HC Deb 10 March 1882 vol 267 cc635-56

, who had given Notice of the following Resolution, but was unable by the Forms of the House to move it—namely, That this House, while expressing no opinion on the subject of State ownership, or State management of Railways in other parts of the Empire, is of opinion that it is desirable that the Railways of Ireland should be acquired on equitable terms by the State with a view to their management being conducted in the interests of the public. This measure to be carried out in such a way as not to involve any loss to the finances of the Empire, said, that a great many eminent authorities had declared in favour of the proposal which he wished to lay before the House. It would be in the recollection of some hon. Members that a declaration was signed some years ago by 72 Peers and 90 Irish Members of Parliament in favour of the acquisition by the State of the railways in Ireland. The Members for the North of Ireland were, in particular, strongly in favour of the proposition. Evidence had also been given to the same effect before the Committee on Railways now sitting, although the question was not directly within the scope of that Committee's labours. Mr. Isaac Banks, a well-known railway authority, had said that it was most desirable to bring the railways under one control, and that control would be best exercised by the State. He said the whole mercantile community of Dublin were in favour of that view. Mr. Joseph Pim and Mr. Middleton, gentlemen well known in connection with that subject, expressed similar opinions. The present was a very opportune time for the consideration of this question, for anything which would improve the condition of that country could not fail to be of great importance. Hon. Members would remember how Mr. Tuke, in his pamphlet, spoke of the want of enterprize, and the misdirected energies, and the want of development of natural resources as the cause of Ireland's misery and troubles. Of all this the railway system afforded a striking instance. That system gave the minimum of convenience at the maximum of charge. The defects in that system were—first, that the rates were high; secondly, that the speed was slow; thirdly, that the trains were few; fourthly, that the remuneration of the Directors was small. The latest Returns, which were up to the 1st of January, 1881, stated that there were 2,370 miles of railway in Ireland, and of these 1,802 miles consisted of single lines only—only 568 miles being double. In England and Scotland almost all the railways had double lines. The Irish railways were owned by 40 Companies, though some of the smaller Companies were worked by the larger. The number of Companies actually working lines was 23. In 1880 the total receipts were £2,695,000, and the expenditure £1,455,000. Thus the cost of management was 54 per cent of the gross receipts. The total capital was £33,741,000, of which £9,000,000 were debentures. There were 270 directors of these lines, 37 secretaries, 20 actuaries, 36 solicitors, 40 auditors, and 30 engineers—all different persons. While the receipts of all the Irish railways amounted to only £2,695,000, in England the receipts of the Great Western Railway alone were £7,284,000, and of the London and North-Western £9,827,000. Again, while the proportion of working expenses was 51 per cent in England, Wales, and Scotland, in Ireland the proportion was 54 per cent. Scotland had a population of 3,700,000, and the population of Ireland was 5,150,000; yet in the year 1880 the traffic returns of the Scotch lines were £7,000,000, and of the Irish lines £2,500,000. In the same year 46,000,000 passengers and over 31,000,000 tons of goods were carried by the Scotch railways, and only 17,000,000 passengers and 3,500,000 tons of goods by the Irish railways. He did not ignore the fact that there was much more manufacturing industry in Scotland than in Ireland; but still, considering the relative populations of the two countries, these figures were very disproportionate, and he believed the disproportion was in great part due to the high fares, the bad accommodation, and the slow trains on the Irish railways. With regard to rates and fares, he might mention that the average third-class fare for 100 miles was 3s. 4d. in Belgium, 4s. in Italy, and 6s. 6d. in Prussia; whereas in Ireland, which was an extremely poor country, it was 8s. 4d. As regards goods traffic, there was abundant evidence to show that many of the most important industrial enterprizes of Ireland were stifled by the high charges and bad arrangements of the railways. These universally acknowledged evils in the railway system of Ireland were inherent in that system as it existed at present. The railways of that country had been constructed on no regular design, but grew up piecemeal. The result was that the lines were managed on different and often conflicting principles. A Memorial from the Dublin Chamber of Commerce to the Committee now sitting upstairs stated that preferential rates were in many cases granted to particular towns and districts, and also, there was reason to believe, to individuals, firms, and Companies. The through rates were not based on any definite principle, but appeared to be regulated almost entirely by the extent to which competition existed. These facts all showed the great dissatisfaction in the public mind with regard to the present management of the Irish railways, and afforded, he hoped, good ground for his statement that this was a matter in which the Government might well be called upon to interfere. Of course, the principal question he should have to answer was, "How can the existing evils be removed?" In the first place, they could not be removed by the enforcement of more stringent regulations by the Railway Commissioners. Such regulations might, indeed, be to a certain extent useful; but they could never touch the root of the evil. What was really wanted was unity of management conducted in a liberal and an intelligent spirit, and with a view to promoting the public interest as far as was consistent with the avoidance of loss. Voluntary amalgamation of the Railway Companies, even if it were possible, would not produce that result. The amalgamation could only be effected by the acquisition of the railways by the State; and he submitted, as an incontrovertible proposition, that the proposal he was laying before the House was the only way by which the faults of the Irish railway system could be effectually dealt with and removed. Was the acquisition of the railways by the State feasible and practicable, and would it be in accordance with right and sound principles? If Ireland were to derive any considerable benefit from the purchase of the railways by the State, it was clear that the property must be acquired at a fair price. He did not propose that the State should at once buy up all the railways in Ireland; but he believed if fair terms of purchase were offered to the Railway Companies that most of the Companies would accept those terms at once, and that the other Companies would soon accept them also. There might, perhaps, be a temporary loss; but it probably would be very small and of short duration. He had framed his Motion in such a way as to indicate his desire that the losses should fall on exclusively Irish resources, and he felt convinced that public opinion in Ireland would sustain that proposition. But financial considerations were not the only ones