HL Deb 15 May 1923 vol 54 cc178-84

LORD RATHCREEDAN had the following Notice on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether they will consider the advisability of instructing the Board of Trade to re-consider the accommodation for which the cross-Channel passenger vessels are licensed, seeing that when these vessels (licensed to carry 1,400 passengers) are carrying less than half that number the protected portion of the deck is so crowded as not to afford sufficient seating accommodation, although relieved by the ladies cabin having its full complement.
  2. 2. Whether there is any limit as to the price which the company is entitled to charge for private cabins on board these steamers.
  3. 3. Whether there is any rule as to the number of gangways to be provided so as to facilitate the rapid and convenient embarkation and disembarkation of passengers at the landing stages.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have put this Question in the interest of cross-Channel passengers by the Dover-Calais and Folkestone-Boulogne routes, and I do so because I have noticed that during the last three or four years passengers by those routes have experienced great discomfort. Having crossed the Channel many scores of times during the last ten years I am in a position to state that prior to the war overcrowding and discomfort did not exist. When I crossed some few weeks ago I felt it my duty in the interests of the public to point out the state of affairs. The overcrowding was such that passengers on the first-class passenger deck were unable to find seating accommodation and a large number of ladies who were supposed to be in a protected portion of the passenger deck—the ladies cabin being unduly crowded—were drenched by the waves and standing in water.

Following my letter to The Times other letters appeared in that journal, but the majority of them did not deal with the question at all. One passenger pointed out that he had crossed by these services many times without any inconvenience. I have myself crossed perhaps hundreds of times, and have had no inconvenience, but my fellow passengers have suffered. Those who are in a position to secure their seats in the trains beforehand and a private cabin on board the steamers can travel between London and Paris not only in comfort but in luxury. But a large number of passengers are not in a position to do this. Another writer thought that the best way of avoiding discomfort was to travel by night, and yet another advocated travelling by air.

There was one letter, however, which really dealt with the question. It came from the general manager of the South Eastern and Chatham section of the Southern Railway. His letter was mainly an apology for what had occurred, but he pointed out that the Board of Trade had licensed the vessel in which I travelled to carry 1,400 passengers. A little further on in the same letter he stated that on the occasion to which I have referred it carried 681 passengers, and it was only when they had what he called "peak-loads" that any discomfort such as I described was likely to occur. Although I frankly admit that 1,400 disciplined troops might be carried across the Channel in most states of the weather in perfect safety by such a vessel, I doubt very much whether in the event of any mishap, such as is quite possible in the best of weather, there is sufficient lifeboat accommodation for 1,400 passengers, or whether there are 1,400 lifebelts in visible and easily attainable positions. Later in the same letter the general manager goes on to show that the weather on this occasion was only what is known as choppy or squally.

As a further proof that the accommodation is not sufficient I should like to point out that there were no fewer than 27 passengers on that occasion who had failed to obtain private cabins, whereas prior to the war there was rarely any difficulty in obtaining these cabins. At the present time the company charges for these cabins at the rate of from 30s. to £4. I remember that in 1899 the charge was only 10s. Passengers who have already paid a largely increased sum for their tickets—the fare between London and Paris being in those days £2 10s., and now £3 10s.—are obliged in addition to pay, for a transit of something like an hour, a sum of between 30s. and £4 in order to obtain sufficient accommodation on board ship. I know it is an easy matter to offer criticism, and I am also aware that the railway companies probably endeavour to do their best, but they are handicapped by the fact that they have not sufficient services: When they had no monopoly, in the days to which I refer, they ran very frequent boats, and this state of affairs did not arise.

I may say that it would greatly facilitate the comfort of passengers if more gangways were provided for embarkation and disembarkation, and if the Customs House authorities were given a little more accommodation and a slightly increased staff. I know it will be said that it is a difficult matter to put on extra staff for special occasions, but this is done with great success in our own Post Office, to give but one example. The postal authorities take on nearly 10,000 extra hands to deal with the Christmas pressure, and yet upon these channel steamers, when the pressure to which I have referred takes place, there is the greatest difficulty both as regards embarkation and disembarkation and also as regards the Customs examination. I venture to think that with a little better organisation many of these difficulties might be avoided.

I recollect that in one of the letters it was mentioned that I had not said anything about the behaviour of the employees of the company on the trains and on the boats. I made no such statement because in my long experience I have never noticed anything but the greatest courtesy, and I will add consideration—for I have often travelled with invalids—upon the part not only of all the railway and boat officials but also of the Customs House officials who, under the most difficult circumstances, do their duty with great skill and, I believe, most effectively. But seeing that we are charged a very much higher rate than formerly, I venture to suggest that some arrangement should be made whereby those who apply for first class tickets one day or two or three days before the date of their departure should at the same time be furnished with a reserved and numbered seat upon both sides of the Channel, as is done now on application and after payment of a further fee. Furthermore, if the number of private cabins for which, as I have said, there is such a demand—there were twenty-seven passengers who had failed to obtain that accommodation on the occasion I have mentioned—is insufficient, further accommodation should be provided.

