HL Deb 06 December 1927 vol 69 cc519-45

LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU rose to call attention to the proposal of the railway companies to use road transport without any restriction, and to ask what is the attitude of the Government towards such a radical change in the powers of the companies; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I raise this subject this afternoon in no spirit of hostility to the great railway companies but as a matter of considerable public interest. No doubt your Lordships will have noticed that the four great railway companies have given notice that they intend to apply through Bills which they have deposited for the removal of all restrictions on road transport run by them. This is not the first time that they have made that application. In 1920–21 there was an inquiry by Sir Balfour Browne as to the road conveyance of goods by railways, and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company, in 1922, applied for the removal of restrictions and the enlargement of their powers. In the second case the application was withdrawn eventually because the Ministry of Transport, through Sir J. G. Beharrell, then an official of that Ministry, decided that it would be fair to the railway companies to charge for road transport the same rates as they were charging for rail transport. The company decided that in those circumstances it was not worth while to proceed and so the matter was dropped.

I have said that I bring this Motion forward in no spirit of hostility. From the point of view of the railway companies I think they are quite right to ask for an enlargement of their powers, and my only wonder is that they did not do so long ago and bring it to an issue. The position to-day is this. The railway companies now can run any road transport service they like so long as it is in connection with their existing rail services. We know that in London and all big towns and in many country districts the railway companies employ their own vans and deliver from the terminus or the local station to your door. But it has been held that they cannot, for instance, take a parcel or any form of goods from places in which the traffic does not originate on their own railway. As a matter of fact, I am informed that at present this restriction, such as it is, is being daily infringed in a good many instances. I presume that the Ministry of Transport on large public grounds are winking at this infringement and, as in many cases it is in the public interest, nobody has yet raised any serious objection to it. There is a popular impression, which, like many popular impressions, is erroneous, that the railways have been hardly dealt with in this matter and that they cannot run road transport. To-day they have well over 35,000 of their own vehicles using the roads of which between 3,000 and 4,000 are motor vehicles and the balance are horse-drawn vehicles. This will give your Lordships some idea of the size of the present road transport industry carried on by the railways. They are in fact many times bigger as a road transport organisation than any other single transport organisation in the country.

It is worth noting that the railway companies already make this considerable use of the road. No doubt your Lordships know that they have in many cases done useful work in coupling up their local services with main line stations. In the West of England the Great Western Railway and the Southern Railway have an excellent system of motor coaches, and in many other parts of the country the railways are branching out into this class of business. If this process is to be carried on it is only fair that the position should be regularised and that Parliament should be asked on what conditions the restrictions are to be withdrawn. At present the restrictions are not uniform. There are companies, like the North Staffordshire Railway Company, which have full powers and do not require any extension. There are others which have hardly any powers. Conditions differ with the various companies.

It has been claimed by the railway companies with some show of justice that they ought all to be allowed to have unrestricted powers because they pay a considerable amount in highway rates. It should be remembered in this connection that the 31,000 or 32,000 horse-drawn vehicles which they employ on the roads, unlike motor vehicles, pay nothing towards the upkeep of those roads, and this may be regarded as a considerable set-off against the highway rates that are paid. I may go further than that. When this question was threshed out before a Parliamentary Committee on May 17, 1922, Mr. Macmillan, counsel for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, admitted that out of a total of £2,106,000 paid by his company, only £325,671 was for highway rates, or about 15½ per cent, of the total paid. Less than one-half of that sum of £325,671 was paid on the actual track. Most of it was paid on buildings, warehouses, hotels, houses, cottages, and so on, owned by the company. In other words, any other person or company owning such buildings would have had to pay those rates.

The amount of the contribution of the railway companies to road rates has been given at various figures, but I find after careful investigation that out of £8,000,000 paid annually in rates by the railway companies, £1,200,000 at the outside is paid in road rates. Not more than 50 per cent. of the road rates is paid on the railway tracks, or £600,000. That is just over 1½ per cent., or 3½d., in the £ of their net revenue of £41,000,000, and is quite a small proportion of their total expenses—so small a proportion of the sum which they spend annually that the point becomes insignificant. I do not think that this can be considered an unfair contribution for the railway companies to make, since their traffic both in goods and passengers is entirely dependent upon access by road to their stations and depots. It is not an extravagant contribution to the roads of this country that they should pay about £600,000 a year in road rates. I wanted to give the House some idea of the position of the railway companies in regard to road rates, because it has been quoted by some of my noble friends who are railway directors, and by the Press, as an argument for the wide extension of their road-using powers.

The application for wider powers only follows the precedent set in almost every other country in the world. For instance, in France you see the amount of road transport used by railway com panes increasing every day. We see the most excellent services for tourists run by the P.L.M. Co. from Central France to the Alps, to the neighbourhood of that well-known place, Geneva, and right away to the Mediterranean. They have shown great enterprise. In other countries the same kind of development has taken place, and in the United States the motor trucks operated in connection with the railway services number 225, with a route mileage of 4,226 miles, but the motor trucks taking goods in competition with railway services number 43,207, with a route mileage of 607,000 miles. While the motor omnibuses are comparatively little used the motor truck has established itself already very well in connection with the railway companies' services. In the United States also there are 1,253 omnibuses operating in connection with railway services and 19,099 in competition with the railways; and, without going into long details, I may say that there is a great tendency in the United States towards friendly working between the road transport interest and the railway transport interest. There are over sixty steam railroads in the United States which have these powers, and in many cases instead of being hostile to the road service they regard it as of more value to them than a branch line, because the expenses of detailed distribution are not so heavy.