involved. Very grave and serious questions arose with regard to the purchase of Irish railways. In the first place, he wished to guard most carefully against the idea that the purchase of the Irish railways would involve also the purchase of English railways. On that point the Prime Minister had said that he did not think that the adoption of a principle as regarded Ireland would render necessary the application of the same principle to the remainder of the United Kingdom. When the circumstances were so different, the right hon. Gentleman said that he did not consider that the adoption of the principle in the case of Ireland would compromise the judgment of Parliament with respect to England or Scotland. As to the advantages which would be gained by the acquisition by the State of the Irish railways, there would, in the first place, be a simple and uniform management, which would render a low tariff possible. On the question of the reduction of tariff, he was anxious to avoid any exaggeration or enlargement. It would be most unfortunate if the people of Ireland were to expect as a consequence of the purchase of the railways by the State, that there would be an extravagant reduction of tariffs. At the same time, a gentleman of great experience as a Railway Director, the hon. Member for Orkney (Mr. Laing), in 1873 said that if a reduction of railway tariffs by one-half were made, although the step would be attended with some temporary loss, yet it would soon be recouped. That was a significant statement coming from a Gentleman of such experience and practical knowledge as the hon. Member. No doubt, there would be difficulties to contend with at first. The railway system of Ireland had been so bad and so inconvenient that the people had not been in the habit of using the railways as was the custom in countries where they were more expeditious and cheaper. In his opinion, the centralization of the system of railway management in Ireland would lead to many advantages. Attention would be paid to the questions of making narrow-gauge railways to develop the agricultural districts, and of laying down steam tramways to work along the common roads if there were a centralized management. But there was a great principle which lay at the foundation of this proposal, and that was that the State management of railways was necessarily undertaken upon different principles to those which regulated private control. The duty of Railway Directors was simply to obtain the largest dividends at the smallest possible cost; whereas the principle of State management was to give the greatest possible amount of convenience to the public consistent with the avoidance of loss. They were not without experience to guide them in this matter. The system of State management of railways had been adopted in nearly every country in Europe, this country being the exception to the rule. It might be said that there was a political objection to this proposal, and that it was not advisable for the Government to undertake the management of the railways. The acquisition of the railways by the State did not necessarily involve their direct management by the Government. The management of the railways could be placed by the Government under the control of capable and experienced men, without being made a Government Department. It would be intolerable that every complaint with regard to the management of railways should be made a subject of agitation or of complaint in that House. The doctrine that individual interests, if left alone and merely regulated by competition, would work better and conduce more to organized action than if Government intervened, was perfectly sound and true as regarded all ordinary transactions. But nothing could be more unfortunate than that the notion should prevail that the principle that the State ought not to undertake any trade or business capable of being managed by individuals was without limitation. Many industrial undertakings of the highest importance to the community, and giving a just return to capital, could not be regulated by competition. The most practical question was, how those undertakings to which the principle of competition did not apply could be best managed for the public good? Canals, harbours, natural navigation, water supply, the Post Office, telegraphs, and railways were instances of this. In many of those instances the principle of competition was not, in the long run, beneficial, or even possible. There was no kind of industrial undertaking to which that remark applied more entirely than to railways. The late Mr. John Stuart Mill said that when a Government conceded a private monopoly of railways it was much the same as leaving an individual or an association to levy a tax on the malt produced in or the cotton imported into a country. He (Mr. Blennerhassett) maintained that it never was the intention of the Parliament of this country that Railway Companies should enjoy this monopoly. The original intention was that Railway Companies should not enjoy a monopoly, even on their own lines; but that they should charge tolls to individuals using their own rolling stock to run over the Companies' lines. That had been found impracticable, and the result had been that the whole traffic had gone into the hands of Joint Stock monopolists. At present the Government carried on many industrial undertakings. The management of the Post Office, the banking and insurance businesses in connection with it, and the work of the telegraphs were in the hands of the Government. Irish railways had not grown beyond manageable limits. The proposition to buy Irish railways was simply to buy, not a first-rate English, but a second or third-rate English line. Then there was another point—namely, public opinion. The opinion of the people of England had not been expressed in favour of a purchase by the State of English railways in the same way as the people of Ireland had expressed their opinion in favour of a State purchase of the Irish railways. They knew that if the people of Ireland had the opportunity of themselves dealing with this question, they would make a public purchase of the Irish railways by means of a parochial guarantee. He ventured to submit this to the consideration of the House—that in asking this step to be taken he was only asking the House of Commons to do that for Ireland which Ireland, if it had the power of local self-government, would cheerfully do for itself. Was it necessary for the public good, for the proper management of these undertakings, that they should be managed by the State? If it was not necessary, then, he said, it was not desirable. It was entirely on the plea of urgency and necessity that he rested his case. He urged it on the plea of urgency and necessity, because he believed the circumstances of Ireland required that the State should undertake the management of these railways. Some years ago the Prime Minister said that no been could be conferred on Ireland so comprehensive in its application, so impartial, so free from all suspicion of undue favour to any particular class, so much in conformity with the wishes of the community, so far-reaching in its influence on all conditions and classes of men, as a better development of the railway system of Ireland. He (Mr. Blennerhassett) proposed by his Motion that that system should be better developed. He urged upon the House this sound, practical solution of those difficulties which prevailed in Ireland.


