HL Deb 06 July 1883 vol 281 cc585-90

, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government, If a Return could be obtained of the number of hours in the day or week that the railway servants were on duty? said, the subject was one of national importance, inasmuch as now-a-days all the community were, if not travellers themselves, at all events deeply interested in the convenience and safety of those who were; and it was well known that many of the accidents that occurred were attributable to the long hours that railway servants were employed. Quite recently the Irish mail escaped from a terrible; accident by an engine with two men asleep on it being providentially discovered just in time to be removed. While asking for information on this subject, he would like to know the powers of the Board of Trade in regard to signals, brakes, composite trains, and other matters of that kind. In regard to brakes, he thought we were far behind Continental countries; and as to the danger of forming composite trains of passenger carriages and goods waggons, they had a strong proof in an accident that occurred on the Alford Branch of the North of Scotland Railway. He did not make any charge against any particular Company, but thought he was justified in urging on the Government the necessity of introducing more stringent regulations.


said, that, before his noble Friend answered this Question, he should like to be allowed to make an observation. The number of railway servants in the United Kingdom was about 240,000, and, therefore, the information referred to in the Question would indicate a vast mass of statistics. He did not mean to suggest that it would be impracticable for the Board of Trade to obtain from the various Railway Companies a copy of their time-sheets during some given week; but the items ascertained would, if they were to be turned to any practical purpose, require so many explanatory qualifications that the result might become somewhat uncertain and complicated. A pointsman at some local station might be nominally on duty for, say, 20 hours; but that might be occasioned by the fact that he had to start an early goods train at 3 o'clock in the morning, and he might then be without actual work till many hours later when the regular traffic commenced; and the Railway Company would, of course, be entitled to insert all such extenuating circumstances. At the same time, the general fact remained that it was exceedingly common for railway servants to be employed for periods which were undesirably long. That might be explained partly by the varying and peculiar requirements of railway traffic, but also he thought by the fact that there was a certain attractiveness in railway work, which secured a constant and superabundant supply of applicants for that kind of employment, and that enabled the Railway Companies to make terms of a more stringent kind than those which were practicable in other kinds of business. What he would I suggest, as he could not, of course, put a formal Question to his noble Friend without Notice, was whether it would not be quite feasible to arrange that, as every casualty on a railway, however slight, was by regulation reported to the Board of Trade—in the year 1881, for example, there were 3,734 cases of injury to railway servants duly reported—it should be at the same time stated in the Report for how many hours the railway servant, or servants, concerned had been employed at the time of the occurrence, or what was the average length of their day's work?


