HL Deb 30 March 1846 vol 85 cc279-87

, in bringing forward the Motion of which he had given notice, commented upon the unsatisfactory state of railway legislation in general, and said that his object in moving for a Committee was to show the great hardships under which the promoters of railways laboured in respect to the expense to which they were put in obtaining a Railway Act, and to show also the great hardship and inconvenience to which private individuals were subjected under the present system. He wished it to be distinctly understood that he had undertaken this task in no spirit of hostility to railways; on the contrary, he had been a promoter of them from the beginning, when they were not so favourably regarded as at present; but having been much engaged in railway business lately in his own country, he had seen the necessity of bringing the subject before the House. He was aware of the great difficulty there was in legislating upon this subject, and the opposition that any measure was sure to meet with in the other House of Parliament, from the immense power of the railway interest. That power would increase, and no time should be lost in taking into consideration the means for controlling it to some extent. He had been so impressed with that growing power in that House, that he had endeavoured to induce landowners to take an interest in all Railway Bills passing through or affecting their property, or they would see all their interests in the hands of strangers and those living in towns. It might be said, as it had been before, that it was now too late; but it appeared to him that they could now legislate with much greater advantage, with the experience they had to guide them, than if they had proceeded to legislate some years ago; and if the whole subject were properly taken into consideration, he thought some general measure might be devised by which public and private interests might be more effectually protected than at present. He thought that some responsible Board should be appointed, in connexion with the Government. It might be said that this plan had been tried in the instance of the Board of Trade; but he thought that the powers of that Board had been insufficient to enable them to grapple with the subject, and that they had not had the means of enabling them to obtain proper information, although their duties had undeniably been most arduous, and they had reported with great ability. Their means of information had, however, been deficient, and he knew of some instances in which the information upon which they had acted was entirely false. The question then would be, what the powers of such a Board should be? One power, he thought, should be a superintendence over railways in general. There was superintendence over public carriages and roads, and over the traffic of the river; and why not over railways? What the powers of such a Board should be, however, a Committee might be able to point out. At present, if private persons had cause of complaint, they had no means of redress, unless by entering into litigation with a powerful company, with perhaps little chance of success. Some means, he thought, might be adopted by which some control could be obtained. An eminent engineer had recommended some three or four years ago, in a letter to a Member of Parliament, the amalgamation of railways by concentrating their respective capitals into one railway fund. His own idea was that the public were greatly benefited by competition. He should propose that the great lines should be considered great arteries, and that no amalgamation should be permitted among these. He referred to such lines as the Great Western, by Oxford, Birmingham, and Liverpool, extended on by Dumfries to Glasgow; the London and Birmingham, joined with the Caledonian; and there were also the London and York lines, extended by Hexham and Hawick to Edinburgh, and the Eastern Counties, by Lincolnshire, through Newcastle to Berwick. He proposed that it should be left to the Board to determine, in the case of any town requiring railway communication, to which of the great trunk lines it naturally and properly belonged. With respect to the great expense attending the Parliamentary proceedings, he found that parties were put to the heaviest costs, and witnesses kept in town for weeks, upon the most minute details, and to meet objections which afterwards proved to be utterly frivolous. Evidence he thought might be taken very much by affidavit; and some arrangements might surely be made by which such an item of expense as he recollected—namely, 9,000l. for serving 7,000 notices—might be avoided. Then, under the present system of grouping Bills, it had happened that a Committee would find that certain Bills that had been allotted to them had not been read a second time, and so they were obliged to adjourn, and the whole expenses were thrown upon the promoters of the Bills. Private individuals also, whose property was affected by competing lines, were compelled to retain counsel and submit to great expense in defending their interests. If such a Board as he proposed were appointed, the plans of railways might be lodged with them a month or six weeks earlier, and they might send down parties into the country to take evidence; and if that course were adopted, he thought comparatively few Bills would be contested before the House. He had intended to allude to many other parts of the subject, and had provided himself with many cases of hardship and injury resulting under the present system; but as he found there was to be no opposition to his Motion, he would not detain the House by entering further into details, but content himself by moving— That a Select Committee be appointed to take into Consideration the best Means of enforcing one uniform System of Management on Railroads in operation, or to be constructed; and to secure the due Fulfilment of the Provisions of the Acts of Parliament under which the Companies have obtained their Powers, whereby greater Accommodation and Safety may be ensured to the Public; to take into Consideration what Means may best be adopted for diminishing the extravagant Expenses attendant on obtaining Acts of Parliament for legitimate and necessary Undertakings, and at the same Time for discouraging the Formation of Schemes got up for the mere Purpose of Speculation; to consider what Legislative Measures could be framed to protect Individuals from the Injury they may sustain by the laying down Lines of Railway through their Property, without subjecting them to the ruinous Expense of opposing Bills in Parliament.