In this country the number of motor vehicles is increasing at a very great rate. Over 4,000 more vehicles a week are being placed upon the roads, and the railway companies are right in trying to face the competition, or to find a way round or out of it. In many other ways motor transport is producing curious and novel effects. It is said to be emptying our churches on Sundays and our theatres on week-days. It is said to be diminishing the receipts of race courses, and the proprietors of pleasure boats on the Thames complain that their traffic has diminished because of the wicked motor omnibuses. It may also be accused by noble Lords on the Front Opposition Bench of being an enemy of municipal enterprise, because it is in many cases killing the tramways and preventing them from being municipal assets. I think that the tramways will die in any event in the end. This all means that a natural evolution of transport is taking place. As soon as any old-fashioned concern feels the effect of competition there is great talk of co-ordination or co-operation, dislike of competition, and an endeavour as far as possible to curb the activities of the new enterprise. That has been so in all other forms of commercial enterprise. In the same way there is the competition of cable versus beam telegraphy. It is the natural evolution going on, and nothing that this House or Parliament can do will stop industrial evolution going on all over the world. Whatever be the fate of railway companies that evolution will still go on in road transport.

Road transport, after all, has been developing for centuries past. Originally, I suppose, in the dark ages goods were carried on men's backs, as to-day they are carried on the backs of slaves in Central Africa. Then came the pack animal days. Then you had animal-drawn wheeled vehicles on the roads, then mechanically-drawn vehicles with flanged wheels on rails and now mechanical vehicles on rubber wheels on the roads and air transport as well for long distances at high speeds. It is interesting to note that about 100 years ago, or a little less, James Macadam objected to the development of railways because he said it stopped the development of roads and would prevent him from improving the roads of the country as much as he wished. He talked of the calamity of railways, whereas the railways talk of the calamity of roads. Time thus brings its changes, and to-day the boot is entirely on the other leg. The real competition is just beginning, and the companies have not yet got accustomed to this new phase of competition. Both before and since the recent amalgamation competition has not really been very severe. In the case of most long-distance journeys, such as between London and Edinburgh, as your Lordships know, minimum times have been agreed between the parties, just as in former days the run from London to Portsmouth was agreed on between the two companies concerned. Whether that was in the public interest I will not discuss, but this sort of agreement was widespread and existed all over the country.

Real competition has now come, and has come in many directions in which it is very difficult for the companies to meet it. It has come not only on lines parallel to their own main lines, but where there are large centres of population between which centres the railroad transport has perhaps been bad and in some cases non-existent. There are a certain number of towns in a circle round London between which the railway service is extremely bad. Take an outer ring of twenty to thirty miles from London, and you will find that between the towns there is either no service at all, or it is one which goes a very long way round and is very bad. Take, for instance, Chatham, Redhill, Guildford, Windsor, Watford, St. Albans, Hertford, Romford and Tilbury—I could go on multiplying such instances. Then take eighty to a hundred miles away. There is no proper communication or fitting in of trains between Bournemouth, Salisbury, Oxford, Northampton, Cambridge, Ipswich, and so on. These towns, when the railways were started, had a much smaller population. Now, the population near these places is very large indeed. There has been no effort to couple up these towns and indeed I do not see how they could be coupled up by railway without considerable loss.

There has been on the part of railway companies, naturally, dislike of road competition, and the sort of indignation which proceeds from the idea that they have the first right to all traffic. We have heard in the past of the "divine right" of Kings. There is no divine right of railways to traffic. They are just industrial companies to whom Parliament has given a monopoly to run on rails in certain directions. Even in 1920, before the amalgamation of the railways into four great groups, there was, I Venture to say, more traffic of all kinds on the roads of this country than on the railways, and to-day that preponderance is even more marked. We have also to think of the public benefit in this matter. The public has undoubtedly gained by the fierce competition of road transport. We have seen how fares have come down, we have seen the extension of cheap excursions, and now—I think it was stated in The Times this morning—the companies are cutting parcel rates by practically 50 per cent. The same cause has led to the initiation of new cross-country services, to the institution of cheap, midweek tickets, and to the great quickening up of the delivery of goods. A very distinguished member of the railway world, Mr. Bell, assistant manager of the London and North Eastern Railway, a short time ago in The Times was reported to have said that the speed at which goods are taken from place to place by railways is a disgrace to modern transport methods. I entirely agree with him; but it is to a large extent inherent in the rail system. When you have a large number of handlings of goods you must necessarily get delay.

