HC Deb 24 April 1896 vol 39 cc1615-26

MR. D. LLOYD-GEORGE (Carnarvon) moved:— That it be an instruction to the Committee to provide that the rates and tolls charged on the Chester and Holyhead branch of the London and North-Western Railway Company's line of railway shall be no higher than those charged on any other branch of their railway system. He said that the traders and others interested could not afford to fight the Company in the Committee, and the Instruction gave them the only opportunity of ventilating their grievances. The preferential charges levied by the Company on the Chester and Holyhead line could not be disputed. A conference of the agricultural societies of North Wales was held on the subject at Bangor a short time ago. It was non-political, the President of the Board of Agriculture was present, and most of the speakers belonged to the Ministerial Party. A farmer of Anglesey stated at that conference that he had to pay 7s. per head for the conveyance of his fat beasts to Chester. Cattle were sent all the way from Dublin over the same line to Chester at 7s. 6d. per head, with a deduction of 2s. per head. The same farmer pointed out that for the carriage of grain produce the Company received about 12s. 6d. an acre, while the landowner received about £1; and when grain and straw were taken together the Company got more than the landowner. For the conveyance of one horse from Valli, in Anglesey, to Liverpool, the charge was £2; while from Dublin, through Holyhead to Liverpool, the charge was only 25s., and a free return for the groom. This was grossly unfair. Liverpool was the market for the agricultural produce of North Wales, and yet the farmers were handicapped in every way. Straw was worth 30s. a ton; and the rate from Festiniog to Liverpool was 21s. 6d. per ton. At that rate it was impossible to compete with foreign producers. For the carriage of food stuffs and manure to the farmer in these small towns in Anglesey the same excessive charges were made. The carriage from Bangor to a small village in the middle of Anglesey was 9¼d. per ton per mile; the charge from Liverpool to the same town was 1¾d. per ton per mile. If the same rate were charged in both cases the farmer would save 6s. a ton. As to the conveyance of slates, minerals and coal, the rates were tolerably fair to the large towns; and he asked that the same rates should be charged for conveyance to the small agricultural towns on the Chester and Holyhead line. By a Bill passed in 1891 the Company was entitled to charge 1¼d. per mile for slates on this line; but for a much greater distance the charge was much less, and the Company exercised their power to charge the maximum rates to these small agricultural centres. It was time that the rates were reduced when the railway came into competition with sea-carriage. But if they could carry goods to Cardiff, Swansea and Liverpool at the reduced rate and make a profit, the inland rates must be excessive. And if there was no profit, then it was evident that the small inland towns paid excessively to make up for the loss on the seaport rates. The farmer, landowner, and rural trader had to make up the loss, and they were practically taxed in order to enable the Company to crush out the sea competition with other towns. This was grossly unfair, and the House ought to put an end to the injustice. For the conveyance of slates from Nantyglo to Carnarvon the Company charged the maximum rate of 1s. 7d. per ton, but if it was assumed that the slates would not be discharged at Carnarvon for the purpose of being conveyed by sea and would be sent along the London and North-Western Railway, the charge was reduced by one shilling. What was the object of that? It was simply in order to crush the sea trade of Carnarvon. He thought that he had made out a case proving that along this line of railway, wherever the Company had a monopoly, the farmers, landowners, and small traders were being charged excessive rates, and where there was sea competition they were cutting down rates to the finest point and making them up at. the expense of other trades who had no sea competition. He appealed to the. House to protect the small farmers and traders.

MR. W. T. HOWELL (Denbigh Boroughs)

seconded the Motion, remarking that his constituency felt strongly on this matter of railway rates as exacted by the London and North-Western Railway Company. He protested against the principle which was applied by the London and North-Western Company, in common with other railways, of making non-competitive areas pay for the cutting of rates at other points of competition between the railway systems.


The hon. Member cannot argue the general principle.


protested as regarded this piece of line, because it was an application of the general principle which had been explained. In North Wales the railway company which had the largest monopoly of railway carriage was the London and North-Western Company, and there were many instances quite as startling as those which had been quoted in connection with the other parts of the system. They were justified, therefore, in ventilating this question, because it was vain to tell the small farmers in that part of the country either that they should go before the Railway Commissioners, or when the Company had a Bill before Parliament to go before a Parliamentary Committee, and be represented by counsel.

