HL Deb 15 June 1848 vol 99 cc675-80

, in pursuance of a notice on the Votes, rose to "ask the Lord President respecting the duties which the Railway Commissioners are expected to perform, and the position in which they are considered to stand in relation to Her Majesty's Government?" He did so for the purpose of bringing under their Lordships' notice the relations between the Railway Commissioners and the Government. The Board charged with the superintendence of railways was so inactive, that its existence was hardly ever thought of even by those more conversant with the subject. In doing so he would shortly recall to their recollection the circumstances under which the Board was constituted. In 1844, when the railway question rose into great importance, it became evident to all that there would be in the ensuing Session such a mass of Bills before the Legislature, many of them referring to the same districts, that unless some guidance were given to the Committees, it was very probable the reports would be imperfectly considered. It was resolved accordingly, that the Board of Trade should be called on to investigate and report upon the various projects in the ensuing year. The noble Earl (the Earl of Dalhousie) then Vice-President of the Board of Trade, had given much of his attention to that most important subject, and issued a mass of information in the reports from the Board, which conferred on him and those who acted with him the greatest possible Credit. He believed there was hardly a man in the country who did not at that time conceive it was the intention of Government to give some degree of support to the reports proceeding from their own Board. No disappointment would have been felt by any one if such had been the ease, and the greatest possible good would have been effected with respect to the railway interest throughout the country. But it was soon seen the Government was not disposed to give support to the recommendation of the Board of Trade—that the Committees of the House were to have more weight than the reports—and that in every instance where the Committees upset the reports, their decisions Were retained without any further investigation. So sensible were the House of Commons of the mischief of this course, and so numerous were the complaints made in consequence, that a Commission was appointed to inquire into the important question of the difference of the gauges. This Commission reported to the House that the Board of Trade could not fully concur with their recommendations. The Board of Trade then reported on the subject to the House, and the Government at last became aware of the importance of taking up the question. They took up the report of the Board of Trade, and resolutions were moved in both Houses, on which a Bill was introduced by Government as a public measure, regulating the various matters connected with railways. It was on this occasion only that some degree of support had been given by the Government to their own Board. It seemed desirable, in order to carry out the objects of the Legislature, that a separate Board should be appointed for the performance of these new duties, and that it should not rest as heretofore on a public department which had other and equally important duties to discharge. By Act of Parliament the Railway Commission was therefore appointed as a separate and independent body, with duties specially set forth and defined in that Act. They were required to report specially on any matter connected with railways which might be referred to them, and to report as well on any manner connected with' railways which would be at all likely to affect the public interests. If no such reports were issued, it was evident that the Board must be liable to an accusation of dereliction of duty. But then it was to be recollected that Government had never shown any disposition to support these reports, and any person would naturally feel reluctant to give a decision likely to be upset by the decision of a Committee of either House of Parliament. In the present Session many questions had arisen of the greatest importance, not only to the railway interest but to the public, such as the Gauge Bill, and the amalgamation of railways, with respect to which the Railway Board ought to have taken some decided steps, but in which they had never interfered at all. Surely it was the duty of the Commissioners to have reported on these and such important matters to Parliament. It would seem, however, that this Board stood in a different position from any other Board connected with Her Majesty's Government or the public service. What would be thought, for example, if the Chief Commissioner of Woods and Forests brought a Bill into the House on a subject connected with his department, in which he received no support whatever from the Government to which he belonged? It was evident the public would soon cease to respect his office. There might be one reason why the reports of the Board had never received much confidence, and that might be that they had never shown themselves to be worth much with respect to the important matters coming under their charge. Soon after the formation of the Board they introduced a Bill, of which (as it had never come up to their Lordships) he would only say that it seemed to have contained many most useful provisions; but from the small amount of support it received, it was finally allowed to drop, without any effort being even made by the Government to assist the measure of their own Board. It was desirable that the public should know in what position this Board really stood, and whether they were really intended to have any charge of the railway system or not. If the question were answered in the negative, it must appear that the Board were utterly useless; if in the affirmative, then it was worth ascertaining if the reports they made as Government officers were still to be disregarded. As matters stood at present, the decision of any Committee, put forth, perhaps, by a majority of one, would have more weight than all their recommendations; and this was a state of things, as he conceived, neither creditable to the Government nor to the Railway Board itself. He wished to know what duties were expected from this Board, and what support Government intended to give it?