I may be asked what the attitude of the road transport interests is towards this application of the railways. They have not met and really decided yet, and I am certainly not authorised to speak on their behalf. They will no doubt meet later on and come to some decision. But I personally say quite openly that I am not opposed to the railways going on to the roads, provided there are some safeguards which I will enumerate later on. The railways, in referring to this matter, always talk of it as being a means of co-operation. I do not see how this co-operation is to come about. One big concern can co-operate with another because then you have some definite organisation with which to co-operate. But, as regards road transport, I think I am putting the figure low in saying there are a million individual owners of vehicles which can carry goods and passengers, besides private motors. How are you going to make any bargain with a million separate people? It is also rather a curious tendency in the road transport business that rates are always being undercut by the small men. It happens in this way. The ordinary cycle agent gets a motor cycle. He then establishes a small repair shop. Then he gets a petrol pump, or at any rate a shed in which to put a petrol can or two. Next he blossoms out with a little car, and becomes a small garage owner, and, purchasing perhaps a one-ton Morris commercial car, begins by doing small hauls and carrying goods for hire. It does not matter in what part of the country you are—and I speak as having myself some knowledge of road hauling of goods—there is always a little man round the next corner who will undercut the proper rate. These small men, with whom I have great sympathy—for as a rule they are industrious, intelligent and enterprising—work their businesses extraordinarily cheaply. They generally drive their vehicles themselves, or get their sons to do it. They have no big overhead charges, and they can probably convey goods, for short distances at any rate, more cheaply than the bigger companies. How can the railway companies ever escape from that competition?

Then again, can the railway companies hope to prevent some of the great commercial mercial undertakings of this country from conveying their own goods? Messrs. Lyons's vans go all over the country delivering tea and other things to thousands of grocers, taking away empty cans, receiving the money, and returning to headquarters. I cannot imagine anything so cheap or efficient as that. Take Lever's large fleet and the fleet of the great meat importing companies. It is quite clear that Parliament will never prevent owners, whether individuals or companies, from running their own transport, and unless the railway companies get back their traffic by lowering rates or being more expeditious in their delivery, that traffic is bound to go on increasing, because it is cheaper, more convenient, and quicker. So that, taking it as a whole, the outlook for railways in regard to many aspects of transport is not a particularly brilliant one. On the other hand, what is the outlook for road transport? I am bound to say that it becomes brighter every year. Fuel and tyres are becoming cheaper every year, greater loads are being carried compared with tare weight, and the running costs are coming down all the time. The roads are better, and higher speed and less wear and tear on the vehicles are the result. But when I say this I admit that the railway companies, when they go on the roads, will have the same advantages, and I am sure they are welcome to them, but I shall look forward with great interest to the time when the railways will tell us what they mean by co-operation. I have never been able to get an explanation of that on paper, and I shall look forward in this debate or in the future to some railway magnate getting up and telling us what is meant by it.

I do not know whether any of your Lordships went to that most extraordinarily interesting show at Olympia a month ago, the commercial motor show, which was infinitely more interesting than the motor show about a month before. A friend of mine told me that he was walking out of that show with one of the most able railway officials of our time. My friend said: "Well, what do you think of the show?" His companion turned round and said: "It is a most depressing sight." I entirely agree with him. From a railway point of view it was a depressing sight, but I am glad he had the imagination to realise what the show meant. The last form of London General Omnibus vehicle takes 68 people, or only four fewer than are conveyed in the average nine-compartment third-class bogie carriage on the railways. That carriage weighs, roughly, 30 tons and conveys passengers at the rate of about 8 cwt. per passenger, as against 3 cwt. per passenger in the case of the London General Omnibus vehicle.

Further, long-distance motor coach traffic is increasing. There are many people who have not a motor car of their own but who desire to go quite long distances, several hundred miles, and the comfort provided nowadays on some of these motor coaches would surprise many of your Lordships. They serve refreshments en route, they provide comfortable chairs to sit on, and quite good accommodation at night, and some of these long-distance journeys from the South of England to the North of Scotland are quite a revelation. Some little time ago I was at Braemar and I saw in the road there a motor coach from Bournemouth. I asked the man in charge: "Do you run up here?" and he replied: "Yes, we run regular services; five day services and four nights on the road." That is a very wonderful development, especially when your Lordships consider that the man told me that they were booked for weeks ahead and hardly ever have a seat to spare. This is a new kind of traffic and it shows at least one direction in which road transport has developed. The railways themselves could, no doubt, do a great deal more in that direction. I believe that the Great Western did something in the way of arranging long trips, the passengers sleeping the night somewhere and going on; but the idea did not catch on and I do not see how it could have done in comparison with a road service.

I come now to the question as to what sort of stipulations should be made if wider powers are given to the railways. It is clear that the railway companies should not be given unrestricted power unless some bargain is made as to what they are going to do with the money which is derived from their monopoly of rail traffic. I would suggest that four stipulations should be made by Parliament. The first is that, as in the case of docks and shipping, the accounts of the railway road traffic should be kept separate from the accounts of the rail traffic and that the profit made on that part of the railway undertaking which is a monopoly—the rail traffic—should not be used in financing the road transport part of the business. We have a precedent for that in the railway shipping accounts, and there is a very recent precedent in connection with the Hull docks. When the L.N.E.R. took those docks over it was stipulated that the accounts must be kept entirely separate.