said, that as it was not his intention to offer any opposition to the Motion, it was unnecessary for him to make any lengthened remarks. The views of his noble Friend had been so little developed that it was impossible to offer a deliberate opinion upon them. So far, however, as they had been indicated, he (the Earl of Dalhousie) did not entertain such sanguine expectations that the Committee would be able to arrive at very practical results. A main feature in the plan appeared to be the prevention of amalgamation of the main lines or arteries; but in respect to the great arteries alluded to by his noble Friend, there had not been amalgamation, nor did there appear any great desire to amalgamate. In the whole range of railway legislation, there was nothing which Parliament should regard with a more jealous eye, or should proceed in with greater caution and circumspection, than those Bills which professed to amalgamate the interests of railways. The question had more than once occupied the attention of Parliament. It was considered at great length by a Committee of the other House in 1844; and it had also formed the subject of a full Report from that public Board which had been entrusted last Session with certain functions in regard to railways. During the present Session, also, a Committee of the other House had been appointed to investigate the subject, with a view of laying down such broad principles as might serve as a guide to legislation: whether the principle of amalgamation, good as he admitted it to be under proper limitation, could be more extended, he would not take upon him at the moment to say. He passed by altogether the allusion that had been made to the Board of Trade by his noble Friend; but he entertained strong doubts of the possibility of effectually uniting a Board of the kind proposed by his noble Friend with legislation. The authority of the Board appointed last year to perform certain functions connected with Railway Bills was not so extensive as the authority of the Board now proposed. The views of the Board of last year were called in question; but the objection of Parliament lay deeper, and the existence of such a body seemed to be regarded as inconsistent with entire freedom of action on the part of the Legislature. If a Government Board of the kind were appointed, it would be with a view to its reporting to Parliament; and he feared that expense would be increased without any beneficial result being obtained; and he was by no means prepared to say that Parliament would act wisely in parting with their jurisdiction in respect to the property of landowners affected by Railway Bills. He thought it would be extremely unwise in their Lordships or Parliament, for the purpose merely of sparing expense to those parties, to remove or impair the safeguards and bulwarks by which the rights of property were protected; though he admitted that if, consistently with the preservation of those safeguards, a diminution of expenses could be effected, that result would be desirable. But these were points which would more properly be considered in Committee.


expressed his satisfaction that the subject had been brought forward; for he thought it desirable that the Legislature should exercise a due control over the railway communications; at the same time, they should take care not to interfere with the due application of private enterprise and speculation. He believed it would be best that the communications of particular districts should be managed by great companies naturally connected with them, rather than by the enterprise of private individuals or small companies; for otherwise there would be a perpetual clashing of separate interests. He thought, however, that any such arrangements should be under the wholesome control of the Legislature.


agreed that particular districts should be left to the large companies to which each might seem naturally to belong; but if the great companies should unite in one, and the direction be placed under individual authority, then it became a monopoly, and one that might be very pernicious to the country. The greater the amount of competition in trunk lines, the better it would be for the public. He did not think the proposed Committee would do much good either to the objects which the noble Lord had in view or to the public, and would have preferred that the subject should be left in the hands of the Government.


had no objection to the appointment of the Committee, but did not wish to be understood as implying any sanction of the system proposed. He regretted that Government had not thought proper, at the commencement of the Session to come to Parliament with a proposal for the better regulation of the projects already before the House. The less interference with capital there was by the Leislature the better; but the progress and construction of those great works involved serious and important social consequences.

After a few words from the EARL of EGLINTON,


observed that in consequence of the difficulties attendant upon many of the new schemes, and the derangement of the pecuniary concerns of the public, which was apprehended from the demand for money consequent upon the construction of a multitude of railways, the subscribers to many of the projects were understood to be indisposed to the passing of the Bills, and desirous of being thus released from the engagements into which they had entered. Such a result was not to be deprecated on other grounds, since if some of the schemes were abandoned their Lordships would be freed from the necessity of entering upon a prolonged and fruitless series of inquiries. He be- lieved, however, that upon this subject considerable delusion prevailed; and that parties supposed that it would be ineffectual to present any petition coming from those who had been the promoters of a scheme, praying the House to put a stop to its further progress. But this was a mistake; it should be known that at any time during the progress of a Bill, the parties themselves who had been subscribers to it might approach the Houses of Parliament and state that there were reasons which induced them to depart from their own Bill. If subscribers out of doors availed themselves of the power given to them, their Lordships would be freed from the multiplied investigations and inquiries which would otherwise arise. Let the subscribers, therefore, who wished to impede or withdraw from the engagements into which they had entered, be well aware that they had the power of doing so by appealing to Parliament.


said, the Committee proposed by the noble Lord was to deal chiefly with arrangements previous to the construction of a railroad; but what he should like to see would be some mode of regulating the action of railway companies after the road had been constructed, and the safety and convenience of the public well provided for and insured. That was what he should wish. He begged leave to draw the attention of his noble Friend to that part of the subject, and would suggest to him whether it would not be desirable to bring the common law to bear on the operation of those companies, giving to the magistrates and local authorities power over the operation of the railroads in different parts of the country.


