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are encumbered, but it would further tend to produce a serious derangement in the labour market.
Already we have complaints on all hands that from the inducement held out by the high wages paid to those engaged in them, labourers are leaving other employments for railways. And in some cases, as in the vicinity of Glasgow, the price of coal is rapidly advancing, from the difficulty of getting labourers to work in the mines. It is true that a steady, gradual, and permanent increase in the demand for labour is above all things to be desired. But a sudden and violent demand drawing, by the temptation of high wages, great numbers of people from their usual modes of life, to engage in an employment which must necessarily terminate in a few years, and which will most probably come to a stand on the occurrence of a bad harvest or of a commercial revulsion, must, in every point of view, whether moral or economical, be productive of the most baneful effects.
The excessive multiplication of railway projects is doubtless to be attributed in a greater degree to the increasing desire of all towns and districts for the advantages of railway communication. The prodigious superiority of railways over all former modes of conveyance, and the advantage which the localities that possess them have over others, have produced a demand for their extension in every direction. But this cause will not account for the unhealthy excitement which has prevailed, and which has resulted in such heavy, and in many cases ruinous losses.
Had railways yielded no more than the ordinary rate of profit on capital, it would have been applied to them moderately, yet in sufficient abundance to have met the public wants. Those lines which were intended to supply the wants of the most populous districts would have been made first, and the others would have followed in their turn. But the profit on railways in favourable situations, provided they have been planned with moderate judgment, and are efficiently and economically managed, is so much greater than in other investments, that capital, which will always be attracted where the remuneration is the greatest, has rushed from all sides into this channel. And it will continue to flow into it, and the same evils we have lately witnessed will be renewed, in spite of every warning, so long as the temptation of a more than ordinary rate of remuneration remains.
The genius of our institutions prevents us from meeting this evil by restricting private enterprise, or by reserving to Government the initiative in planning railway lines, as in France.
The only remedy which seems likely to check it, or to reduce it within moderate limits, is a change in our system of railway legislation which may remove the temptation to plan lines, except in those directions where the elements of a considerable traffic really exist.
The establishment of a system of low fares, that is, of fares very much lower than those now charged on most of our railways, would oblige the subscribers to railway schemes to look into their
real merits. Experience, both in this and in other countries, has abundantly proved that a great reduction of fares and charges has so powerful an effect in developing traffic on lines, where the elements of it exist, as to make the reduced fares afford an ample dividend to the shareholders. It is at least doubtful whether an effectual reduction of the present tariffs of the English railways would not be attended with an increase in their nett receipts. It may be considered certain that it would not greatly reduce them. But the announcement of a low tariff as the legal maximum of fares on all new railways, combined with such other stipulations for the benefit of the public as may be found practicable and expedient, would probably cool the ardour of railway speculation down to the point of temperate and reasonable enterprise. Let the legislature, in dealing with railways, be impressed with the conviction that the profits to be realized on capital vested in new lines should not exceed those realized in other investments of equal risk; and that it is their duty to secure whatever excess there may be over this by enacting low maximum rates of charge and other stipulations. If they do this, they will effectually moderate those ardent expectations of inordinate profit which are the main source of wild speculations.
The result to which we propose to approximate by legislative provision, that is, the equalization of the rate of profit on future railways with the profit on similar investments-is one which must be eventually brought about, though probably with great loss and suffering, in the course of time.
It is not possible that capital should permanently continue to yield a higher return in one employment than in others of equal risk. So long as this continues to be the case, money will be drawn towards the more profitable investment; and railways will be multiplied until their competition and the subdivision of the traffic of the country among them has reduced their profits to or below the ordinary rate. But in bringing about this result, there will be an enormous waste of capital upon unnecessary railways, each trying to vanquish its competitors by reducing fares, or to realize high profits by keeping up high fares under arrangements with them thus alternately depressing the dividend of the shareholders, and inflicting serious injury on the public.
It cannot be said that the greater uncertainty of railway investments requires that the rate of profit on them should be higher, or that the margin left for hopes of future increase should be broader in them than in other employments. On the contrary, whatever may have been the risks of the first experiments in railways, there is now perhaps no form of investment depending for its results on the accuracy of estimates, and, therefore, not absolutely certain, in which there is so little room for miscalculation as in English railways.* The construction of a line, as planned
*Note in 1848-Mr. Thomas Brassey who since 1829, has been extensively employed as a Railway contractor in England and France, and in 1846, had, with
by the engineer, may be contracted for at once, whatever its length, thus rendering the cost certain; and the tables of traffic may, taking proper precautions, be compiled with so much accuracy as to reduce within very narrow limits the chances of mistake in the revenue.
It is obviously, indeed, for the interest of the great existing lines, voluntarily to establish low tariffs in their own case, as well as to support their enforcement on future lines; for, while it is at least doubtful whether the reduction of fares and charges may not benefit them by a positive increase of dividends, it will, at all events, greatly diminish the chances of the establishment of competing lines. The announcement of a low tariff of charges as the basis of future railways will check the disposition to construct lines where a sufficient traffic is not likely to be realized; at the same time that the reduction of fares on the existing lines will lessen the public demand for new and cheaper lines.
It has been contended that the immense outlay by most of the leading English railway companies, occasioned by the great excess in the cost per mile of their lines over the cost of lines in other countries, justifies and renders necessary the maintenance of a proportionally higher rate of fares on the English railways. But the rate of dividend on the stock of several of these companies is 10 per cent. And it does not follow, whatever may have been their cost, that they should be allowed to monopolize the traffic between the towns and districts which they connect, to insure so great a dividend to their proprietors. No such monstrous proposition as this can be entertained. If a new line could in any case be constructed for half the expense of an existing line, or, supposing the expense to be the same, if it were constructed by parties who would be satisfied with a dividend of 5 instead of 10 per cent., Parliament is bound to sanction the new line, unless the company make a corresponding reduction in the fares on the present line. One or other of these results must take place: for if the principle be true, that capital will force its way into those employments which yield more than the ordinary rate of profit, it will be impossible to maintain the monopoly and high charges of the old companies.