The second stipulation would be that every road on which the railway companies propose to run road traffic should be approved by the Ministry of Transport as fit for the purpose; otherwise they might run over roads which are not main roads or even secondary roads but third-class roads and unclassified roads, thus causing enormous expense to the rural ratepayers. There might, for instance, be two towns connected by a railway and the company might shut up the railway and divert all their traffic to the roads between those towns. Therefore, I think the Ministry of Transport ought to have power to say that the diversion of such traffic, especially of the heavy traffic, should be subject to that stipulation. Then, thirdly, they should be subject to the ordinary law of extraordinary traffic; and, finally, all railway sidings and stations should be open to all transport vehicles whether railway-owned or not. That is the case at present, and it would not do to give the companies these powers upon the roads and also to allow them to close their sidings and station yards to the ordinary road traffic.

The public have been led to expect, I think, that great profits will accrue to the railway companies if they are able to get out on the roads to a larger extent. I might be wrong, but I am of opinion, and I am supported by a much greater authority than myself, Sir George Beharrel, who gave evidence on this point, that probably there will be no profit to the railways from road transport, at any rate at first. Road transport is a very different thing to work from railway transport. You have to be much more flexible in your management of it. The business of many of these road transport companies has been built up by many years of experience and by the special application of brains and intelligence to this class of work; while, as I mentioned to your Lordships' House before, it is all subject to undercutting by small independent owners of vans and lorries. As to the increase of traffic on the roads, I do not think there need be very much fear on that score. I think there is room for all. But there is a danger that if the profits made by the railway companies in the monopoly part of their business are used in the road transport part of it they will be able to give lower rates and so to put the small men out of business. I do not think for a moment that Parliament would allow that.

There is one thing in which road transport in this country differs from road transport on the Continent and in the United States. In the United States there are really long hauls of from 500 to 1,000 or even more miles to the ports. But it is a curious fact that in this country no great industrial centre is more than a hundred miles from a port and thus is within seven or eight hours by road. It is natural, therefore, when an exporter who makes goods in Birmingham wants to ship those goods at Liverpool or at Tilbury, let us say, that he should send those goods by road unless the railway company give him fair facilities and fair rates. If they go by road he knows more or less when they will arrive, but he does not always know when they will reach their destination by rail. In that way railways in this country will always be subject to much greater competition than is the case on the Continent or in America.

It is not my intention nor is it my desire to teach the railway companies their business. They run their business fairly well and it is not my place to interfere with or to make suggestions to them; but, in all friendliness, I am sure that their improvement will not come as the result of any one remedy. Many remedies will have to be tried. I think, for instance, that a reduction of fares would be advisable in many cases. It is better surely to run full trains at comparatively low fares than half-empty trains at higher fares. Everyone knows that the competition of road transport at lower fares has emptied many trains, especially on local lines. Then it seems to me that the rolling stock is too heavy. A weight of nearly half a ton per passenger is not an uncommon one; but it is a ridiculous weight in these days. It might be possible to build much lighter rolling stock, and in that case bridges and rails of less strength would be needed and, possibly, less powerful locomotives. Then, railway travelling generally might be made more comfortable. We all know that on the main line services travelling is very comfortable; but it is not at all comfortable on many of the other services; the compartments are not comfortable to sit in and there is much jolting and jarring. Such coaches compare very badly with motor charabancs and motor coaches.

When this subject comes up again later there will be, no doubt, a further debate, but I ask the Government to give some lead to-day if possible. It is important that we should know what is the attitude of the Ministry of Transport to this matter. As I have said, I speak to-night in no hostile spirit to the railways, but as a candid friend. It is often said that the candid friend is more unpopular than an open enemy. So be it. I have no financial interest in road transport. Equally I am not a railway director. But I try to see the evolution of transport in its true light and to realise what the future may bring forth. We live in a time of rapid change, of new inventions and developments that necessarily must provoke a struggle on the part of the older systems and concerns against new competition, but this competition, from a national point of view, I feel sure is healthy. In transport matters rivalry is essential to our national prosperity. I hope the noble Viscount who answers will be able to give us some indication of the attitude of the Ministry of Transport. I beg to move.


My Lords, we have just listened to a most interesting and suggestive speech from a noble Lord who, I think, it would perhaps not be unfair to describe as an enthusiast and expert on the subject of motor traffic. For myself I must admit that I am an out-and-out believer in railways. Your Lordships may have gathered from recent remarks which I have made in this Assembly that I do not completely approve of the way in which railways are at present managed, but it is because I am such an ardent believer in railways that I regret to see so many things are not done which might be done in order to get the best out of the railways. I hope the Government in dealing with this question will keep quite clear in their mind the limitations of road transport and will not let the question of road transport usurp the attention that ought to be devoted to the development of all kinds of transport, each in its proper sphere.

The increase in the use of motor vehicles since the War and the intense energy that has been put into the development of motors and motor roads may well divert attention from the subject of railways, on which, unfortunately, no similar process is to be observed, and lead to an exaggerated belief in motors and motor roads as a panacea for all traffic ills. I am far from seeking to belittle the achievements of motors and the immense benefit they confer upon the country in their proper sphere of action. I should think that the progress of the internal combustion engine and its accessories is the most remarkable development in engineering that has ever taken place within a similar period, but I do feel that this dazzling progress has aroused expectations that cannot be fulfilled.

