HL Deb 24 February 1846 vol 84 cc5-10

rose to ask the noble President of the Board of Trade the question of which he had given notice, relative to the Report of the Commissioners on the subject of the broad and narrow Gauge. Of all the important questions that were likely to come before Parliament during the present Session, he considered the question of railways as one that demanded the most serious consideration of the Le- gislature. Whether they looked upon them in a commercial point of view, as affording to merchants the means of conveying their goods to distant places more rapidly than before, and thus rendering it unnecessary for them to keep large stocks of goods on hand, while they were enabled to turn over their capital more frequently; whether they looked at them in an agricultural point of view, as tending to equalize prices throughout the country, and facilitating the transfer of the farmer's produce to the most populous districts; or whether they looked at them in a social point of view, as affording the means of travelling to the most remote parts of the country—on all these grounds, he thought the Legislature was bound most seriously to consider the question of railways, and secure at once the convenience and safety of the public. He might also refer, as the Commissioners had done, to the increased means of defence they afforded in reference to military movements; and likewise to the financial considerations which their Lordships must see could not be disassociated from the subject of railways. It was quite evident from what had taken place in the funds lately that this was a point requiring the most careful consideration; he believed that under a proper system of control there was no better security for investment than the railways, because, whilst they were adding to the benefit and the happiness of individuals, they were also the means of adding to the capital and resources of the country. Considering, then, the importance of the subject, he was certain he would stand excused for calling the attention of their Lordships to the question of railways. He hoped the House would yet see it to be its duty to grant permission to make the inquiry whether or not some rule should be adopted for effecting a proper control of railways—he meant, of course, a control in regard to the working of them, and whether there should not be inspectors appointed to see that the respective lines were conducted according to the Acts under which they were framed. They must be aware that several accidents on railways which might have been avoided had occurred from mismanagement; and that these accidents, with their causes, it was the interest of the railway companies to conceal from the public. He had known unfortunate sufferers by these accidents, who stated that there would be little hope of anything being done by the Legislature till a Member of Parliament or two had been killed, and then some protective measure would be taken. He thought also much might be done in the way of facilitating Railway Bills, and at the same time putting an end to undue railway speculation. In regard to the Report of the Commissioners, it appeared that they had taken considerable pains to acquire information. That Report appeared to him to be in favour of the broad gauge, except for the conveyance of merchandize; but he found that, notwithstanding this, they recommended the adoption of the narrow gauge, and that in future all railways should be constructed on the narrow principle. He must say he was surprised at the conclusion to which the Commissioners had come, as it appeared that at high velocities the narrow could not be made so safe as the broad gauge; and he regretted that the Commissioners had not duly considered the possibility of adopting a medium gauge. They seemed to have fallen into an error in thinking that it would be impossible to alter the narrow gauge to a wider one, on account of the tunnels; but he thought that this was quite a mistaken notion. His opinion was, that the whole two thousand miles of narrow gauge which were at present in existence in this country might be altered without any considerable inconvenience, if it were necessary, or without such a great expense as would put that experiment out of the question; and he thought that this was a peculiarly favourable time for effecting the alteration. Upon one or two lines, the rails had been altered without stopping the traffic, and on another, the gauge had already been altered. If it were necessary, in order to carry out the alterations to which he had alluded, money might be advanced for the purpose by Commissioners, and the railways could repay it by a tax for a certain number of years. He would, in conclusion, ask when the evidence on which the Commissioners founded their Report would be laid on the Table of the House; and he was also desirous to know when they might expect to be informed of the determination of the House on the subject?


, in reply to the question, begged to remind the noble Lord that the Commission for inquiring into the Railway Gauges arose out of a discussion in the other House of Parliament, not so much with reference to the respective gauges, as to the question whether public inconvenience might not arise from the diversity of gauge, and of the necessity of finding some means of getting quit of that diversity. In consequence of that discussion an Address to the Crown was moved, and a Commission was accordingly appointed and directed to inquire whether there were any means of obviating the inconvenience, and whether it was possible to secure an uniformity of gauge. Its Report was now on their Lordships' Table. The Commissioners recommended that the gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches should be that adopted by the Legislature; that all railways in course of construction and to be hereafter constructed, should be in accordance with that gauge; and that endeavours should be made to discover means by which some equitable arrangement could be carried out to bring the broad gauge railways to the uniform standard. These recommendations were of great importance, and would require to be deliberately and calmly considered. They would affect the interests of the public, either for good or for ill, very deeply. An enormous amount of capital was involved in the interests concerned, whether the lines were on the broad or narrow gauge, and therefore great caution would require to be exercised. No effect, indeed, could be given to those recomendations without the sanction of Parliament. The Government had felt that while they had every confidence in the impartiality of the Commissioners, they would not be justified in acting upon the Report without satisfying themselves that the recommendations of the Commissioners were well founded. Knowing the extreme anxiety of Parliament and of the public to ascertain the results of the Commission, the Government had thought it their duty to lay the Report upon the Table; but their Lordships would not expect Government to take any other steps till they and Parliament had an opportunity of examining the evidence on which the Report was founded. Some delay had taken place in the printing of the evidence, in consequence of the pressure of business in the printing offices at the present moment; but he could assure the noble Lord that as soon as possible it would be laid before the House, and that, whenever Her Majesty's Government came to a determination as to what course ought to be taken in reference to this important question, they would lose no time in communicating that determination to their Lordships.


thought nothing could be more satisfactory than the answer which had just been given, that Government should take time to deliberate on a great practical question, affecting the interests of generations yet unborn as well the present. He hoped time would not only be given to Government and Parliament to consider this question, but also to engineers and scientific men, because it was a mistake to suppose that any others could so well judge of such a question as this.


expressed his satisfaction at the mode in which the noble President of the Board of Trade had answered the question. Their Lordships must all feel the necessity of great caution and of time being taken to consider fully this matter. They should bear in mind that this Commission was adopted on the recommendation of those who had a direct interest in disparaging the broad gauge; that gauge had been supported by a great mass of evidence, and he had no doubt that had the case been reversed in reference to the extent of the two gauges already laid down in the country, there would have been a decision in favour of the broad gauge. He would impress upon their Lordships the necessity of maintaining the principle of competing lines between all great towns in the kingdom. For example, was it right that the railway communication from London to the great towns of Lancashire, with Staffordshire between, should be in the hands of one company—the London and Birmingham, or of companies amalgamated together? It was impossible the public interest could be secured without due competition. There must be competition; and while so much power was in the hands of one great individual, acquired no doubt by excellent talent and industry, the Government and the Legislature ought to be cautious about these proceedings, and narrowly to watch the Railway Bills presented to Parliament.


observed, that the Motion for an Address, in consequence of which the Gauge Commission was appointed, was by no means supported exclusively by those who had a strong interest in favour of the narrow gauge, as the noble Lord (Lord Hatherton) supposed. He himself took part in supporting it; but he was at that time in favour of the broad gauge. It was thought, that before railroads were carried further, it was important to have it investigated by competent authority, whether great public inconvenience would not arise from a diversity of gauge, and if so, what measures ought to be taken to guard against the inconvenience. That proposal was made without any preconceived opinion on one side or the other. The Commissioners had very ably discharged their duty, and, as it seemed to him, the report was a very valuable document, and founded only upon public considerations. He would just add, that it was of importance that the decision of the Government and of Parliament should be known as soon as possible.


explained, that if the Commission was not proposed by parties interested in either gauge, it arose out of a decision of the other House in favour of the broad gauge in a particular case.