HC Deb 10 June 1895 vol 34 cc860-4

formally moved the Second Reading of this Bill.

*MR. E. STRACHEY (Somerset, S.) rose to move:— That, so long as Light Railways are constructed and maintained by Imperial subventions in Scotland and Ireland, no Bill for the construction of Light Railways in England will be satisfactory which does not provide for like assistance from the Treasury. He observed that when the President of the Board of Trade asked for leave to introduce this Bill, speaking of the question of State aid, he said:— Next, as to the probability that these lines will be made without the provision of some kind of public aid. It has been suggested that public aid should be given to these enterprises from the national Exchequer. I do not think that the Government would be justified, in the present condition of the public revenue, and of public opinion in regard to this question, in proposing a measure so novel and open to so many serious objections of policy."? In his Amendment he had carefully guarded himself against asserting the principle of State Aid. He ventured to assert, however, that so long as it was the policy of this House and of the Government of the day to advance State Aid for the purpose of Light Railways in Scotland and Ireland, it should also be the policy of the Government of the day to adopt the same course in the ease of Light Railways for England. There was an interesting letter in The Daily News of the 22nd of April last from Mr. E. B. Cotton, General Manager of the. Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, who, in 1890, was appointed by the Public Works Commissioners to hold inquiries into the schemes for light railways in Ireland. That gentleman, who was so well qualified to speak on the subject, said, in reference to the Bill now before the House, that he was not sanguine of the success of light railways in England unless a system adopted in Ireland was also adopted in England, it was that the light railways should be constructed with money from Imperial sources, and then handed over to the local railway companies to work. The House had before it the Report of the Committee on Light Railways. No doubt it was a valuable Report, but it would have been well if the House had also been allowed to have the evidence on which that Report was based; and also the Report furnished by the Foreign Office in regard to light railways in other countries. He had tried to get those documents, but had not been able to obtain them from any source. He thought it was only right that the House should be allowed to see them, in order to get more accurate information as to whether it would be wise to give State aid to light railways in England, as in Scotland and Ireland. Why did he ask for State aid in England? It was because of the very large sums which had been voted by the State for the construction of light railways in Ireland and Scotland. The total amount voted under the various Irish Light Railway Acts amounted to the enormous sum of £65,000 a year; £30,722 of that sum was used to pay to the shareholders dividends not exceeding 2 per cent., on the barony guaranteeing a like amount, and the rest of the sum, which, capitalised, amounted to £l,142,600 had, so far as he could make out from the official returns, been used for the construction of light railways in Ireland. With regard to Scotland, there was a Government Motion on the Paper asking Parliament to guarantee, in the case of the West Highland Railway interest at the rate of 3 per cent, on £260,000 of capital, and to pay a sum not exceeding £30,000 to the Company for making a light railway. But it was well known that the great railway companies were now able to borrow money at practically less than 3 per cent. The question of giving some aid to English light railways had been taken up by the agriculturists of the country, who strongly approved of the principle of dealing with England in this matter in the same way as Ireland and Scotland had been dealt with. After his amendment was placed on the Paper, the Central Chamber of Agriculture passed a resolution almost identically the same as his Amendment. The hon. Member for East Northamptonshire (Mr. Channing) made a slight protest, but otherwise the Resolution was passed unanimously. It was said there was no precedent for giving Government grants in aid of local matters. That was not quite the case, because grants had been made from Imperial funds for technical education the promotion of which was quite as local a matter as the construction of light railways. He maintained it was very important we should have light railways, and he had shown by the statements he had quoted it was very difficult to get them without some State aid or some guarantee, as was given in the case of light railways in Ireland and Scotland. It seemed to him the only alternative; was to remodel and recast the Bill if we were to get any good out of it through the agency of private enterprise. He had been told by high railway authorities that the only saving under the Bill would be that of the expenses of witnesses to London: that otherwise the expense of promoting a light railway before a County Council would be almost identically the same as that before a Committee of the House of Commons. He thought there would be more advantage derived by the Bill if it provided some means of making cheap tramways worked by steam or other motive power. [Mr. BRYCE: "It is practicable."] He was glad to hear that. He did not want to commit himself to State aid under all circumstances. It was arguable whether it was right for the State to aid private enterprise. But the Government could not expect English Members to go on voting money for light railways in Ireland and Scotland to enable Scotch and Irish farmers to send more easily over here their produce to compete with ours, and at the same time ask the House to pass a Bill authorising the construction of light railways in England without affording the same facilities granted to Irish and Scotch lines. He concluded by moving his Amendment.

* MR. GRANT LAWSON (York, N.R., Thirsk and Malton)

seconded, and said, if he spoke at length on this or some other occasion it was because of the remarkable position of the constituency he represented. That constituency was of enormous area, and contained within it, not one, but several districts sparsely populated arid of an agricultural character. But if the population were sparse the people who did live there had taken the keenest interest in the question of light railways. They had already laid down one light railway which was in working order, and they had projected various others for the purpose of developing, not only the agriculture, but the mineral resources of the district. All these projects stopped short precisely where the Bill stopped—at the money. With the view of helping those who projected light railways he rose with pleasure to second the Resolution. The Easingwold Railway, to which he had referred, was practically a light railway. It was only two and a-half miles long, and it might have been made without any very heavy expenditure. It possessed one or two remarkable advantages, for it was a connecting link between a large agricultural district and the much-frequented markets of Thirsk and York. The passenger traffic was, therefore, considerable—probably more than that of any other light railway which might be constructed—and amounted to £600 or £700 a year. Further, the railway had the exceptional advantage of the unpaid services, as Manager and Secretary, of Dr. Buller Hicks. Dr. Hicks had enormously improved the service on the line, and had reduced the expenses, but he had not been able to make the railway pay a dividend. If this railway could be made to pay—he thought, though not a shareholder—it would do more to promote light railways than any efforts of Parliament. He had gone into the figures of the five years during which the Easingwold Railway had been working, and into the figures of the cost of obtaining Parliamentary powers and building the line. The undertaking was hampered at the commencement by some of those counsels of perfection which successive Presidents of the Board of Trade had always thought it necessary to apply to the construction of railways in this country. It had also been hampered by the expense of getting its Bill passed, though those were not the difficulties which had overburdened the Company. The real burden was the difficulty of raising the original capital. The Parliamentary expenses were £1,084, or £434 per mile. That was too much, of course, but even if that could all be done away with, it would not represent the difference between the present partial success and a complete success. The most accurate calculations showed that, had all the capital been available beforehand, so that the Company would have been clear of any trouble with its contractors, and had not needed to be financed by them, and if the railway had been made with the advice of experienced men connected with the Board of Trade, the line might have been constructed for £6,000, instead of for more than £11,000, the actual cost. That was a difference of £2,000 per mile. So that, while the Parliamentary expenses might well be reduced, the real difficulty could only be met in regard to light railways by providing cheaper capital for the construction. The experience of the Easingwold Railway was not exceptional. Mr. Sellen told the Committee that improvident methods of raising money were the largest head of expenditure in connection with light railways.

Debate adjourned.