HL Deb 01 March 1853 vol 124 cc791-8

said: In moving for returns with respect to the railway accidents which occurred during the year 1852, according to the notice which I gave your Lordships last night, I think I am not travelling out of the wake of public opinion if I direct the attention of your Lordships and the attention of Her Majesty's Government for a few minutes to this subject, which has certainly of late occasioned considerable interest in the public mind. There exists throughout the country a strong feeling, in which, I must say, that I myself participate, that these railway accidents have been increasing lately, and are still upon the increase. I think your Lordships must be under the same impression, and that you must entertain a strong opinion that during the last year more railway accidents occurred, and a greater sacrifice of life took place, than we had heard of in any preceding year. There is scarcely a week in which we do not read in the public prints lamentable accounts of these accidents, entailing mutilation and death upon a great number of individuals. But I do not think I should have troubled your Lordships upon this occasion if I were not certain of the public alarm that now exists upon this subject, and of the general belief which prevails, not only that the manner in which railways are managed is extremely dangerous to passengers, but that every effort that might be made is not made to prevent a recurrence of those dreadful casualties. I believe there is a strong feeling in the public mind that some third power between the public and the railway directors should be exercised to protect, upon the one hand, industry and capital as they ought to be protected in a great commercial country, and to protect, upon the other hand, the Queen's subjects from such injuries as might by proper precaution be avoided. We seem really to have now returned to the same state of feeling with respect to the perils of travelling which prevailed among our ancestors sixty years ago. At that period, when they proceeded from Edinburgh to London, they insured their lives and made their wills before entering upon a journey which was considered so precarious, and which usually occupied about a fortnight. And what is the state of things now? The opposite extreme, as regards the rapidity of travelling, has been arrived at. We now travel with the most wonderful celerity. But in other respects extremes have met, and people before they engage upon a railway journey or excursion insure their lives almost as if they thought they were going to the Antipodes. There is something ludicrously tragical in the mode in which a person who has paid for the ticket which was to guarantee his arrival at the end of his journey is led to insure his life. When he has got his ticket he smilingly looks round, and sees the bills announcing the arrival and departure of the trains; and by their side he sees posted—I must say with the most ingenuous candour on the part of the directors—another bill by which he is invited in the most seductive terms to insure his life, as a duty which he owes to his wife, his children, and his friends. A man might then be said to enter the railway carriage, impressed with the notion that he should never again see those friends; and that they would never again see him, or at least that they would only see him as a shapeless corpse; he acts upon the advice and insures his life. That is the general feeling among the great mass of the people of this country who travel by railway; and I am informed upon good authority that the company which thus insures the lives of travellers, gave to the shareholders at the period of their last dividend something like 7 per cent. The public think that they are at the mercy of the railway companies. I do not know whether or not they are; but certainly a very great change has taken place in the relative position of the travelling public now and the railway companies, as compared with the relative position of the travelling public and the old coach proprietors and owners of post horses. The old coach proprietor and post-horse master stood hat in hand before the public, while now the public stand hat in hand before the railway companies and directors. The management of the details of locomotive business of the old coaches was formerly in the hands of a class of men of inferior education and position—I mean the ostlers; but the business, which was formerly in the hands of the ostlers, is now placed in the hands of highly-educated gentlemen, some of whom are of distinguished rank and leading Members of Parliament. These men are certainly not responsible to the public in the same way in which their humbler fellow ministers to the public wants formerly were when conducting the details of coach travelling. I think that this is a subject that ought to attract the attention of every Government, and that the time has arrived when the Government ought to consider whether they can tranquillise the public mind upon this matter—when they ought to consider whether means cannot be taken to enforce certain rules and regulations, and to effect certain improvements in railway travelling, without trenching at all upon the rights of the companies, as commercial or trading associations—but which will tend to the safety and security of Her Majesty's subjects. There are many details connected with this question which I will not now press upon your Lordships' consideration; but there are one or two points which must strike every one very forcibly, and to which I shall briefly refer. All the accidents of a slighter nature that occurred this year—the collisions, which, while they inflicted some injury upon the person, led to no loss of life, and merely caused bruises, and contusions, and concussions of the brain, and trifling accidents of that description, have been invariably effected, I believe, by two persons who were sitting opposite to each other having been thrown together with more or less violence. On the Brighton line in the month of December last an accident occurred, by which eighteen or nineteen persons were severely injured on their heads and faces by having been so thrown together in two compartments of a railway carriage. I saw those unfortunate sufferers, very soon after the accident, some of whom had been thrown with so much violence that they were severely injured; while one of the travellers, who had no vis-a-vis, had been thrown