Applications for new lines intended to divide the traffic with the old companies at lower rates will continually be repeated; and though they should at first be rejected by the influence of the latter, they must eventually be conceded. In this, as in other things, the legitimate demands of the public for local accommodation, and for a general reduction of charges, cannot long be defeated.
If railways may now be constructed for 20,000l. per mile, where
his partners contracts to the amount of about five millions, states in his evidence that the expense of constructing Lines can be estimated with great accuracy. He states, for instance, that he took the Caledonian for somewhere about £10,000 per mile; "Our contract includes, in all those cases, the works complete, except the rails, chairs, and land." The cost of rails and chairs will of course vary with the price of iron at the time.
50,000l. was formerly expended, do those who have laid out the latter sum imagine that Parliament or the public will grant them such a protection from competition as may enable them by high rates of charge to obtain a profit of 10 per cent. on that part of their capital which has been wasted, as well as on the part which would now suffice to construct their lines? If the shareholders of the London and Birmingham, the Great Western and other railway lines, believe that they are to be permitted to flourish at the expense of the public by means of that protection, which is hunted down on all sides, I apprehend they will experience a disappointment. The monopoly of the landowner is not to be sup.. pressed to make way for the monopoly of railway speculators. The latter must accommodate themselves to the new order of things. The proprietors of an old line of railway are in the position of a manufacturer who, having constructed machinery on an old and expensive plan, finds it superseded by more economical or powerful machinery: but were such a man to attempt to obtain a higher price for his work than would remunerate those who work with the improved machinery, and asked Parliament to assist him in doing this, should we not consider him as fitter for Bedlam than for the Exchange?
The Board of Trade, in their Report on the South-Western District, in 1845, state, that the lines proposed to be made in that part of the country might be constructed for about 12,000l. per mile; and the estimated cost of the mass of new railways, projected during the last two years, ranges, with few exceptions, between 25,000l. and 10,000l. per mile. Now, Mr. Laing says, in the Appendix to the Evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons in 1843, that if our railways had been constructed for 20,000l. a mile, they might have been limited to rates of charge varying from a half to two-thirds of their present tariffs; and the example of many foreign railways, the traffic on which is much smaller than on our great lines, proves the reasonableness of this assertion.
To suppose that Parliament will continue to reject all applications for railways which may interfere with the monopoly and high rates of the old lines, is to suppose that it will continue to sacrifice the interests of the many to those of the few; those of the public to those of monopolists; cheapness to dearness; low fares and national advantage to the high dividends of a few great companies! The old lines of railway have destroyed or greatly impaired the value of canals, and brought bankruptcy or difficulties on most of the turnpike-road trusts. They have been permitted to do this because they promised to supply the public with a cheaper and more advantageous mode of conveyance. But, in their turn, they have been outstripped by their competitors, and, consequently, must submit to the competition of new lines, offering to the public greater advantages of economy, security, and speed.
Hence if the interests of the old lines were really inconsistent with the adoption of a system of low fares, it would inevitably
follow that those interests should suffer rather than that the whole community should continue to be taxed for their benefit. I do not, however, believe that such is the case. The traffic of our great lines is so enormous, its increase is so rapidly progressive, and the reductions in fares and charges, which have been tried on some of them, have stimulated this increase in so remarkable a manner, that I have little doubt these lines will continue to pay high dividends after they have adopted tariffs very much lower than those generally prevailing.
I have spoken of the tendency of the present prevalence of high fares, unchecked by legislation, to injure shareholders, and disturb the money and labour markets by the multiplication of railway schemes. But there is another evil resulting from our present course of railway legislation, compared to which its injurious effects in encouraging excessive speculation and the unnecessary multiplication of lines, great as these undoubtedly are, sink into secondary importance.
We entail upon the country, by our present conduct, the grievance of railway fares far higher than those of other European countries, and far higher than is necessary for the remuneration of the capital engaged in railways: and by so doing can any one doubt that we are laying agriculture and manufactures, to the prosperity of which cheap communications are essential, under serious disadvantages? As much stress should be laid on the cost of distributing commodities as on the cost of their production; and if we adventitiously increase the latter, do we not in so far distress our own producers and encourage the foreigners?
Mr. Laing says, "It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that England, which has hitherto enjoyed a great superiority over all other European nations in her internal communications, will shortly be placed at a great disadvantage in comparison with them, owing to the high fares of her railways. This disadvantage is equal to a tax of from 80 to 100 per cent. on the upper and middle classes." And the lower classes are yet either debarred, to a great extent, from the advantage of railway travelling, or obliged to make use of it under the disadvantage of slow speed and inconvenient hours.
We have had many examples on our own railways of the remarkable increase in their use by the public after any considerable reduction of fares; and we may form an idea, from these partial applications of the principle, of the wonderful impulse to travelling that would be impressed upon all classes of the population were this country covered by railways, carrying all classes of passengers with comfort and celerity, at fares as low or lower than those of the Belgian, French, and German railways. It is impossible to estimate the vast amount of the facilities to commerce and industry, and of individual convenience and enjoyment, which such an increased movement would represent. A comparison of our English railway legislation with that of other countries is, perhaps, the best mode of exemplifying its defects. I shall select France as an