HL Deb 25 October 1917 vol 26 cc793-800

THE EARL OF MAYO had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether the branch railway from Athy to Wolfhill, now under construction at public expense, will terminate near the northern, edge of the Leinster coalfield and will not provide transit facilities for the four long-established collieries at Castlecomer, producing more than four times the daily output of the single colliery to be served by the line to Wolf-hill.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this railway from Wolfhill to Athy has been undertaken as a war measure with Government money, under, I believe, the Defence of the Realm Act. Those knowing the country cannot conceive why such a railway was started, for 9 miles away from its nearest point are the Castlecomer collieries producing over 75 per cent. of the anthracite coal raised in Ireland. Those collieries are capable of immediate extension, and have been in existence for nearly three centuries. Should a railway be made to the Castlecomer collieries the present owner has undertaken to treble, and ultimately to quadruple, the output. He is prepared to spend £60,000 on equipment, including the installation of coal-cutting machines and other labour-saving devices. The nearest railway stations at present to this large anthracite coalfield are Kilkenny, 15 miles distant; Carlow, 12 miles; Ballyragget, 9 miles; and Abbeyleix, 12 miles. These stations are on the Great Southern and Western Railway. In consequence of the difficult gradients, the bad roads, and inadequate bridges, Kilkenny and Carlow are practically the only railway stations available for motor and steam lorry traffic; the remainder of the coal from Castlecomer is drawn by horses, donkeys, and mules over the other roads. Even where it is at all practicable, the condition of the roads makes mechanical transport extremely difficult. The cost of the Castlecomer coal is increased by 10s. a ton on account of the cost of carriage from the colliery to the railway.

I should like to point out that the Castlecomer coal is a particularly high quality of anthracite, derived from two seams known as the Yarrow seam and the Skehanna seam. The local consumers have a partiality for the Yarrow seam. The Skehanna seam has been proved to exist over the greater portion of this large Leinster coalfield, and the coal obtained from this seam is equal to the best South Wales anthracite. Prior to 1914 nine-tenths of the output of Castlecomer coal were consumed within a 15-mile radius from the colliery. The effect of the war has been that during 1916 considerable quantities were put on rail for various parts of Ireland—as far north as Belfast, and as far west as Limerick and Tralec. Many thousands of orders for this coal, however, had to be refused owing to its having to be carted over these 15 miles. I think I have said enough to show the value and importance of this coalfield. Your Lordships must remember that the Wolfhill to Athy railway has been started nine miles away from this point to a branch line on the Great Southern and Western Railway, where it touches at the latter town.

I will now deal with the collieries which this Government line is preparing to serve. At Wolfhill there are two collieries. One is called Wolfhill, and the other Modubeagh. This latter colliery was abandoned about fifty years ago. It is still derelict, being full of water. The output from Wolfhill is scarcely 60 tons a day, as against the 250 tons a day which are now coming out of the Castlecomer collieries. The Chief Secretary for Ireland has stated that 1,000 tons a day could be obtained from Wolfhill. That, however, remains to be seen. Mr. Duke also indicated that four months would suffice for the construction of this line, several miles in length, from Wolfhill to Athy. That period of time has long since elapsed, and it is clear that it will take from fifteen months to two years to complete the line, and that it will be very expensive to construct. There will have to be an elaborate and expensive bridge thrown over the river Barrow. It was said that this bridge would be made of steel, but, as your Lordships can imagine, that material is not forthcoming under present conditions. If the bridge has to be made of masonry or of reinforced concrete it will take some time, because the construction of such a bridge is very different from the erection of a steel girder bridge. The gradients of this line are all against the load, being as much as 1 in 40 in places, which would require a special type of locomotive, and it is doubtful whether this type of engine can be obtained.

