HC Deb 15 May 1918 vol 106 cc390-2

I will now deal with some of the more important activities and controls exercised by the Board of Trade. Perhaps it would be desirable if, first of all, I dealt with the railways. It is only a few days ago that I made a long statement in the House which gave briefly some indication of the railway situation. It is perhaps desirable that I should, on this occasion, take the opportunity of going, in a little more detail, into the matter and attempt to justify the restrictions upon travel which we have found it necessary to impose. The Committee will be aware that the railways of Great Britain were the first large undertakings to be brought under control by the State. It was not until last year—I think it was the early part of last year—that the Irish railways were also taken under control. The direction of the operations of these railways is vested in Executive Committees, one sitting in London and the other in Dublin. Both of those Committees are composed of experienced railway managers, and are presided over by experienced men. Sir Herbert Walker is the Chairman of the English Railway Board and Mr. Neale the Chairman of the Board in Dublin. The President of the Board of Trade is ex-officio the Chairman of both these Committees, but I am very glad to be able to say that he is not called upon to attend very many of their meetings. Without the slightest doubt this control has been thoroughly satisfactory. The greatest possible credit is due to the acting chairmen of these Committees and their colleagues for the splendid work they are doing in connection with the operation of these railways. It has been possible through this unified system of control to operate the railways as a single unit. They have thereby secured the maximum of efficiency and have been able to make very substantial economies. Goods are sent by the shortest routes, quite irrespective of any companies' boundaries, there is a common use of railway companies rolling stock, and, to a very considerable extent, traders' wagons are used for the general trade of the country. It is now a common practice to operate much heavier trains, and the loading per wagon is very much heavier than it was prior to the War.

I recently stated that the traffic on the railways, both of goods and of passengers, was heavier than at any other time in the history of the railways. It is really very remarkable that at a time like this, when we realise the number of men who have been withdrawn from the country, the railway companies should find themselves carrying more passengers, quite exclusive of military account, than they have ever carried before, and that the goods traffic, quite independent of traffic on Government account, is also heavier than at any time in their history. I only mention these facts to indicate the extraordinary difficulties under which the railways are worked. Not only is the traffic heavier but the rolling stock has decreased, and there is less equipment to operate the railways than ever before. Hundreds of locomotives and thousands of railway wagons have gone to France. We have lying idle, owing to the lack of proper repairing material and labour, several thousands of locomotives. That is the position that confronts the railway companies to-day. It is impossible for the railways to continue under such conditions. We must find some way, even if it inflicts hardship upon people, whereby passenger traffic can be brought within some reasonable limits, and find some way, in those areas where railway congestion is so severe, of preventing unnecessary daily journeys, and it is in an attempt to solve that problem of trying to keep within reasonable limits the use to which railways should be put that we determined upon the course which I announced a few days ago To all the officials, to all the men, and to the large number of women who are employed by the railways to-day, for. their devotion to duty, for the immense amount of hard work which they are doing, and for the long hours in which they are engaged, we owe a real genuine debt of gratitude.