MR. SAMUEL SMITH (Flintshire)

supported the Motion. He was convinced that an injustice was being done to North Wales, and that the charges in many cases were four times as high as were charged elsewhere in England. Excessive rates like these were really strangling, to a great extent, the trade of North Wales, which depended almost entirely on minerals and farming. The condition of farming in North Wales at present was most miserable, and it was cruel to charge the poor farmers for the carriage of their produce a sum which almost, in many cases, was equal to the rate paid to the landlord. The question of rates was becoming most urgent. While the price obtained for farming produce and minerals had fallen about 50 per cent. in the last 20 years, the rates charged by the railways for their carriage were just the same.

MR. C. T. MURDOCH (Reading)

maintained that there was no necessity whatever for this discussion. The whole of this question was fully discussed when the Bill of the London and North-Western Company was before the House a few days ago. The same arguments were used on that occasion as the House had heard to-day. The House was really asked to decide a most intricate question without having the necessary evidence before it. They were asked to say, without having the evidence for and against particular rates, whether or not a Committee upstairs should be bound to carry out a particular suggestion. Such a proceeding was quite contrary to the usages of the House. Matters of detail were always left to the Committee, which could sift the evidence necessary to come to a decision. He thought that on this occasion the House would not depart from its usual practice, and would delegate its authority to those who could look carefully into the matter and sift it thoroughly and then come to a decision which no doubt would be ratified by the House. This question of rates had been directly before the Board of Trade and other authorities, and he was surprised at the statements made by the hon. Member for Carnarvon that it was impossible for farmers and traders to put their views before a Committee of the House of Commons.


I never said a word to that effect.


said, that as far as his experience went there had not been any difficulty as to any class having some one to advocate their views before a Committee of the House of Commons if the occasion needed it. The whole question of rates were constantly undergoing the attention of the railway authorities. It was only two or three days ago that a Conference was held.


The hon. Member cannot go into the general question.


reminded the House that this very question of rates had most carefully been considered both by the Board of Trade and by a former Parliament. The rate fixed as a maximum was done after due consideration, and all that was asked for by the Company in this Bill was that the same maximum approved by the Board of Trade should be the maximum to be enforced by the terms of this Measure. In any case, the House was not the tribunal to decide the question. A Committee upstairs was the proper tribunal, and there, he had no doubt, both the arguments for and against it would be amply put.

MR. HERBERT LEWIS (Flint Boroughs)