My Lords, this question of the hours of employment of railway servants has been brought before Parliament on several occasions. In 1877, the noble Duke (the Duke of St. Albans) brought in a Bill to limit the length of time during which railway servants could be employed; it being stated to be— Detrimental to the proper working of railways, and dangerous to the public, that the hours of employment should be excessive. That Bill was discussed by the House at some length; but it was thrown out as likely to cause needless interference with Railway Companies, and because it would, to a great extent, reduce their responsibility. The Board of Trade have no legislative authority, and can lay down no special binding rules in the matter; but they have indirectly great moral power. It is found that, when accidents happen and inquiries are made, the publicity given by the Inspectors to cases of working overtime is far more efficacious on the Companies than any law on the subject could possibly be. As a matter of fact, the Board of Trade have reason to know that, on the whole, the Railway Companies are most anxious to prevent this sort of irregularities happening, and take stringent steps to prevent them; but it is clear that sometimes under special circumstances they will happen, as, for example, when goods trains are delayed from fog, snow, and other causes. A few cases, therefore, do sometimes arise, though the Board of Trade are convinced they are very rare. The case to which the noble Lord refers appears to have been due solely to the great desire of the men to get back to their homes; and they distinctly made a wilful misstatement to the night porter to the effect that they came out at 12.45 mid-day instead of 8 o'clock that morning. The London and Northwestern Company state to the Board of Trade— The delay to the Irish mail was caused through an engineman and fireman falling asleep on their engine when returning empty without waggons. They reported themselves at Bangor to the night foreman and were allowed to return to Chester. This would not have been done if the men had not wilfully made a misstatement to the effect that they had commenced work at 12.45 mid-day instead of 8 o'clock. The men stopped in obedience to signals at Llanfairfechan and fell asleep. The signalman at Llandudno exhibited great presence of mind, when the light engine ran through that station, in telegraphing to Colwyn Bay for the protection of the line. Both driver and fireman were asleep, but perfectly sober.… Although a delay of 22 minutes occurred to the mail owing to its being stopped at the various block points, no danger whatever could arise, as the signalman and other servants on duty took the usual precautions necessary under the block regulations, nor was there any possibility of the engine exploding, as the fire had naturally died down. There is no doubt the signalmen deserve the greatest credit. The policy of Parliament has always been to show that it thought it would be a dangerous precedent to interfere between the employer of adult labour and the employed as to the number of hours he was to work. It has always considered it far better to leave the responsibility on the right shoulders—namely, on those of the Railway Company. The whole question of Government taking additional responsibility and interfering with the Railway Companies was also most fully discussed before the Royal Commission in 1878. As regards the question raised by the noble Lord on the judgment of Major Marindin, one of the Board of Trade Inspectors, about three years ago, I have not the Report by me; but I can say that it is the practice of Inspectors to point out all matters connected with accidents that appear to have tended to cause them. There are several occasions on which it has been pointed out that mixed trains are an element of danger. I have one here, in which it is stated that— Mixed trains are always more or less an element of danger; but the risk of accident is far greater when the goods waggons are in front of the passenger carriages, although, doubtless, it is more convenient to place them there for shunting purposes. This is not done because the Board of Trade have any legal power to enforce it, but merely, by giving full publicity, to let it operate on the Railway Companies. It must be remembered that it is the direct interest of the Companies to prevent accidents; and up to a certain point there can be no doubt, provided you obtain uniformity of practice, it is far better for a Public Department not to interfere more than is absolutely necessary. In the present instance, where a strong case has been brought to light of a fireman and engineman working over hours, the Board of Trade consider that it is their duty to point it out as a caution to all other Railway Companies, to show the great and urgent care that is required to prevent overtime. They propose, therefore, to issue a special Circular to the Railway Companies, calling their attention to this case, and to the necessity of providing for the regularity of the hours of labour. I have only to add that I hope the noble Lord will not press for the Return for which he has moved. It would be a most voluminous document, and, besides being very difficult to obtain, would, I believe, be found altogether useless.


said, he agreed with the noble Lord that, if the Board of Trade were to obtain such powers of interference, it would be undertaking the conduct of the railways, and with it the responsibility of their management. The Return asked for might very probably not be as voluminous as the noble Lord opposite supposed; but there could be no objection to a Return of the hours of labour of such classes of workmen as engine-drivers and signalmen, whose long periods of duty were often injurious to their health, as well as dangerous to the safety of the public. The rule of dividing the 24 hours into three sections of eight hours for signalmen had been departed from by the Companies, except in the neighbourhood of London and other large towns. The time was now often divided into two equal parts, and thus a signalman had to remain in the box every day for 12 hours continuously, with, perhaps, a good many signals constantly to attend to. He knew of several cases in which this stress of duty had injured the health and even the sanity of those employed. This, of course, involved serious risks to the public. He thought there was great cause for a general Circular on the subject of hours; and, as in the case of continuous brakes, the Board of Trade would do well to lay down some general standard rules, which would serve as tests of responsibility in inquiries about accidents.


said, that the ordinary practice was that the drivers and firemen of passenger trains were employed from seven to ten hours a day, and those of mineral trains from nine to twelve hours; but the fixed hours were subject to exceptional delay by reason of bad weather. Passenger guards did 10 hours' duty. It was now rather the exception for signalmen to work the long hours that had been stated. At all important stations the time was eight hours; at some out-of-the-way places it might be longer. If attention were turned to some other employments, it would probably be found that the hours of work were longer than they were on railways. For instance, omnibus drivers in London were on duty from 12 to 15 hours a-day. As to the inspection of works and bridges by the officers of the Board of Trade, as he was a Director of the Company that was building the new Forth Bridge, commenced three months ago, he might say that the officers had been there and had made a rigid inspection of all the material that was to be used in the work.