said, the hon. Member had gone so fully into the question that there was little left for him to say. He thought that one of the first points which deserved the attention of the English Members who looked at the subject dispassionately—and they had, after all, to depend in a matter like this on the votes of English Members—was the consideration, what would Ireland do if left to herself? Now, by every method by which public opinion made itself felt, quite irrespective of any political consideration, Ireland had indicated that if she had her own way she would acquire her railways as every other European country, with the exception of England, had done. There was no comparison between the cases of the acquisition of the Irish and that of the English railways. The acquisition of the English railways, on account of its magnitude, would be beset with very formidable difficulties, which did not arise in connection with the Irish railways at all. It was manifestly impossible to have free competition in railways. It was tried for a few years, and it was found that the results were most disastrous. He thought that every monopoly of such a nature as the railways should be in the hands of the State, and that the opinion of the Government generally, as was manifest by their so long ago having acquired the postal service, and having followed it up by the acquisition of the postal telegraphs. Now, the case of the railways was very much analogous. With regard to the question of finance, the Resolution dealt with it in very general terms. Irish Members did not come at all in the condition of beggars asking something from the State. As the hon. Member suggested, whatever expenses were to be borne would be borne by Ireland herself. The proposition they put forward now was that there should be no burden put upon the Imperial Exchequer in connection with this subject. Therefore, they could not be taunted with constantly wanting to have a pull at the public purse. If they wanted to have a pull at the public purse, it was to have a pull at their own public purse, and he thought they had a perfect right to have a pull at that whenever they pleased. There never was an occasion upon which there was such a consensus of opinion as the occasion of the Memorial to which the hon. Member had referred. His recollection was that there was practically unanimity on this subject. He would not go in detail into the advantages this scheme would produce, because he felt convinced that no person could oppose the Motion on the ground that State purchase of the railways would be to the public disadvantage. The amalgamation of the numerous Boards now existing would be a great public advantage. The immediate saving in salaries would represent nothing compared with the absence of the jealous interference with each other which at present existed and was inevitable, but which would be obviated by working the system upon a comprehensive plan. The financial result, however, could not be despised in the case of a poor country like Ireland, the development of which, in its most backward parts, was being impeded under the present variety of systems. Though it might be suggested that the present was an inopportune time for this Motion, when State assistance might be better directed towards the land system, he could not recognize any force in the objection, because this had always been a pressing question. The matter was very opportune, because, owing to the depression of the last few years, the purchase could have been effected on very favourable terms, and shareholders would gladly transfer their present security, which was of fluctuating value, into State railway stock. The purchase could be effected without any of that extravagance and Stock Exchange jobbery which marked the purchase of the telegraphs; and the only solid objection that he could see to the scheme would come from Irish Members sitting on that side of the House. They might say with much force that, in the present condition of the Irish Administration, it was undesirable that so large an extra amount of patronage should be given into the hands of the Government; and it might be said, he feared truly, that such patronage would be used to some extent—indirectly, perhaps—but certainly for political purposes; in other words, to exclude those who held opinions contrary to the present Administration. He thought all Government patronage was so used in Ireland. That was a serious objection now when political opinion ran so high in Ireland. Nevertheless, he would be prepared to submit to this for the sake of the solid practical advantages that would accrue to the country from having the railways under the control of one body, believing that soon the administration of the railways, together with the administration of other purely local matters, would be given to some body really representative of Irish opinion, and free from the political bias which was, unfortunately, inseparable from all Irish affairs. A further argument was found in the fact that, in every other country except England, the State had some control over the railways, and that such control was gradually increasing. England might be capable of working its present system, but Ireland was not.