Finally, let me say that the real cure for the difficulty is the running of more vessels. I am given to understand that a very great authority on the Transatlantic trade has stated that if he had followed the custom of the cross-Channel traffic his company would be in a state of bankruptcy. The true solution is the running of sufficient boats at a low figure. This would be very much more profitable to the company than running a limited number of services at high pressure and without sufficient accommodation for the passengers. I hope that the noble Earl who will reply for the Government will understand that it is not my desire to inconvenience the Government in any way. I think it ought to be clear, however, that to license a vessel to carry 1,400 first and second class passengers and then to find that with less than half that number by far the larger proportion of those passengers are subjected to great inconvenience, great discomfort and possibly, in the event of accident, to great danger, is a process which ought to be impossible.

I have ventured to trouble your Lordships with this Question because questions of this kind are often put only in another place. I think it is extremely desirable that in your Lordships' House, where we are able to discuss Questions with greater freedom than is possible in another place, your Lordships should give such support to the public outside as to enable them to bring pressure upon these companies to secure that this service should be run in a manner more worthy of its importance.


My Lords, in reply to the Question which has been raised by the noble Lord I think, perhaps, it would be best if I answered first of all the second and third parts of his Question, for this reason: that I can deal with them quite shortly, inasmuch as the Board of Trade have no jurisdiction whatsoever in regard to these matters. In regard to the charges that are made for cabins, that is a matter entirely settled by the railway company, to whom I understand these ships belong. In regard to part 3, the provision of more gangways or better disembarkation provisions, that is a matter entirely regulated and settled by the dock and harbour authorities on this side, and I understand that, in so far as the ports of Calais and Boulogne are concerned, there are certain French Police Regulations with which we cannot interfere.

As to the first part of the Question, I may say at the outset that the Board of Trade has received, already, certain complaints somewhat on the same lines as the noble Lord's complaint, made to-day in. this House, and perhaps it would be useful if, first of all, I stated exactly how it is these vessels obtain their passenger certificates. In so far as the complaints which have been received by the Board of Trade are concerned the vessel which has been criticised is called the " Maid of Orleans," but I understand that most of the cross-Channel steamers are very similar in character to that particular vessel. So far as this particular vessel is concerned she fully complies with the Board's Regulations, not only in regard to passenger accommodation but also in regard to life-saving appliances. I understand that any vessel whose passage takes not longer than ten hours is not bound by any Statute to provide any seating accommodation whatsoever, but the Board's certificate is primarily governed by deck area or the number of beds or sofas and apparatus provided. This has been the practice, I understand, for a good many years.

In regard to this particular vessel, she has obtained a passenger certificate for 1,400, although, from the amount of space which the vessel contains, that is to say, deck accommodation, apparatus, and so forth, she would under the Regulations be entitled to carry 1,700 passengers. However, the practical position seems to be that while a vessel has ample accommodation, either on deck or in the saloons, for the numbers for which she is licensed, it is quite true that not only in wet weather but also in fine weather there is at any rate an apparent, if not actual, overcrowding, and naturally, when the vessel is carrying more than a few hundred passengers and the weather is not favourable, it is generally admitted, and it is admitted by the shipping company itself, that there are occasions when at least a certain proportion of the passengers cannot get sufficiently comfortable accommodation in order to keep dry. I might say, in conclusion, that the Board is quite willing and intends to make inquiries into this question of accommodation on board these vessels, with a view to seeing whether the existing Regulations cannot be usefully amended.


My Lords, I should just like to say one word in regard to this Question. It so happens that I have crossed the Channel half a dozen times within the last few weeks, and it is a very unusual matter for me to go so often as that. I happen to be a bad sailor—probably Lord Rathereedan is a very good one—and therefore the discomfort and inability to find anywhere to lie down quietly is a very serious matter for me. I must say, however, that although on one occasion there were over 900 passengers, I had on that occasion the good fortune to secure a private cabin. I marvel, seeing the immense traffic there is on the Calais-Dover route, that the thing is done so well as it is.

The other points raised by the noble Lord are apparently not within the purview of the Government, but I think it is rather an irony that instead of a debate on Socialism we should be discussing the question whether there are to be more private cabins, which are essentially a luxury for the rich. I doubt if a much larger number of private cabins could be provided without enormous expense, which would have to be charged for. In regard to the question of more gangways, I am inclined to agree with my noble friend on the point, but I believe there are certain foreign Police Regulations with which, of course, we cannot interfere. If, however, there are not, I wish it were possible to land more quickly from these steamers than one can do nowadays upon the Paris route. I would only add, in conclusion, that I think we are apt to be too critical in regard to these matters of railway and steamship companies who, in circumstances of great difficulty, are dealing with the enormous traffic which there is at certain times on these routes, and are doing their best. I do not think we are justified in complaining too much about small matters when we choose to travel to the Continent.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for his reply. I did not suppose that the Government would be in a position to do very much in this matter, but I had hoped that the Press, by ventilating this matter, might be the means of causing the steamboat authorities to readjust their position, and to realise the fact that they would benefit themselves as well as the general public by running more frequent boats. As I have stated, thirty or forty years ago these difficulties did not occur, because at that time there was no monopoly and steamers were more frequent. I hope that the result of this debate will be to encourage the Press to ventilate the matter and enable the public to put pressure upon the steamboat companies, so that those who travel between this country and the Continent may be furnished with better accommodation and more comfort, particularly as they pay a much higher rate than formerly.

House adjourned at half-past six o'clock.