said, the question of the noble Lord raised two points—the first, whether it was expedient that there should be a Board to take charge of railway projects, and institute inquiries respecting them?—the second, what was the use of the Board which now existed? In reply to the first, he had to state that he certainly thought it desirable such a body should be constituted; and that although there had been alterations in the administration of the Board, consequent on the person who had been at the head of it ceasing to exercise his functions, in which the principle of economy had determined the Government not to fill that post, the Board nevertheless existed with exactly the same functions, and under precisely the same regulations, as under previous Governments. The functions of that Board were of very great importance, and they were proceeding from day to day, as they would continue to proceed, to the benefit of the public, and to the great assistance of the Parliament and of the Government. There were no functions which it ever had exercised before that it did not exercise. The points to which the attention of the Board was constantly referred, were various and important. They were, the opening of railways in particular; inquiring into their safety for the public; inquiring into the accidents which unfortunately occur from time to time; the regulation of cheap trains; the regulation of fares; the by-laws of the several companies; all miscellaneous matters relating to railways; references under public Acts of Parliament; disputes between company and company; references under the Standing Orders; the special duty of making reports on the important colonial railways from time to time submitted to them; and other matters of equal consequence. To give an idea of the extent of their labours, he might state that 780 lines had been inspected and reported on by the Board last year, and that a greater number would undergo the same process this year. In every case where accidents occurred, inquiries had been instituted, and in twenty-two cases special reports had been made by the engineers acting under their authority, in which they had made suggestions, which, in most instances, if not all, had been, he was happy to state, readily adopted by the various companies. The number of special clauses they had inserted in Acts of Parliament last year were eighty, on fifty different subjects. It could not be said, then, that this Board was not discharging useful and important duties, and that it was not in the full exercise of those functions with which Parliament had entrusted it, and which were necessary for the public safety. He was not prepared to say that Government should consider itself bound in every case to shut its ears to the recommendations of Parliament, merely because a public department took an opposite view of any particular case; but if the noble Lord asked him whether at any time it might be likely that greater powers would be conferred on the Board, he confessed he was not prepared to answer him. This he would say, however, that the Government did not think they had yet arrived at that time at a stage of proceedings when they would be justified in proposing any such increase, while he was not inclined to state that in his opinion the time might not come when more powers would be required. At present the President and Vice-President of the Board of Trade were giving their attention to the various matters connected with railways, with the most efficient assistance of able and experienced paid officers.


said, the noble Marquess seemed to think that great weight had been given to the reports which had issued from the Railway Board; but he (Lord Redesdale) was afraid no weight had been given to them at all, inasmuch as he did not know of any one case in which those reports had been fully carried out and acted upon. What he wanted to ascertain was this: would the Board, after it had come to any decision on a question, and having the opportunity of hearing the opinions adverse to it urged in Parliament, in the presence of the heads of the Board, persist in that decision if their views remained unaltered, and if they thought it necessary for the public service; and would the Government assist and support them in Parliament? It would appear, from what had taken place, that the Railway Board had not the courage to support their own opinions.


said, it appeared to him that the noble Lord had made some confusion between the Board of Trade and the Railway Commission. With respect te the recommendations of the latter body, he could assure the noble Lord that in every single case they had been attended to and acted upon. The Board might no doubt be made still more useful; but no one could admit for one moment that it was useless, as long as it was composed of its present Members, exercising the same powers. If the noble Lord thought that superintendence in railways should be abolished, his objections might have some value; but he (Earl Granville) could not approve of any proposition for the introduction of persons of a lower grade into the Board.


What he desired, was to raise the position of the Railway Department of the Board of Trade. The Board had made some very good reports, and gave some very clear and decided opinions. He could not say so much for the report upon the last subject referred to their consideration. The Board of Trade ought not to have left Parliament to decide upon the gauge question without the expression of some decided opinion. Upon that question, which was one of public interest, Parliament had been left to decide in what manner private interest might dictate.

House adjourned.