, on the part of the Government, said, that this question had been brought fully before the House in 1872, when a Bill introduced by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kerry was rejected on the second reading. In 1874 the hon. Member again brought the subject forward, and not only was his Resolution rejected by a large majority, but a Resolution was passed stating— That the purchase of the Irish Railways by the State would be financially inexpedient, would unduly enlarge the patronage of the Government, and seriously increase the pressure of Business in Parliament. He really thought the hon. Member took too sanguine a view, and that a little sober examination into details, and the manner in which his proposed transfer would work, might really very much change the view he took. Now, the only reason he (Mr. Ashley) could possibly see why Ireland should be made an exception to the rest of the country was because the interests involved were small. All the complaints mentioned by the hon. Member in connection with the administration of Irish railways were re-echoed, not only in connection with railways in the United Kingdom, but in other parts of the world also. The complaint about the carriage of fish, for example, was one that came before the Committee at present sitting on Railway Rates quite as strong from Scotland as from Ireland. From Scotland and from England the complaint was that the railways would not adjust their rates so as to enable fish to be brought to the great centres of consumption. Then there was the complaint that goods from Dublin to the interior of Ireland cost the same as from Birmingham to the interior of Ireland. This was the same question of preferential rates for goods in through traffic, as compared with traffic from the sea-board, which had been heard ad nauseam from other parts of the United Kingdom. They should not, therefore, approach this question with the belief that Irish railways were worse managed than English railways. He did not believe they were. In some districts where there was not much competition, he believed that the charges for passenger traffic were somewhat higher; but, as a rule, considering the difficulties under which they had been undertaken and constructed, there could be no valid complaint as to their being worse conducted than English railways. That being so, what was to be held out to them as the prospect before them if they changed the management, and handed the railways over to the State? He perfectly agreed that unity of management was of the greatest importance, and they must work to that end as much as they could. But he would point out that great advances had been made already in that direction, many separate Companies having disappeared, and the number of Railway Directors in Ireland having been reduced by amalgamations from 450 in 1867 to 230 at the present time, which was still, he admitted, too many. There was not likely to be any great increase of traffic in Ireland for a long time; but when they were told that a few years ago there was a strong feeling in the country on this subject, and that this feeling had died away, a good deal, he believed, of that was greatly owing to the improved condition and income of the railways through the amalgamations which had taken place, and owing to the action of the Railway Commission of 1873, which went to Ireland, having very much satisfied the more thinking portion of the Irish railway world and the Irish people that their railways were improving, and did not need the drastic remedy they might have required 15 or 16 years ago. The hon. Member for Kerry was of opinion that everything should be done to encourage enterprize and the display of energy among the Irish people; but surely the best way of accomplishing that purpose was not by the exercise of State control. A statement of the Prime Minister had been quoted to the effect that a better development of railways in Ireland would be of the greatest benefit to that country. It had not, however, been shown that Parliament would improve the present system by placing it under Government management. In countries where that principle had been adopted comparatively little extension took place. There was no doubt whatever that in foreign countries you were carried cheaper, and your goods were also carried cheaper, than in England; but, on the other hand, the extreme development of competition, due to private enterprize, had given a more rapid and excellent service. It was more expensive; but the people of this country had the best of the bargain, because there was a constant flow of enterprize in England, which they would not have were the Government the owner of the lines. He did not see how a Railway Board was to be constituted which would not be a Department for which the Government would be responsible, and for the conduct of which they would be held accountable, or else it would be a Board over which Parliament would have no control whatever. He would point out, once for all, to those hon. Members who were continually talking about Continental management of railways being by the Government, how completely dissimilar the conditions of England and Ireland were from foreign countries. They must not forget that the railways here were always exposed at every point to competition by sea. They might call railway management in this country a monopoly as much as they liked; but the railway managers were always checked by the presence of water carriage, and their rates would always have to be adjusted accordingly. In the case of the Post Office and the Telegraph the Government had an absolute monopoly; and the railway system and the conduct of general traffic could not be made a monopoly in the same sense and to the same extent. Further, for letters and telegrams the charges were uniform, irrespective of distance, so that any proposed reduction of charge had to be dealt with simply as an Imperial question; but, as they could not have such uniform charges