few of them understood much about business matters; and if a tribunal were appointed consisting of men conversant with railway and canal traffic, it would, he believed, be greatly to the advantage of the shareholders of the different companies, for it was the shareholders who suffered when the managers and directors of different companies were allowed to fight with one another.


desired to protest against the theory of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Hunt) with regard to the purchase by the State of all the railways. At present, the Government found the greatest difficulty in dealing with the question of dockyard wages, and if the Government had a body of men about 200,000 in number to control, the House would be deluged with complaints on the score of wages, salaries, patronage, branch lines, and reduction of fares.


said, he was grateful for the reception which had been given to the Bill, not only by those who had approved but by those who had criticised its provisions. His right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Hunt) possessed in the greatest perfection the art of throwing cold water on a sanguine project; but he (Mr. Fortescue) did not think that the purpose of this Bill—namely, the creation of a special tribunal for dealing especially with questions arising out of railway and canal traffic—could be described as sanguine in any unfavourable sense. He believed that the great lawyer who had predicted the failure of the Court of Common Pleas as a tribunal in these cases had been perfectly right. He did not agree with his right hon. Friend that a Judge was nothing but a layman plus a knowledge of the law, and was of opinion that this tribunal would be superior for this particular purpose to the Court of Common Pleas. That Court was not well suited for the administration of the laws of railway and canal traffic, nor did he think the habits of the legal mind were best fitted to decide questions which were not questions of strict law, but of discretion, of administration, and of special knowledge directed to a special subject. He did not think that these questions should be submitted to a purely legal tribunal, although the presence of an eminent lawyer upon it would be of the greatest advantage. They were all aware of the difficulties and fears which surrounded an entrance into a court of law, and thus parties had been prevented from making use of rights which had been conferred upon them by the Canal Act of 1854. This tribunal would, he believed, in spite of the criticisms of his right hon. Friend, be well adapted for the duties which it had to perform, and would decide the questions which came before it promptly, efficiently, and cheaply. Reference had been made to the question of railway accidents. This Bill did not profess to deal with that subject, which was one of great difficulty, and which was now being investigated by an able Committee in another House, with the view of considering whether there could be any further legislation for the prevention of railway accidents

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Thursday next.