The Board of Trade intimated quite recently that a line to Castlecomer could not be considered as a war measure on the ground that it would take eighteen months to construct, and that the necessary rails and other equipment could not be devoted thereto. In answer to that intimation, I may say that I have been informed on the best authority that the necessary rails can be obtained in Ireland without impairing the efficiency of any of the Irish railways. It seems, therefore, that no consideration was given by the Government to the large coalfield at Castlecomer. I desire to know what expert advice was given to the Board of Trade to induce them to embark on this Wolfhill to Athy railway. I should also like to be informed as to the probable cost of this "war measure" railway, including the expense of acquiring the necessary land. I am not sure whether there has been any inquiry, but I am told that none has been made. My information is that the railway has been run, under the Defence of the Realm Act, bang through the country without so much as asking "by your leave." It would be very nice, of course, if people in this country were allowed to make railways in that manner. It may be asked by those who do not know the locality, Why not join up the Wolfhill railway with Castlecomer? I will place before the House the main reasons against such a course; but before doing so I might mention that I have not the least interest, either financially or otherwise, in either of these collieries. I have no interest in them beyond wanting to see the produce of this large coalfield distributed by means of a railway all over Ireland, where it is wanted very badly. Between Castlecomer and the summit level towards Wolfhill the gradients rise from about 400 to 750 feet against the load.

I may say that I have a better plan than the one which I have mentioned to you, and one which has been carefully gone into. The line which, is proposed for the service of the Castlecomer collieries would be 10½ miles long. It could commence at a junction with the Great Southern and Western Railway at a place; called Clinstown, between Kilkenny and Ballyragget stations; and although longer by 3½ miles than the Wolfhill-Athy line, it would be cheaper. There would be no engineering difficulties whatever. The gradients would be all with the load; the most severe is I in 70, and there would be only one small bridge to erect over a small stream. This railway of 10½ miles in length would not only serve the Castlecomer collieries, but also the village of that name. Let me give an instance of possible traffic on that railway. Last year 128,554 lbs. of butter were made in the local creamery, and all had to be carted to the nearest railway station, about nine miles off. Also the Creamery Society imported and distributed £5,334 worth of seeds, manures, and feeding stuffs to the different farmers. Between January 1 and May 31, 3,714 passengers were carried by motor chars-à-bancs between Castlecomer and Kilkenny. Therefore I think that, with the coal, this 10½ mile line of railway would pay.

It must be remembered that ever since the Castlecomer collieries existed the tendency has been to use that coal in the direction of Kilkenny. That is the part of Ireland which it serves. But, as I have said, since the war there have been demands for this coal all over Ireland. This is not a merely local matter; had it been, I should not have troubled the House with it to-day. Here is the largest coalfield we have, and it is practically cut off, because the chances of a railway being made from these collieries are rather remote now that this small colliery has been joined up with the branch railway at Athy. It is rather irritating to those who live in Ireland to see such a scheme embarked upon for such a small colliery when this very large coalfield exists, and is left, so to speak, in the air. Cheap coal in Ireland is much needed, and this coal has been used in the Kilkenny district for years. I have seen a fire of it myself. It certainly takes a long time to light, but it makes a very good fire and lasts for hours. Coal in Ireland for poor people is excessively hard to procure. Coke is almost impossible to get, and if this coal could be distributed about the country you have no idea what a blessing it would be and the good it would effect to industries of all sorts in Ireland. I have already pointed out that in 1916 this coal went as far north as Belfast, and it must be thought pretty good stuff, because they had to pay dear for it after all the carting expenses and railway carriage necessary to get it there. I ask, Why not, when you are at it, exploit the resources of the country in a proper way? I do not think I need say any more about this matter, though there are many of us who feel very strongly about it. I suppose we ought to be thankful that we have a railway at all now which brings coal even from this little colliery. We are thankful for small mercies. But I hope that there will be a chance of this other railway being made, so that a large supply of good anthracite coal will be available for Ireland and any other parts of the United Kingdom that wish for it.