On a larger scale it is something like the question of the electrification of railways. That also was a panacea. Twenty or twenty-five years ago the first tube [...] been built, the smoky underground had been electrified and the electrical enthusiasts had spread the idea that electrification was about to do away with all the troubles and defects of railways. The time that has since elapsed has served to fix our ideas. While the brilliant success of electrification in most kinds of underground services is manifest and while it seems that it is often advantageous for open air lines with extremely heavy suburban traffic, it can almost be said that main line electrification has definitely been shown to be a failure unless the conditions are abnormally favourable—very cheap water power, very dear coal and extremely severe gradients. Some years ago a scheme to electrify a large section of the North Eastern Railway was suddenly dropped. The huge scheme to electrify most of the railways in Central and Southern France has been brought to a standstill when only a quarter complete. Similar news has been received from Austria within the last few weeks and in America, so far as I know, no scheme of main line electrification is now being proceeded with. It appears that the expense of electrification is so immensely greater than was foreseen in the estimates that even in districts like Central France, where there is very little coal and a good deal of water power, the steam locomotive is economically superior to the electric motor.

In the same way it appears to me almost certain that there is very little traffic that can economically be transferred from the railways to the roads. I understand this is the particular point that railways make. They say that traffic is being filched from them by the roads and that is why they want to go on to the roads. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu has given us instances of what I may call radial traffic—traffic passing between towns like Croydon and St. Albans. I do not suppose there is a great deal of that. When you get further away to places like Birmingham and Salisbury, I do not know that the motor is going to help us much. I imagine that what traffic is in question is for the most part summer pleasure traffic and, as regards goods, small consignments sent over short distances. I should be extremely surprised to learn that the total amount of traffic concerned affects more than 5 per cent, of the gross receipts of any railway.

Railways have two advantages with which motors simply cannot compete. The rolling friction of a steel wheel-tread upon a smooth steel rail is so small as to be negligible, while the rolling friction of any kind of motor tyre over even the best motor road is a serious matter. Even more important is the fact that a railway provides complete automatic control over the direction of movement with consequent enormous economy in the man-power required to work a train. I have read of an experimental run in the United States where a train which, so far as I can remember, weighed 17,000 tons and measured one mile and three-quarters in length, was worked by a single engine. I have myself travelled in a train, also drawn by one engine, which can hardly have contained less than 2,500 passengers. When, in addition to this, it is remembered that railways easily lend themselves to an increase in speed of which it is impossible to foresee the limits and that the control of traffic moving in large units—train loads—is immensely easier than the control of motor traffic, there does seem to me to be serious danger of the waste of a great deal of money unless a very sharp and carefully drawn line is put between the spheres of action of railway trains and motors.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words by way of caution at the present moment, because it appears to me that this matter will have to be considered in much greater detail, probably before a Select Committee of your Lordships' House or, possibly, a Joint Committee of the two Houses, before any final decision can properly be reached. I may say, in passing, that we were discussing the other day various forms of tribunal. I have been before a good many and on matters of this sort I have not found one equal to some of the Committees—the old Committees—in your Lordships' House. I recollect, for instance, how the late Duke of Richmond presided over the hearing of the Ship Canal case. The noble Lord has stated, quite rightly, that at the present time, apart from special powers, the rights of railway companies in regard to road traffic are limited—that is to say, the companies are only empowered to use road traffic as ancillary or incidental to their railway purposes—but I do not for a moment myself desire to say that that limitation ought to be preserved. It is entirely a question of public interest, and if it can be shown that it is in the public interest that additional powers should be conferred on the railway companies I have no doubt that in accordance with ordinary precedents those powers will be conferred. But we cannot deal with that as an abstract proposition.

Let me refer to one or two of the cases which Lord Montagu of Beaulieu mentioned. Originally a railway company was looked upon as only a toll taker. Its original powers were framed to put the company in the same position as turnpike roads were in when turnpikes were started. That was found to be altogether too limited, and I recollect, for instance, the case to which the noble Lord referred, that of the Hull docks. In many instances railway companies' powers have been extended so that they can deal with docks, particularly at railway termini. That power is not universal. It is not so in London, and it is not so at Liverpool, but at Garston and Hull and many other places you have railway docks. How far the obligation to which the noble Lord referred to keep separate the accounts is universal I do not know. It is so, I happen to know, in the particular case to which he referred. The position is the same as regards ships and hotels. In the first instance railway companies had no power either to run ships or manage hotels, but no one can doubt the great advantage of the cross-Channel traffic in the hands of railway companies, or of such traffic as passes, for instance, between Ireland and England. But this is not a matter with which I wish to deal at any length at the present moment.

I see in the Notice on the Paper the words "without any restriction." I suppose the noble Lord means an increase of powers beyond those which railways now possess, but the question will be whether it is in the public interest. I believe it would be so in many cases, but my opinion is of no value on that point. When the question is considered whether those powers are to be conferred, there will also have to be considered what restrictions are necessary in the public interest. The noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, has pointed out that some very stringent restrictions may probably be necessary in the user of either special or public roads, more particularly having regard to the congestion of some of our main roads, and so far as expense is concerned, of course, all additional expense incurred by granting powers of this kind will have to be provided for. I will not go into that. There may be a large number of restrictions necessary in the public interest.