said the speech of the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Murdoch) who had spoken on behalf of the Company was so uncompromising in character that it demanded an immediate reply. The hon. Member had stated that the question had received due consideration by the Parliamentary Committee appointed in 1891. Having regard to the fact that only one trader from the North Wales district was represented before that Committee, and the greater part of the discussion had turned upon the rates to and from one station on a branch railway in North Wales, the hon. Member's assertion was hardly borne out by the facts. The traffic of the Company had increased to such an extent on their Chester and Holyhead line that, in order to provide some relief for its congested condition, they had come to Parliament to seek for powers to enable them to widen the line. He was very glad that their traffic had increased, and he made no objection to the provision of facilities to remove the congestion of traffic, but the Bill involved one question of principle so important in its character and affecting so profoundly the circumstances of the agricultural and trading community in Flintshire, Denbighshire, Carnarvonshire, and Anglesey, namely—the question of exceptional rates, that it was necessary to obtain, before the Bill went into Committee, a clear understanding as to whether or not the Committee intended to take into consideration the question of exceptional rates, and the lines upon which it ought to be settled. This was not the first time that the question had been before the House. In 1891 a Committee sat to consider the whole question of railway rates and charges in England and Wales. At that time the rates were much higher on the Chester and Holy-head than on other sections of the line; partly in pursuance of the recommendations of the Committee and partly in consequence of the action of Parliament those exceptional rates had been reduced, but not to the level of rates charged on other parts of the Company's system. The reasons given to the Committee for higher rates on the Chester and Holy-head section would not, he thought, bear examination for a moment. Unfortunately, no one had appeared before the Committee of 1891 to combat those reasons, and the Committee, therefore, made their Report in ignorance of the actual facts of the case. The first reason was that the Chester and Holyhead section of the railway cost a considerable amount to construct. That argument might have applied 50 years ago, when the railway was constructed through a sparsely populated district and before the Irish traffic had time to develop, but it did not apply now. The London and North Western Railway had bought the line from the Chester and Holyhead Company at a low price, but the rates should be charged not on the basis of the cost of the line to the Chester and Holyhead Company, but its cost to the North Western Company. Since its construction the Irish traffic had increased enormously, and the greater part of the traffic between England and Ireland passed over this route. The local traffic too had developed very largely. There was, therefore, no reason whatever on this score why higher rates should be charged on the Chester and Holyhead section. The second reason given for the maintenance of these high rates was that the line was costly to maintain owing to its position on the coast. He replied that the exceptional position of the London and North Western Railway on the coast gave it a practical monopoly. If another Company attempted to construct a line on the coast it would probably have to do twice the amount of tunnelling, and the price of the land acquired for the construction of the line would be much higher. But, in any event it was worth the Company's while to maintain the line for the sake of the through traffic. If there were not a passenger or a ton of goods to be carried between Chester and Holyhead it would still be worth the Company's while to maintain the line as a connecting link between England and Ireland. But so far from the line being unremunerative, he ventured to say it was the most remunerative portion of the Company's system. The third argument used in support of exceptional rates was that the line had only one side from which it could draw traffic instead of running through the country and being able to draw traffic from both sides. That was a most extraordinary argument to use, because facilities of water carriage had brought large works to the banks of the Dee, and this had added considerably to the traffic of the Company, while such seaside resorts as Rhyl, Prestatyn, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, and Penmaenmawr, which would not be in existence but for the presence of the sea, had enabled the Company to develop its traffic enormously. If he were told that the coast owed much to the Company he would not deny it, but other great railway companies would only have been too glad to have the opportunities on the North Wales coast, of which the London and North Western Company had enjoyed a monopoly. The Company were further disentitled to charge exceptional rates on this line because they had joined other companies in constructing an obstructive line, the object of which was to prevent another company from constructing a competing line to North Wales. It had also purchased lines which it had not opened for passenger traffic. Not only was the main line in the hands of the North Western, but the adjoining branch lines as well, and this placed a large part of North Wales under the exclusive control of the Company. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary to take care that the monopoly should not be injuriously exercised. What were the exceptional rates of which they complained? The Act of 1891 empowered the Company to charge for the first 20 miles 25 per cent. more for goods carried on the Chester and Holyhead than on the other main portions of the line. For the next 50 miles the charge was 32 per cent. higher, and for distances beyond the charge was 60 per cent. higher. And these rates were charged upon a railway on which the traffic had increased to such an extent as to become unmanageable and to necessitate the doubling of the line. But it was said "these are only maximum rates, and we seldom charge the maximum." If that was so why should there be any objection on the part of the Company to the reduction of the maximum? As a matter of principle they asked that no exceptional scale of charges should be allowed on a line so highly remunerative as the Chester and Holyhead Railway. He quoted figures from local stations in Flintshire to show how the actual rates had been increased since the passing of the Act of 1891, and appealed to the President of the Board of Trade, who occupied the position of an intermediary between the great railway companies and the public, to consider this question in the interests of small farmers and traders who could not afford the great expense of appealing to the Railway Commission, and who could only make an effectual protest against the exceptional scale sanctioned by the Act of 1891 through their representatives in Parliament.


observed that the hon. Member who had proposed the Resolution had said that this Bill proposed to permit an extension of the Chester and Holyhead line, and that upon that extension the heavy rates of which he complained were going to be charged. No doubt there was an extension proposed in the Bill, but it was not an extension in the sense of a prolongation of the line. It was merely an extension in the sense of widening the line-tin order to accommodate the public, and if the Bill passed without the Instruction, the Company would have no power to make these so-called exceptional charges over any greater distance. The hon. Members who brought forward the Motion made two complaints; first, that there were exceptionally heavy charges with regard to certain agricultural produce; and, second, that the maximum charges, especially in connection with Class A, were too high. It was perfectly true that the North-Western Company did make considerable concessions in order to obtain traffic where there was water competition; but that was by no means confined to the North-Western. It was done by all companies, and it was clear that unless they were able to make these concessions when exposed to water competition, they would get no portion of the traffic. So far as the public was concerned, there was no injury, because the traffic would be brought into the country all the same. Assuming, for the moment, that the rates charged by the Companies were fair rates, he contended that they were perfectly justified, where they thought it was to their interest, to reduce their rates when they came into competition with water traffic.


My contention was that the reduction is made at the expense of the inland traffic.


Yes, that was the statement of the hon. Gentleman, but he gave us no proof of it. It was incapable of proof. He was informed that so far as the London and North-Western Company was concerned, the amount of traffic they had gained in this way from Dublin to Liverpool was infinitesimally small. The hon. Gentleman also complained that apart from sea competition, there was undue preference on this railway. All he had to say about that was that if there was a case of undue preference with regard to any one person or class of persons as compared with others, that was a case with which the Railway Commissioners would be bound to deal. The hon. Gentleman said that the Board of Trade occupied an intermediary position. So they did, and if the hon. Gentleman went to the Board of Trade, and they considered that there was an undue preference, it would be their duty to negotiate with the Railway Company, with a view to correcting it.