for railway traffic, the Government would be perpetually exposed to claims for variations of rates on a variety of grounds, from which claims they were effectually protected in the case of the Post Office by the adoption of uniform rates. The various rates which now existed were many millions in number. The evils of State ownership would be that there would be public pressure for the general reduction of rates, possibly down to cost price of working, or even less, which might become a political pressure on the eve of a General Election; and, apart from that, all who had influence would use it to obtain special and local reductions, and the Government would be exposed to imputations of favouritism from all disappointed applicants. At present the Companies who were acknowledged traders could protect themselves; the Directors had to discharge the duty to the shareholders; they could point to their Acts of Parliament, and they were entitled to say to their customers—"Do not contract with us if you do not wish for our services." But the plea of public policy would, in the case of State management, open the door to all sorts of reasons which had nothing whatever to do with the question of the service rendered. This would lead to constant discussions in the House, which had no time to spare for them. The difficulties of patronage were less serious, although they deserved consideration. If these were to be avoided by leasing the lines to Companies who were to compete, as it was epigrammatically put, for the field, though not in the field, the Government would be tempted to work up to rack rents; while, if the areas were small, the competing Companies would fight over the traffic, controlled only as now by the Law Courts, and if they were large the competition would be reduced, and the business would become a monopoly, so that they would still be exposed to many of the evils now complained of. It was said Ireland was to be divided into three districts, with three bodies of management. If so, there would be just the same inducements to divert traffic that existed now, and the last state of the country might not be better than the first. The only way of controlling the Companies would be by clauses in the leases, which could be enforced only in the Law Courts, and the Government would have to go into Court, if necessary. This could be done now; bodies of traders could take the Companies before the Commissioners to enforce the provisions of the Traffic Act and to protect the public. He did not see how the public were to be benefited by the change, while the public would lose one guarantee which they now possessed, in the hostage which a Company must have as a security for good behaviour in the shape of the capital invested in their undertakings. Then, as to the allegations about the reduction of rates and fares which would ensue, the fact was, that Railway Companies were in this country virtually the lessees of Parliament. The conditions of lease were a maximum of rates and fares, within which they could go up and down as they pleased. If the Government reserved to itself the right to interfere at any moment, and on any occasion, with the rates and fares of their lessees they would get nobody to take leases. The hon. Member abandoned the idea of complete control and management by the Government. He preferred the system of leasing. That system would bring about none of the advantages in view, because such mixed control had been found everywhere, as in India, bad. The Belgian Government had found the inconvenience of giving way in the matter of special rates and contracts so great that in 1862 they had been compelled to abandon the system, and to revert to that of having a fixed rate, and making no change for anybody. But the commercial prosperity and enterprize of this country would greatly suffer if it was deprived of the elasticity which a system of special or exceptional rates under proper control afforded. There were many considerations which would have to be taken into view before the Government ought to bind itself to adopt any plan similar to the one proposed. He believed, however, that amalgamation was advancing in Ireland, and would advance still more, and that the railways were paying better than they did in years gone by. He did not say within the last 12 months, because the number of tourists and others who used the railway had been reduced by the exciting and disastrous events in that country. Still, the Railway Companies were so prospering that he did not believe they would be willing sellers to the Government. Some, no doubt, would be glad enough to be bought up; but the proposal of the hon. Member to purchase so many of them as were willing to sell meant securing all the bad bargains for the Government and not obtaining any of the good ones. The scheme at first sight seemed a very good one, and hon. Members opposite favoured it perhaps without much practical acquaintance with the subject, in which ease discontent with existing arrangements was apt to induce a desire for change. But he doubted the real advantage of the change. This question had been very carefully considered by the Duke of Devonshire's Commission, who, without any prejudice in the matter, came to the conclusion that, in the matter of railway ownership by the State, there was nothing in Ireland which ought to be treated in an exceptional manner. He certainly himself had approached the matter rather with a prejudice in favour of buying up the railways. It would be a good thing, perhaps, in a political, but not in a pecuniary or commercial point of view. He could not believe that the Irish railways or the Irish people would benefit very much by it. He believed that the Irish railways, under the influence of amalgamation and of good management, could obtain all the advantages that were hoped for from State management. But it was a fetish and superstition in Ireland that everything ought to be done by the State rather than by private enterprize.