What I hope is that when the noble Viscount replies he will bear in mind that the overriding principle is that of public interest. That will have to be considered. So far as I know it has not been considered in detail at the present time. If public interest requires that this concession should be made—which I think is very likely, I say nothing more than that about it—we shall have to consider carefully at the same time what corresponding restrictions are necessary. Those points were considered in every railway case in the old days. Now, of course, the era of new railways has gone by, but as regards the utilisation of existing railways, let us utilise them to the utmost. We all want our resources utilised to the utmost, but a mere statement of that kind does not bring conviction unless one is first of all convinced of the public interest and how that public interest can best be served. I do not wish to say anything more, but I hope that full consideration will be given to the matter before any official determination is arrived at.


My Lords, I had not intended to take any part in this debate, but I cannot resist making a few observations after the speeches which I have heard this afternoon—speeches which seemed to me to have been delivered about a year too soon. As I understand the question, the railway companies are reported to intend to bring in a Bill to carry out certain purposes in the course of next Session. Well, nothing that is said by my noble friend beside me, or by the noble Lord upon the Cross Benches, or in fact by anybody else, can prevent the railway companies bringing in a Bill should they choose to do so. But here we have my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu calmly asking what is the attitude of the Government towards such a radical change in the powers of the railway companies. I sincerely hope that my noble friend who speaks for the Government will make no pronouncement of any kind. Indeed, the last thing he will do will be to gratify the curiosity of my noble friend beside me, because it seems to me it would be a most improper proceeding. What is an inquiry for? It is to determine the rights and wrongs of a particular question, and yet here is the noble Lord calmly asking the Government to pronounce in advance whether they are for or against these proposals. I do not like to be disrespectful—


I want to know their attitude.


Exactly—what their attitude is and what they are going to do about it, whether they are in favour or not. I sincerely hope that what the Government will do is that they will wait to hear what is said when the Bill is brought in. In the meantime I hope the noble Viscount will say nothing at all.


My Lords, I feel myself in some difficulty in this matter, because I have been asked by my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, in his interesting speech, for details about the working of railways in this and other countries, and to define the attitude of the Government towards certain proposals of the railway companies But I have been exhorted also with great vigour by the noble Lord behind me to say nothing at all. It is a little difficult to please both the noble Lords in the observations I may make. I should gratify my noble friend Lord Newton if I sat down at once, but then I should be guilty of some discourtesy to my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. In those circumstances, perhaps, he will allow me to remain a few minutes addressing your Lordships.

I received further advice from the noble Lord opposite. He asked me to exercise patience and caution. I thought I always did. I did not know that I required that, special advice to be given me. He further exhorted the Government to examine this proposition from the point of view of the public interest. Again, of course, everything is examined by this Government from the point of view of the public interest. Therefore I think he was only pushing an open door when he tried to enforce this advice upon me. But I quite agree, if I may say so, with some of the observations he made. We are told what is the interest of the railway companies and what is the interest of the motor and transport and traffic companies. Of course those interests will be considered as part of the general interest, but I quite agree with the noble Lord that the overriding question is that of the public interest, which includes and is much larger than either of those interests.

I do not think my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu really expected that I should define exactly the attitude of the Government towards these proposals. If I did so, I think he would be one of the first to condemn me because all that has happened at present is that notice of certain Bills has been given by the railway companies. We have not seen the Bills and I am quite sure that my noble friend would not ask me to deal in detail with Bills which I have not seen yet. I do not know whether they have been drawn up, but at all events they have not been seen by the Government and certainly they are in a very inchoate stage. I need hardly repeat that these Private Bills will come before Parliament at the proper time next Session, and when they have been carefully studied by the Government the Government will give their opinion upon them in the ordinary course. I have no doubt that my noble friend—I do not blame him at all—was anxious to influence the Government beforehand, thinking that when the Government have come to a decision it is more difficult to influence them, while before they have done so my noble friend has his opportunity. I need hardly say that all the points that he and other noble Lords have made will be considered very carefully indeed. The noble Lord gave certain figures about the number of motors on the road which, I gather, are not exactly consonant with the figures with which I have been supplied. He gave the total number of motor vehicles owned by the railway companies as 6,000.


No, I said 3,000.


I was going to correct that statement, but if the noble Lord says that it is 3,000 I have no more to say on that point. I did not, however, find much comfort for the railway companies in the noble Lord's speech. I gather that he took rather a gloomy view of the future of the railway companies. He said that even if they did come on to the roads they would find it very difficult indeed to compete with the present providers of transport, that they would be undercut, by individuals, that there is nobody with whom they could co-operate and that the great firms would still be able to run their own motors and would undercut the railway companies. On these grounds, though my noble friend showed, if not quite an affection for the railway companies, at least no hostility, he did not seem to think that much advantage would be gained by the railway companies. That being so I do not quite understand his anxiety about competition, for he seemed to fear that unrestricted competition by the railway companies might be allowed. If he thinks that their competitors will be so much more powerful, I am not sure that I understand why he is nervous of unrestricted competition from the railways.

