HC Deb 15 May 1918 vol 106 cc392-3

All the traffic carried by the railway companies on Government account is not entered into the account of the companies. Therefore, it is not possible except by estimate to determine exactly how the bargain entered into between the Government and the railway companies is working. Estimates are made from time to time, but they are only rough estimates. The bargain provided for the State guaranteeing to the railway companies their 1913 net earnings. This is reduced by a small sum which represents the share which the railways take in connection with the cost of the first war bonus paid to the railway employés. Experience has shown that it is necessary to provide for some adjustment as time has gone on, some allowance for interest on capital for new works brought into use during the War, and one or two other matters—some allowance for increase upon maintenance which, owing to lack of material and labour, the railway companies are unable to take on. A careful calculation to-day and since the last in- crease to employés wages was made will disclose that the bargain will show a loss to the State. The railway companies have not since the War made any increase to their charges for carrying goods. Of all the big services this is the only one where no increase in charges has been made during the War. Up to the present this has only been possible very largely because of the enormous economy due to the unified system of control.

This system of working the railways as a single unit has proved a great success, but it would not be true to say that all the economies which might be possible under a system of unified control have been secured. Very far from it. There is, for instance, in my opinion, enormous opportunity for securing economies through the standardisation of equipment and of permanent way. I think, too, very considerable economies in operation could be effected by a more general use of mechanical devices which would facilitate the handling of goods, and must obviously reduce the number of men who will be required. It is imperative that particular attention should, at the right time, be given to that aspect of railway operation, because it is quite clear that two things must happen to the railways after the War. One is that they will be faced with a very much higher rate of wages than prevailed before the War, and the other is that they will not have the same facility for securing men as they had before the War. In other words, labour will be much more scarce. The Board of Trade has established an advisory panel to advise the President of the Board of Trade in respect to the future position of the railways, so that the Government may have a clearly defined policy with respect to the future of the railways before this control comes to an end. This question of the future of the railways is engaging the very careful attention of all of us. While it would, of course, be impossible for me at this time to give any indication what that policy is to be, I think personally it would be a great pity if all the possible economies which experience has shown can be secured through a more unified system of control than was the case before the War—if the benefits of some system of control were not secured permanently in the interest of traders and those who are using the railways.