said, he thought that the many advantages resulting from individual management, as opposed to a general management of all railways by the State, ought to be carefully weighed. Some years ago a proposition was laid before the Prime Minister for acquiring the various railway systems in this country, by which not only were the public to be benefited, but a large revenue acquired by the State. Now, increased railway returns could only be gained, either by running trains slower, and therefore cheaper, by running fewer, or by the smaller amount of interest which would be paid on the capital borrowed. Experience, however, showed them that the larger railways could borrow at nearly the same rate as the State, and slower and less frequent trains would certainly be no benefit to the public in general. An amalgamation of railway systems did not present the same advantage as that of telegraphs, each railway being, in fact, a separate, unconnected system, whereas the postal service was not. Besides, if the railways were handed over to the State, greatly increased patronage would result. There was already outcry enough about the disposal of the patronage of the Irish Post Office, and he had no desire to see that outcry augmented, or to run the risk of having political appointments made. There were now in Ireland 270 Directors of the various private Companies. For his own part, he wished the number were greater, and that more gentlemen in Ireland took part in public affairs. As the railway system of Ireland developed, it might very probably be subject to that local government which, it was hoped, would soon be established; but, at the present time, he doubted whether the proposed change would be advantageous.


remarked, that his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade had made no mention of the Commission that sat in the years 1867–8, with Instructions to inquire upon what terms the railways in Ireland could be acquired. That fact showed that there was then some definite intention on the part of the Government to consider the subject with a view to some practical proposal. The Commission, after ascertaining the system adopted in Belgium, came to the conclusion that precisely the same fares might be charged in Ireland without any substantial loss, and calculated that in 12 years enough money would be earned to recoup the State for its outlay. Many parts of Ireland, and particularly the city and county of Cork, suffered from the present state of things; and he was sorry, therefore, that the proposal had not been more favourably considered by his hon. Friend.