Perhaps I may be allowed to quote an observation made by the noble Lord when he was visiting the commercial motor show at Olympia and had this illuminating conversation with a railway chairman. I gather that he then observed that the railways would have a very hard time to live. If that is so, though I do not think that the Government can take the same gloomy view as the noble Lord, it is obviously a matter of very great moment, because it is worth while observing that something like £1,100,000,000 are invested in our railways and, quite apart from the loss which would be incurred if the railways suffered, the effect on the trade of the country would also be very unfortunate. The noble Lord referred to the heavy traffic in coal, minerals and so on carried by the railways. If there were to be a considerable diversion of traffic from the railways to the roads, it would follow that, instead of making these reductions in the cost of carriage on which my noble friend has commented, the reduction of traffic would have the effect that the overhead charges would immensely increase upon heavy traffic and far heavier rates would have to be borne than are borne at present. There are two considerations that arise as a consequence. The first is that the effect upon the trade of the country would have to be very carefully considered; and the second that the railway companies would not. I imagine, be very anxious to divert to the roads a very large proportion of their traffic if the result was that they were going to be obliged to charge far heavier rates on heavy traffic that remained with them.

I am well aware, as are your Lordships, of the very great importance of this problem and of the question of adjusting the proper relations between these different forms of competing transport, but on that point I need say little because it is really common knowledge. I should like to remind your Lordships, however, of some very remarkable figures regarding the extent, to which the roads are now used by different forms of motor transport. On August 31 last there were licensed to run upon our roads nearly 800,000 motor cars, to say nothing of some 670,000 motor cycles. There were in addition 273,000 commercial goods vehicles and over 95,000 motor hackneys, which includes taxi-cabs, omnibuses and charabancs. This immense addition to the means of transport is undoubtedly affecting the traffic of the railway companies, and it is not surprising that they are attempting in some way to meet that competition.

My noble friend also referred to the inquiry that has already been made into this question by the Balfour Browne Committee, which reported in 1921. Looking at the record of that Committee, I notice that there were three separate Reports, and it cannot therefore be called an entirely unanimous Report. It dealt with various points concerning safeguards and so on, and the Chairman came to the rather remarkable conclusion that the railway companies could not expect to recover traffic that had been diverted from their systems or to keep the traffic that might be diverted in future by giving greater facilities or lower rates upon the railways. That is a remarkable conclusion, which I mention on account of the value attached to that gentleman's opinion. The Committee came to the further conclusion that the railway companies ought to be allowed to carry goods by road, and ought to be given statutory sanction for that course. Those were, I think, the two most important conclusions that were arrived at by that Committee.

My noble friend also made reference to the extent to which this problem is engaging the attention of other countries. This is not very remarkable, since the systems of traffic in those countries resemble each other very closely. In the United States, where the railway companies have been seriously affected by the use of motor cars and motor transport generally, there is a growing tendency to extend the use of motor trucks and motor coaches by the railways and a process of substituting motor services by road for freight trains on the local traffic branch lines already appears to have begun. In other cases motor vehicles are being successfully used by the railways to take the place of or to assist freight trains in congested areas. Motor transport services are also being started as feeders to the railways in undeveloped areas. In most European countries, again, similar questions are pressing for solution. At the World Motor Transport, Congress held in London last month papers were read by experts from various foreign countries. The representatives of Hungary, France and Germany submitted papers dealing with the motor vehicle as an extension of the railway, and the necessity for co-operation between road and mil transport. The steps described covered a very wide field, from the direct operation of motor vehicles to agreements with other persons or companies to operate motor services. Those are the directions in which railway companies all over the world are giving their attention, and it is not, I think, very astounding that railway companies in this country are also giving consideration to that particular problem.

The noble Lord asked if I would lay Papers. I hope he will be satisfied with having discussed this question, because I understand that there are no Papers to lay. He has also asked me a definite question as to whether I think any unrestricted service would be allowed. As I have already said, I cannot, of course, define the action of the Government at the present moment, but all these questions must be considered by the Government as connected with the public interest, and I think your Lordships are very well able to judge as to whether a completely unrestricted service by the railway companies would, or would not, be in the public interest. I think I can answer the noble Lord's question best in this way.

The noble Lord has also spoken of many safeguards or restrictions. All those safeguards or restrictions that he has mentioned, and a good many others, must, of course, be considered. I hope, however, that he will not ask me to define at this moment what particular safeguards and restrictions ought to be proposed, and that he will allow me to wait before I give an answer, and allow the Government to form their opinion when they know what are the Bills which are deposited by the Railway Companies, and the terms in which they are drawn. I trust, therefore, that he will permit me, if he raises the question again, to answer that question at a later stage, or at any rate to wait until these Bills have been introduced. I hope that he will be content with the answer that I have given, and not seek to endeavour to make me probe further than is necessary into futurity.