Complaints have been made.


said that if anyone laid a complaint, and brought evidence before the Board of Trade to show that there was an undue preference, the Board of Trade, if they were satisfied that a case was made out, had the power to approach the Railway Company with a view to getting the grievance remedied, and if it was not done, there was an appeal to the Railway Commissioners, who were bound to deal with it judicially. With regard to the question of the maximum rate what was the history of the 1¼d. rate? The whole question of the arrangement of rates was left in the hands of the Board of Trade, and they appointed a small Committee—Lord Balfour and Sir Courtenay Boyle—who spent many laborious days going through an enormous number of rates. It was a recognised principle that where a railway company could show that a particular section of their line was exceptionally costly to work, a higher maximum should be allowed in respect of that section.


The North-Western bought this line at a low price.


said it was not only a question of purchase, but also of working, and he was told that in consequence of this line being cut out of the rock, keeping it up was a very costly matter: but he was not there to assert that, but to say that it was one of the conditions which were taken into account in fixing the rates, and exceptional rates were accorded to companies which could show either that their lines were exceptionally costly to construct or to maintain. When the rates were settled in 1891, the maximum charge under Class A was 2d. per ton for 15 miles, and 1½d. beyond that distance. Under the Board of Trade revision, the maximum was reduced to 1½d., and that schedule of charges having been referred to a Joint Committee of the two Houses, that Committee confirmed both the principle of those exceptional charges, and the rate of 1½d. fixed by the Board of Trade. Then" the House of Commons, on the Motion of the hon. Gentleman who brought forward the present Motion, reduced the maximum to .95, but that was again raised by the House of Lords to the rate fixed by the Board of Trade and the Joint Committee. Finally, a compromise was arrived at, and the rate of 1¼d. was fixed, and he believed the hon. Gentleman then expressed himself satisfied with it That was the history of the transaction, and he would ask the House to consider very carefully, before they consented to the proposition now before them, whether they were in a position to decide this complicated question and to raise again and settle matters which had been discussed before the Board of Trade and a Joint Committee, and settled, after due deliberation, only four or five years ago. What was the House asked to do? Not to instruct the Committee to consider this question because they had the power to consider it. The hon. Gentleman said that the people interested were not sufficiently powerful to put their view before the Committee. Perhaps they were not, individually, but it was impossible to say that they could not combine to do so. It was not a question of the Committee being unable to consider these rates. That they were able to do; but the House was called upon, after ex parte statement, without the railway company having the slightest chance of answering the allegations made, to give a mandatory Instruction to the Committee to reduce these rates to the level suggested by the hon. Gentleman. He was bound to say that he considered that that would be a most unwise and most unfair proceeding on the part of the House of Commons. He himself was expressing no opinion in reference to this question of exceptional rates, but he should be glad if the Committee to which the Bill was referred would give full consideration to the questions with regard to them which had been brought foward by the hon. Gentleman. He thought that exceptional rates required a great deal of argument in their support. ["Hear, hear!"] That was even more true now than it was before, not only because of the state of agriculture, but because the railways themselves, in nine cases out of ten were trying to see what they could do to assist trade and industry, and were endeavouring to meet the demands of traffic by a reduction of their rates. He thought that the London and North-Western Railway Company would be taking upon themselves a great responsibility if they did not direct their attention to these exceptional rates charged upon this branch of their line. He was frequently in personal communication with the directors of the line, and he would lose no opportunity of impressing upon them the duty that rested upon them of giving full consideration to the statements which had been made on that occasion by hon. Gentlemen, and of seeing whether the time had not arrived when they could, with full justice to their shareholders, do away with these exceptional rates of which complaint was made. ["Hear, hear!"] He thought, however, that the House of Commons would be taking upon themselves an undue share of responsibility if, after having heard statements on one side only, they judged between the parties instead of relegating to the Committee both cases. He hoped that, now that the hon. Gentlemen had laid their application before the House, they would consider that they had discharged their duty, and would allow the Bill to go before the Committee upstairs, when they would have every opportunity afforded them of proving their case. ["Hear, hear!"]


asked whether the right hon. Gentleman would consent that the necessary steps should be taken to enable traders and others to give evidence before the Committee, as he understood that unless the Standing Order was dispensed with, they could not be represented before the Committee.


said that it was impossible for him to answer the hon. Gentleman's Question off-hand. He understood that colliery or slate quarry companies, or similar associations, could be heard before the Committee.

The House divided:—Ayes, 118; Noes, 177.—(Division List, No. 114.)