said, that the Secretary to the Board of Trade had very fairly stated the practical objections to the proposal; but had rather kept in the background the attractiveness of the scheme from a financial and administrative point of view. Financial considerations, as it seemed to him, were all in its favour, and the circumstances of the country lent themselves to its administrative convenience. If he was not mistaken, the result of the Treasury Commission of the year 1867 was to show that a return of 4 per cent might be expected from the purchase of Irish railways on a large scale. The political objections to it, however, were very strong, and the experience they had of the growing tendency to bring forward in that House every question touching local interests strengthened the objection.


said, that the subject which was now under consideration naturally suggested some comparison with the scheme which was adopted some years ago of the purchase of the telegraphs by the State.


said, the hon. Member was out of Order. He must confine himself to the subject before the House. There was no Amendment at present before the House.


said, he was sorry if he was not in Order. He had intended to keep within the lines of the Motion. He wanted to point out, if he was in Order, that the justification for the purchase of telegraphs by the State was this—that whereas the Telegraph Companies formerly conducted their business as private speculations and for private benefit, that business was now conducted in the interest of the whole of the people. That was what he wished to propose to the House—that the railways in Ireland should be conducted for the general benefit of the people of Ireland. He ventured to think that the Secretary to the Board of Trade was not quite correct in his assumption. It was in no way an answer to assume that the railways in Ireland, if purchased by the State, must necessarily be managed by a great political Department in London. They might be managed in Ireland itself, in somewhat the same way as the Inland Revenue Department was managed. It was said the rail-ways in England were not a parallel case to those in Ireland. Why could not English railways be purchased? Because the day for doing it had passed. If it had been possible to purchase the English railways 20 years ago, they might have been acquired on the same equitable terms as the French Government were acquiring the French railways. What might have been done for England 20 years ago might be done now for Ireland. If there was to be any prosperity for Ireland some strong Government—not the present—could not too soon take a statesmanlike view of the question, and acquire on equitable terms the management of Irish railways. He heartily supported the Motion.


said, he was sorry that the Secretary to the Board of Trade had not given a more favourable answer to the Motion. He could not be surprised, however, that in the incessant pressure of Irish affairs the Government should be indisposed to take up further burdens in connection with that country. He hoped that matters would, before long, become more quiet, so that the question might be considered more thoroughly. The Secretary to the Board of Trade had pointed to amalgamation as the true remedy. But that remedy would only enure to the benefit of the shareholders, and would do no good to the general public. The present state of things was anomalous in the extreme. Bread-stuffs could be sent from New York to Londonderry at less cost than they could be sent from Londonderry into the wild districts of the county Donegal. Again, flax could be sent from the interior of Belgium to Dunkirk, thence to Goole, from Goole across England to Liverpool, and thence to Newry at 18s. per ton; whereas the cost of forwarding the same article from Sligo to Newry varied from 30s. to 35s. per ton. These were facts that justified the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Kerry. The undertaking would be by no means a great one; not so great, e.g., as the purchase of a second-class railway in England.


said, he thought that the discussion which had taken place had been extremely satisfactory. In some cases the rates in Ireland were no less than six times as high as those charged in Belgium. It was simply absurd that the price of the transit of goods should be six times as great as it was in this country. If the money that was wasted in repeated applications to Parliament had been saved, those prices would be reduced proportionately. The late Mr. Graves, a former Member for Liverpool, who was skilled in those matters, had said that 25 per cent would be saved by a unity of management. He ridiculed the objection raised on the score of patronage. There was no abuse of patronage either in the Dockyards or in the Post Office. He thought that the purchase of the railways in the manner proposed must be or advantage to Ireland.