against a soft cushion, and the result was that he had escaped unhurt. I mention that fact because it has been suggested that the carriages might be made—and I think the suggestion a very sensible one—to contain a number of persons in a row without any other persons being placed opposite to them, and that the partition opposite to them should be stuffed. The carriages of course would be very much narrower than at present, and formed somewhat like the coupé of a diligence, but without windows in front. I am aware that you could not put the companies to the expense of making new carriages all at once; but you might have some controlling power which, as the old stock were out, would gradually enforce that or any useful discovery that might be made in the construction of carriages. There is another point which has of late occupied very much of the public attention, and in which the safety of the lives of travellers is very much involved, but which on many lines seems to be left entirely out of the question; I allude to the want of punctuality in the arrival of railway trains. When first railway carriages were started, the time-tables issued were very well observed; but nobody is now astonished at finding that he arrives at the end of his journey, one, two, or even more hours, after the time announced in the printed tables of the railway. The railways abroad are infinitely superior to ours in this respect, and I must say that I think some effort might be made to remedy to a great extent that evil, although it would of course be impossible to insure constant punctuality in the arrival of trains. But I believe that there is still a more important point; and that is, that a certain communication should as a matter of obligation be estab-between the metropolis and the principal towns of this country. Such a communication does not at present exist; and I can give you an instance of it from my own knowledge, which, I think, is one of the most inexcusable acts of arbitrary power that could be witnessed in a civilised country. During four months of this winter the whole of the county of Dorset, and a great part of the south of Hampshire, were, I may say, excommunicated from London, for there was no day train from Dorchester before twelve o'clock except one which left at six in the morning; so that no person in Dorsetshire, during the winter months, though the distance is not more than 100 or 130 miles, could reach London in sufficient time to pass through the metropolis unless he arose at four or five o'clock in the morning. The result of the arrangements made by the railway company was, that my noble Friend at the head of the Post Office (Viscount Can- ning) said that he could not give us in Dorsetshire a day mail, which the whole of that district had enjoyed for two years. This was the result of the caprice—for I can give it no other name, as no reason was given for the change—of the railway directors; while the only reason that could be adduced for those arrangements was the caprice of the directors. My noble Friend said he had no authority over the departure of the trains which carried the mails; so that we were entirely at the mercy of the managers of the company. On the same line there was what I might almost call an outrage. A parliamentary train started from Dorchester at six in the morning, full, no doubt, of persons of the poorer classes; and those persons, during the four winter months, were kept four hours waiting in Southampton until the company chose to start another train for them. Your Lordships can easily imagine the expense and discomfort to which these poor people were thus exposed—expense arising out of the necessity of providing themselves with provisions during the delay, and discomfort arising out of the fact that they were provided with no proper resting-place during those three hours. These are things which, I think, require the interference of the Government. We have so far protected the interests of the poor as to obtain for them cheap trains; but I think we ought also to protect them by providing for their removal from one terminus to another without any unnecessary inconvenience or delay; and that the companies ought not to be allowed to subject the passengers by such trains to expense, and cold, and inconvenience for no reason whatever in this case, so far as I can learn. I was asked by many of my brother Members of this House living in that county to make a representation to the directors of this railway. The directors admitted the existence of those grievances; they confessed there could be no reason why there should be only three trains from Dorchester to London, and four from London to Dorchester; they confessed the cruelty of keeping these poor people in Southampton; they confessed the hardship of taking away from a district only 100 miles from London its daily post; but they said they could not remedy those evils; the only reason for their mode of proceeding being sic volo, sic jubeo. That is the only answer that could be got from a power that is perfectly arbitrary. I inquired of the station-masters and other persons conversant with the working of the system, and they all said that there was no necessity whatever for those evils, which were owing to nothing but a little want of management. Well, I think we ought not to be exposed to that want; and I would urge on Her Majesty's Government the necessity of considering whether, without infringing on the rights of those companies, or interfering with their profits—and I have always been anxious that they should have large profits, and have always thought it would be bad policy to impoverish them by reducing their charges to the lowest possible scale—I would urge on Her Majesty's Government the necessity of considering whether they could not devise some remedy for those abuses. I think it is incumbent on them, and that they could not do a more popular act than to investigate grievances which have become the subject of conversation in every society, and which I have now taken the liberty of bringing under your Lordships' consideration, Everything I have said upon the subject has come under my own observation, and I can answer for the truth of every statement I have made. In conclusion, I beg leave to moveThat there be laid before this House returns of the number of passengers and railway servants killed or injured by accidents, from the 1st of January, 1852, to the 1st of January, 1853.