My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct in saying that the line which is being constructed to serve the Wolfhill collieries is being made at the public expense as a war measure. It was begun, I am informed, in the month of April last. The line is not being constructed in pursuance of any statutory authority, but in virtue of the Defence of the Realm Regulation 2AA, which reads as follows— Where, with a view to increasing the supply of coal, it appears to the Board of Trade that it is expedient that any railway, tramway, or other facilities for transport from a colliery should he provided, the Board of Trade may lake possession of any land and construct and maintain thereon such works as may be necessary for the purpose. The noble Earl is, I think, quite correct in saying that no inspection or formal inquiry respecting this line has been held by the Board of Trade, but its construction was determined upon after consultation between the Chief Secretary for Ireland, the Chair man of the Irish Railway Executive, the Coal Controller, and the President of the Board of Trade, and it is the first line which is being constructed under the Regulation to which I have referred. The line is being actually made by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company, which is, how ever, being reimbursed out of public funds. I am afraid I cannot answer the question which the noble Earl put—as to whether, and what, expert advice had been taken before the construction of the line was decided upon, but I will make inquiry of the Board of Trade and inform the noble Earl of the result. I am informed that the line which is to be constructed is to run for about 10 miles from the Great Southern and Western Railway near Athy—


Ten miles? Seven.


I am informed that it is to run for about 10 miles in a southerly direction, terminating at the collieries which already exist at Wolfhill. The Castlecomer collieries are about 10 miles further to the south-west, and railway facilities for these collieries could be provided either by an extension of the Athy to Wolf-hill line or by a branch line running south-eastwards from the collieries to join the Great Southern and Western Railway between Kilkenny and Ballyragget. The last-named route would, in the opinion of the Board of Trade, probably be preferable, and it is understood that this is the view of those interested in these collieries. The noble Earl must understand that the importance of the Castlecomer collieries has not been lost sight of by the public Departments concerned; nor does any one wish for a moment to depreciate the good qualities of the Castlecomer coal. But the question of providing railway facilities for the collieries at Castlecomer has been before the Board of Trade and was very carefully reviewed by them in all its aspects in the month of August last. The decision then arrived at was that, having regard to the quality of the coal, which is chiefly anthracite, the length of time—about eighteen months—which it is calculated it would take to complete the provision of railway facilities, and the difficulties connected with the provision of materials, the Board of Trade could not undertake to give assistance in the construction of any such railway. The noble Earl will realise that the Board of Trade have, power only to examine the question from the point of view of the more effective prosecution of the war. From the point of view of the industrial development of Ireland, in which the, noble Earl is much interested, it is possible that under normal conditions there might be much to be said for the provision of some such railway facilities as have been suggested. I think the noble Earl told the House that the production of coal at the Wolfhill colliery was at the present moment very small. I think he said about sixty tons a day.




Judging from the case of other collieries which have had railway facilities provided up to their door, perhaps we may hope that the production of Wolf-hill will tend to be an increasing one, and that as time goes on the colliery will become large and important. I am sorry not to be able to give the noble Earl a reply that he will consider more satisfactory from the point of view of the Castlecomer collieries, but I am sure—in fact, I think he admitted it—he felt gratified that public money was being spent at this moment in developing, or attempting to develop, an Irish colliery; whereas I am sorry to say that any one who is interested in collieries in this country that have not railways up to their door may have to wait, I am afraid, till the Greek Kalends before any provision is made at the public expense such as has been provided for the Wolfhill colliery.


My Lords, I am not acquainted with the district in question, but from the admission of the noble Lord who represents the Government it is a pity that there was no inquiry. If we are going to the trouble to make a railway for a particular colliery, a railway of 10 miles in length, and there is near by another colliery which has been in existence for a long time and which is producing, according to the noble Earl, 75 per cent. of Ireland's anthracite coal, it appears to me that it is a great pity we could not kill two birds with one stone. It would cost very little more, apparently, to carry this railway to a colliery which is producing far more at present, if the statistics which the noble Earl has given are right, than the Wolfhill colliery. I think the noble Lord who represents the Government must acknowledge that, from the social, industrial, and economic points of view in Ireland, there is a great deal to be said for the making of a railway which would reach this anthracite coalfield. I hope the Government will take the matter into consideration. I am speaking entirely without any interest in either coalfield, just as did the noble Earl who brought this matter forward. I speak only as an Irishman who would be exceedingly pleased if we could find coal for our industries in Ireland. I think it was acknowledged by the noble Lord who replied for the Government that the line from the Castlecomer colliery is downhill. Therefore it would cost very little more to carry out that project. I hope that the Government will not consider this the end of the question, but that from an Irish point of view, and with the object of increasing our industries, they will reconsider the position.

House adjourned at four minutes before five o'clock.