said, it must not be supposed, if this question was allowed to stand by, that it had never had sufficient consideration from the Government. That was not the case. This was a question about which, nearly 20 years ago, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Government of Lord Palmerston, he felt a very lively interest and an extreme desire that some mode could be found to acquire Irish railways for the purpose of the State, if certain objections could be got over. A Commission of very great importance, referred to by his hon. Friend (Mr. Ashley), was appointed at that time, of which the Duke of Devonshire was the head, and the present Lord Derby was really the vice-head. It was a very laborious Commission, composed of very able men; and they came, advisedly and deliberately, to an adverse Report on the subject of the acquisition of the Irish railways. That was a very important fact, and when some further inquiry had been made, and when the matter was brought to the view of Parliament by the very general consent of parties, a decision was given—which he had no doubt was a very reluctant decision—which was an extremely authoritative decision. An immense majority of the House, not composed by any means exclusively of the followers of the Government of that day, did declare, and in very strong terms, against the acquisition of the railways by the State. But he had no desire that this question should be allowed to pass by. He would only say one word more; that was, however, that he held it to be absolutely out of the question that in this country the railways should be taken and managed by the State. He would not enter into the details of the objections. Patronage was one of the objections. In competency on the part of the State to address itself to a business so exceedingly subtle and manifold as the the conduct of railway traffic, especially goods traffic, was another point; and the additional pressure to be brought on the Government in Parliament through the gratuitous assumption of those vast responsibilities was another great objection. He believed himself that in those, to name no others, would be found topics of the most commanding and comprehensive character against any idea of the assumption of the management of railways by the State. If railways were ever to be acquired by the State, it must be by first overcoming a difficulty in another direction which had not yet been overcome. Undoubtedly he thought, in the abstract, it would be a very good ideal system if it were possible for the State to be the proprietor of the permanent and fixed works of the railways, and to commit to Commercial Companies the ownership of the rolling stock and the management of the business. That would have very great advantages; because it would be much more easy to find capital adequate to a system of that kind than it was to find capitals which, as commercial capitals, were so extremely heavy, in consequence of enormous investments in public works. He was sorry to say that all experience in this country went against the practicability of the leasing of the railways. It had been tried once or twice, but it had never taken root. Where it had been tried it had not succeeded. He did not say it was impossible. He believed there might be great advantages if it could be put on a footing in which the respective interests of the lesson and the lessee would be adequately provided for and defended. But no progress had been made in this direction as yet. It had been found impracticable to solve that problem, and until that problem was solved he was convinced that an obstacle stood in the way of the present Motion. It was with great regret, because he owned his desire, especially for Ireland, stood in that direction; but he could not see his way through obstacles of such a serious character. If it were possible by human ingenuity—and human ingenuity could do many things, and sometimes achieved at a later period what had not been accomplished at an earlier period—to devise a good system of leases, then, undoubtedly, the mere financial operation in Ireland would be within reasonable compass. He did not say he thought the State ought to look at the matter as at a speculation, whether it would be a good speculation or otherwise; but though he did not recommend it on that ground, he quite admitted that within a reasonable compass, and in a matter recommended by strong considerations of public policy, it might easily be faced. But it was idle to shut their eyes to the real difficulties of the case; and those would best serve the public interest in the matter who should be able to procure and suggest in a practical shape any means for the avoidance and diminution of those objections and difficulties.


believed he was only expressing the general opinion entertained in Ireland when he said that the House should take up that matter seriously, and deal with it in a practical manner.


said, he thought there was no real hope of the amelioration of the Irish railway system until it was embraced in a scheme of what the Prime Minister called local government, but of what the people of Ireland called Home Rule, for that country.


observed that, although great objections had been taken by hon. Members to the present system, the arguments, on the whole, were very much against the proposed acquisition of the Irish railways by the State. He concurred very much with what had fallen from the hon. and gallant Member for Cork County (Colonel Colthurst) as to the irregularity in the railway charges at particular places. Where there was no competition between different railways, or between the railways and other modes of conveyance, the public were likely to have to pay far higher rates than would otherwise be imposed; and he could not well see how that and similar evils were to be remedied, unless the State were to establish a more stringent supervision over the rates charged by Railway Companies than that which had heretofore existed. It had been said that public opinion in Ireland was in favour of the State acquiring the railways; but he did not believe that anything really deserving to be called general public opinion on the subject had ever yet been evoked or formed in that country. Whatever might be the opinion in Ireland if the arguments on both sides were placed before the public, there was nothing at present to warrant a change so enormous as the one now proposed would be. Nor did he think the time at all opportune. It was extremely inopportune. The Irish Land Question was in a very unsettled state, and it now filled the public mind, and was of far greater importance than anything connected with the railways could possibly be. As to the success of the Irish railways, the shares of three of the principal lines were now above par; and, of course, the small lines opened in districts where there could be but little traffic were unprofitable, as would be the case in any country. He thought that things should be allowed to go on as they were until a better case had been made out. The people of Ireland very much preferred to have the management of their own affairs in their own hands rather than to let the State interfere with them, directly or indirectly.