wished to know whether the Government had the power of stopping the traffic on a line which was in a dangerous condition?


, in answer to the question of the noble Earl, said he conceived that when a railway was once opened there was no power on the part of the Government to interfere with it in any way, or to stop the traffic upon it. The powers given by Parliament to the Board of Trade, or the Railway Commissioners, enabled them, before a railway was opened, to send an inspector, who should certify that the road was in a fit state to be safely worked for the accommodation of the public, and until such certificate was given no railway could be opened. With regard to the subject which the noble Earl had brought under their Lordships' attention, it was undoubtedly one well deserving consideration. He agreed with the noble Earl, that though it might be contrary to the ordinary principles of commercial policy for the Government to interfere with such bodies as railway companies and their transactions—bodies which represent- ed the enormous capital of 250,000,000l., or more than one-fourth the amount of the national debt—vet in this, as in other cases, their maxim should be, Salus populi suprema lex. If it could be proved that the real security of the public would be promoted by direct interference on the part of the Government, it would be very proper that the additional powers which were necessary should be given to them; but he must caution Parliament to be very careful before they relieved railway companies from the responsibility which properly attached to the parties who worked the lines and carried on the details of the traffic. If Parliament relieved the companies from responsibility by giving to a department of the Government the power and the obligation to prescribe for them exactly what course they were to take to secure the safety of the public, the companies, if they attended to such directions, might consider themselves relieved from all liability: whereas if they left the companies the responsibility of working the lines, they would find, that under the Act of the Lord Chief Justice—which gave to persons injured by accidents the power of recovering compensation in cases where the accidents had arisen from any neglect on the part of the companies—their responsibility was by no means trifling. The noble Earl had called attention to some matters of inconvenience to the public, and had mentioned, as one case, that when a railway collision took place, the passengers who sat on opposite seats knocked their heads against each other, and that serious injuries were caused. He (Lord Stanley) did not know whether the noble Earl proposed to put the passengers into boxes similar to those provided for horses, or what other mode he would adopt for preventing the usual results of such accidents; but all such matters would more properly be left to the regulations of the companies, and could hardly be considered as subjects for legislation. The noble Earl had alluded to the powers of investigation with regard to railway accidents. Now, there was a power of investigation on the part of the Board of Trade. When an accident occurred, the Board of Trade sent down an inspector to inquire into the circumstances and report to the Board, and on receiving the report the Board made such suggestions as they thought fit to the railway company; but they had no power to compel the companies to carry into effect those suggestions, but Parliament might fairly consider whether it ought not to give such power. He thought it would not be de- sirable at present to enter into any discussion as to the mode in which railways were conducted, inasmuch as a Committee had been appointed by the House of Commons, on the Motion of the late President of the Board of Trade, to inquire not only into the question of the amalgamation of different railways and canals, but also into the principles upon which railways should be conducted and managed. The whole of that subject had been referred to the Committee, and until that Committee reported he thought it would be unadvisable and inexpedient to discuss more particularly those matters which the noble Earl regarded as dangerous to the public safety. With regard to the returns for which the noble Earl had moved, he (Lord Stanley) did not think there would be any objection to their production. They were, in fact, the reports ordinarily laid upon the table every year. These reports, however, could not be prepared, he believed, until after Easter, and they had not generally been laid upon the table until May, June, or July. As to the reports relative to the particular accidents which occurred last year, he believed there would be no difficulty in their production.

On Question, agreed to.

House adjourned to Thursday next.