My Lords, I make no complaint of the caution of the noble Viscount and his indecisive reply to the question, for I find myself in agreement with Lord Newton's comment that it is clearly too early to expect the Government, to commit themselves to a definite statement. I think, however, that Lord Newton went a little too far in deprecating the raising of this question at all, because it is a very important question, and this preliminary canter, brought about by the noble Lord's question, may, I think, give those of your Lordships who are interested in this subject an opportunity for considering, before the Bills are actually before us, some of the various considerations which should influence Parliament in deciding the way in which those Bills should be dealt with. I am bound to say that personally I find it very difficult to give a clear answer, in my own mind, at present, "Aye" or "No" to the question whether railway companies should have unrestricted road facilities.

There are many considerations on both sides. There are considerations of the railway companies' own finances, and I think Parliament would probably be very loath to prevent the railway companies from running such services as acted as feeders to their own lines. On the other hand, if the result would be that they were going to compete with their own selves and take the traffic which would otherwise be carried by their own goods trains, then Parliament might in the railways' own interests prevent them from cutting their own throats. Therefore I think it is necessary to see what is proposed before one comes to a decision. Another question has been hinted at—namely, railway competition with municipal enterprise, such as tramways, which my noble friend so much dislikes. You may dislike tramways, or take what view you like about municipal enterprise, but here you have a certain amount of national wealth invested in an enterprise, and it is not for the country's good to destroy wealth, if it can be kept alive by using it. You do not want to scrap the tramways any more than you want to scrap the railways, and injure national assets, if you can keep these things going.

There is one thing which has not been mentioned, but which I have always in mind, and that is the way in which the railways have treated the canals. The canals are a very valuable carrying agency for heavy goods, and chiefly owing to the action of the railway companies they have been practically destroyed. The noble Viscount will remember perfectly well that a very interesting Canal Commission was appointed many years ago, which made a voluminous and interesting Report. The effect of it may be summed up by saying that the canals ought to be used. Nothing has been done about it; the canals are not used; and I have always felt that the enormous price of coal, which is always ascribed by the coal industry to the wicked railways and by the railways to the wicked coal-owners, might very likely be decreased in the South of England if there were more cheap traffic by canals. The same thing might be said with regard to bricks, and stones for roads, the transport of which is now a very important thing, thousands of tons being carried from one part of the country to another.

Another thing which has occurred to me, and which I think ought to be considered at the proper time, is that if the railway companies are to be given very large and extended powers for developing what is likely to be practically a new business, they will be given something which in America is called a "franchise." They will be given a right to exploit the roads for their own purposes. No more right, it is true, than any individual company now has, but a right from which as statutory companies they are debarred. Because, however, they are statutory companies, and have great privileges, I think it ought to be considered whether they should not be put on some kind of terms with regard to the public, because the public are sometimes treated—particularly the passenger traffic—rather scurvily by the railway companies. I think it is time that some definite check should be put upon them, particularly when they do not provide seats for those who have paid for them.

Then there is a matter which the railway companies have not developed, or done anything about. That is the possibility, as it seems to me, of running much shorter and smaller goods trains, perhaps drawn by some sort of petrol engine instead of a steam locomotive. There is also the point that Lord Monkswell made, that on a steel rail you have practically an invaluable road for transporting heavy things, and it would be a thousand pities if that road, upon which so many thousands of pounds have been spent, were not used to the full. I should be sorry to see any traffic which could properly be carried there taken off the railways and put on the roads, thereby involving a heavy increase in the burden of road expenditure.

I express no definite opinion, any more than did the noble Viscount. I only make this suggestion, which I dare say will be the course followed when these Bills reach this House, or the other House. This is a matter of such great importance that I feel that probably by far the most convenient course of inquiry—seeing that such large interests are concerned, that so many details have to be considered, and that so many conflicting opinions will have to be reconciled and understood—will be for all the Bills when presented to be referred to a Select Committee of both Houses, by whom a large amount of evidence can be taken, and in whose Report both Houses would be able to place confidence.


My Lords, I have to thank the noble Viscount for his answer, which contained a good deal of useful and interesting information. I am afraid that it pleased me more than the noble Lord on my right (Lord Newton). There are no Papers in the ordinary sense probably which could with advantage be laid, but I have asked the noble Viscount if a Return could be made to this House of the number of vehicles employed by the railway companies, mechanical and horse drawn, for road transport, with some details about them. If he could arrange for that Return I should be much obliged.

One word about what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Though I generally agree with him on transport subjects, I am afraid I cannot agree that the decline of canals was really due to the railways. It may have been the case here and there. The fact is that water carriage by canals in this country, where the canals are of very limited capacity—unlike the great canals abroad—is an inferior method of conveyance to transport by road or railway. Except in special cases it cannot compete successfully. The Manchester Ship Canal is, of course, of a different character. The noble Viscount said that the capital of the railways was £1,100,000,000 and that it would be a pity to waste that capital. I think I pointed out the other day that the valuation of that capital on the market is already well under £800,000,000. I am sorry to say they have lost one third of their capital, and their net earnings on the valuation to-day amount to about 5 per cent. I think that our debate has been useful, or at any rate has produced some very interesting speeches, and I do not apologise to my noble friend (Lord Newton) for introducing the subject.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.