HL Deb 10 June 1853 vol 127 cc1359-62

presented a petition from Salisbury and certain parishes in Wiltshire, praying the House to grant no further powers to the Great Western Railway Company till they shall have completed the line between Warminster and Salisbury. The noble Marquess said that the inhabitants of the district complained of the non-completion of this line, in consequence of which they were prevented from getting coals at a comparatively cheap rate from the north of England. The Great Western Railway Company, whose conduct in this matter had been marked throughout by a selfish jealousy, had obtained a Bill for the line, not with any intention of constructing it, but simply with the view of preventing the South Western Railway Company from encroaching on what they considered to be their own territory, and having got the Bill they now refused to make the line. Nor was this a local grievance merely, but a question of national importance; for the line, if completed, would considerably shorten the distance between Bristol and Portsmouth—a circumstance of great importance in case of a necessity arising for conveying troops from one place to the other at a short notice. A great principle was involved in this question, illustrating as it did the iniquitous conduct and bad faith of the Great Western Railway Company. The Petitioners before appealing to Parliament had endeavoured to obtain legal redress; and subsequently a deputation from them had waited on the President of the Board of Trade, and on the noble Earl at the head of the Government; but in both instances they had failed in getting relief. He (the Marquess of Bath) now wished to ask if Her Majesty's Government were prepared to make any inquiry into the case; and, if so, whether they would use their influence to prevent any further powers being granted to the Great Western Railway Company until the result of that inquiry should be made public? and, in case the Government were not prepared to institute any inquiry, he hoped that at all events they would not offer any opposition to a proposal for withholding the grant of any further powers to the Great Western Company until they should give some guarantee for the completion of this line.


said, that this was one of a great many cases in which no doubt great inconvenience resulted to the public from railway mismanagement. It was well known that the law had decided that there was no power to compel railway companies to perform their contracts; and, therefore, he was afraid that Government could take no measures to enforce the fulfilment of these obligations. To make an ex post facto law, might have the effect of bearing hard upon other parties. Such a law might be all very well in a case like the present; but if they applied it to one case, they must apply it to all. With regard, however, to the future, the feeling of Government had been sufficiently shown by their proposing the Sessional order, which had been applied to every Railway Bill which had come before the House of Commons this Session, and which required that in the case of any railway company already in existence, and paying dividends, asking powers to construct a new line, they should be compelled to construct it within a given time under the penalty of having their dividends suspended; and that in the case of a railway company not paying dividends asking such powers, they should be called upon to pay down a deposit, which should be left in the hands of Government, and in the event of the Company not fulfilling their engagement it was provided that the deposit should be forfeited to the Consolidated Fund. It was also intended that this Sessional order should be continued in future years. With regard to the future, then, it would thus be seen that Government had taken such steps as were necessary for compelling railway companies to committe their contracts. With respect to the inconvenience which the non-completion of the railway in question occasioned to the districts of country in which it was situated, he was far from disputing that it must be very great. He would only call the attention of the noble Marquess to the fact that the powers which were granted to the Great Western Company in 1847, expired in 1854; so that next year it would be open to a new company to apply for powers to effect the works, if the Great Western Company should still decline to continue them. Under these circumstances, he did not see that the Government could interfere at all in the matter. If it should be the opinion of Parliament, or of a Committee of cither House, that it would be expedient to refuse any further powers to the Great Western Company until they had completed the lines they had already commenced, it was for them so to decide.


said, it might be useful for their Lordships to know the existing state of the law on this subject. It had formerly been thought obligatory on railway companies to make the lines for which they had obtained powers, inasmuch as they got possession of the land and interfered with public rights; and a mandamus was accordingly granted by the Court of Queen's Bench to compel the construction of a line so contracted to be made. There had recently, however, been a decision in the Exchequer Chamber which set aside the judgment of the Queen's Bench, and determined that there was no power to issue a mandamus to compel a railway company to complete a line for which they had obtained an Act of Parliament. From that judgment there would be an appeal to their Lordships' House, and they would have to decide between the Court of Queen's Bench and the Exchequer Chamber.


said, the principle which had been laid down by the noble Marquess that this great company should not be permitted to obtain any Bill for a new undertaking till they had completed those which they had already begun, appeared to him so plain and just a principle that he could hardly conceive it should not weigh both their Lordships and the 'House of Commons.


could not see any hardship in the course proposed by his noble Friend. The company had made a contract with Parliament and the public, and they had been empowered to raise money on the faith of it, which money they had spent for different objects from those they undertook to carry cut, He thought his noble Friend had scarcely placed in a sufficiently strong light the great public importance of uniting, by railway communication, the Irish and the English Channel, and thus affording facilities for the conveyance of troops to any given part of the south and north-western coast. At present there was a distance of about forty-five miles on the south coast, or two days' march for troops, between Dorchester and Exeter, which was without any railway. He begged to lay on the table a petition from Salisbury, praying their Lordships not to empower the Great Western Company to make any new works until they had concluded those which had been referred to by his noble Friend.


said, he believed the reason why the Great Western Rail-way Company had not completed that line between Warminster and Salisbury was, that a great many travellers would pass over it to Salisbury, and then proceed on to London by the South-Western Railway, instead of going round to Bath, and from Bath to London by the Great Western Railway, according to the existing arrangement. The fact was, that no efficient control could at present be exercised over the proceedings of railway companies; and he trusted that the eyes of Parliament would at length be opened to the necessity of conferring a controlling power in that matter upon some duly constituted public body. He believed that the Great Western Railway Company had money enough to construct that line, or any works of a similar character. He had himself demanded from that company a statement of their capital, but he had not yet received that statement; and until it should be furnished to him, he would not allow any Bills of this Company to be proceeded with.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.

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