said, there was no doubt that persons in the position described by his noble Friend (Lord Monteagle) were at perfect liberty to petition against their own Bill; but the mere act of petitioning would not relieve them from their responsibility. In the case of several schemes which were not bonâ fide, the sooner their real character was exposed by a petition to withdraw them the better; but where the subscribers were respectable, he thought no such course would be adopted. He concurred entirely in what had fallen from the noble Earl opposite, and would take that opportunity of saying that he did not think full justice had been done to the extraordinary talent he had displayed last Session in the arduous and complicated task which had been as- signed to him in connexion with this question of railways. He differed, however, entirely from his noble Friend opposite (Lord Wharncliffe) in his wish that Government had interfered at the beginning of the Session with some plan. No doubt Parliament was competent to deal with that question; but he knew of no more injudicious course than that the Government should willingly take into their own hands the responsibility of adjusting it. It was the peculiar genius of the English people to deal with these matters, and to keep them in their own hands; and it was through that genius, and by the encouragement given to private enterprise, that the Empire had become what it now was. As he thought the machinery of Parliament was quite adequate to deal with all the cases that came before it, he was fully convinced of the importance of considering the question of amalgamation and the principle of competition; and he hoped, that in all the Railway Bills which came before Committees of their Lordships' House, that they would look narrowly into them; because their Lordships possessed an advantage in not being under the influence of powerful companies, which undoubtedly the Committees of the other House of Parliament were; and it was frequently in their Lordships' power to put a check upon projects of a doubtful or impracticable nature, which might have succeeded in passing the other House. He did not feel very sanguine of success of the proposition of his noble Friend (Lord Kinnaird) to group all the Railway Bills affecting particular districts together, and placing them under the control of a Government Board of Supervision. He was, however, of opinion, that something should be done to lessen the expense of obtaining Acts of Parliament for constructing railways. What was the use, for instance, of their Lordships and the other House of Parliament both having proofs of the compliance with the Standing Orders? Why should not the two Houses agree to refer to a Commission out of doors to investigate the mere matter of fact whether the Standing Orders had in certain respects been complied with, and the Parliamentary Committees reserve the power to themselves of saying whether the Standing Orders should not be suspended in particular cases? The appointment, in his opinion, would effect a great saving of time and expense, and would not at all infringe the inquisitorial privileges of either House, as a power might be reserved to revise the judgment of the Committee, and either suspend or enforce compliance with the Standing Orders, as they might deem it advisable.


agreed with the noble Duke in thinking that the subject of the safety of travelling on railways was a most important one, and he earnestly hoped it would be carefully investigated by the Committee of his noble Friend. In connexion with this matter, he would advise his noble Friend (Lord Kinnaird) to take into his consideration two Bills which passed that House during last Session of Parliament — he believed unanimously—but which, when they went down to the other House, were thrown out by Her Majesty's Government. The one was a Bill for abolishing deodands, and the other a Bill with reference to the responsibility of railway companies in cases where death ensued from accidents caused by their negligence. These Bills, though of the highest importance, were both thrown out, as he said, by Her Majesty's Government. There was, he believed, some control in the other House; he had heard recently, within a few hours, of the courtesy to be shown to Bills from that House; and he thought a little courtesy might have been shown to the Bills in question. The right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department, he thought, exercised a control in law matters which was not always for the public benefit; but if in these matters the right hon. Baronet would consult his hon. and learned Friend on the Woolsack, and follew his advice, the public would, he was sure, derive great benefit from that course. With reference to the remark of the noble Duke about the necessity of calling in the aid of the common law in respect to railways, he (Lord Campbell) begged to say that it was not common law but statute law which was wanted, because the common law was wholly inefficient for the purpose.


hoped that those matters would not be referred to the Committee, for they did not, strictly speaking, come within its purview, but that the noble and learned Lord would himself reintroduce those Bills. He trusted that they would receive in the other House of Parliament, during the present Session, a very different consideration from that given them in the last. With regard to the appointment of a Commission, he thought that expedient would be most important for the regulation of railroads when made, for the management of all the business of this department was beyond the powers of the Board of Trade. He thought the Commission would not work well in practice, and that it would be productive of great additional expense to the railway companies; for everybody who had any small grievance to complain of, would have a right to go before the Commission to state his case. He wished to know who was to bear those expenses. Certainly the county could not be expected to defray charges which were incurred for private purposes; and if those charges were thrown altogether on the railway companies, it would be manifestly unjust to make them responsible for the costs of their opponents in addition to their own.


begged to say he had just been informed that, by the existing law in Scotland, railway companies could be compelled to make compensation to the families of those who lost their lives in consequence of any improper management in the lines under their control. He wished the law in England to be assimilated to that in Scotland. On a recent occasion, the Glasgow Company paid 2,000l. to the family of a man who met his death on their line.


would state the circumstances of the case for the information of the House. The accident occurred through a defect in one of the engines, with the existence of which the superintendent was acquainted. He had informed the directors of it, and when the case was laid before their legal advisers they told them it would be necessary to make compensation to the family of the sufferer.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned.