Page images

a communication between all parts of the kingdom as its wealth and populousness will permit.

Nor is the principle, that every particular line shall be taken as part of a national system, likely to produce neglect of the accommodation of particular towns and districts. In France, the representations made by all local interests are deliberately examined, first by the executive Government, and afterwards by a committee of each Chamber.

It should also be kept in view, that the reservation of the initiative to the Government is no less advantageous to the shareholders than to the State. Its first effect is to save French companies from the very heavy preliminary and parliamentary expenses of English companies; expenses which are the more to be regretted, because they are a positive loss to the shareholders, and a stain on Parliament, without being of any advantage to the public. It is also a great security against the construction of unprofitable lines. No line is decided on by the French Legislature without a previous report by the Government, bottomed on detailed surveys by Government engineers; and traffic tables, carefully compiled from official and other sources, are submitted to the criticism of the public. Estimates framed in this manner are much less liable to exaggeration than the hasty inquiries of sanguine and private projectors. French companies are also in much less danger of finding their lines superseded or injured by the construction of rival lines. Each forms part of a general whole which has been adopted after a deliberate examination of all the plans proposed for supplying each section of the country, in which the opinions of the Government engineers, of the civil and military functionaries, and the claims of all the local interests, have been received and canvassed, first by the executive Government, and afterwards by committees of both Chambers. There is thus comparatively little probability that any other line will be conceded for the accommodation of the same tract of country. And the improbability of any such hostile concession is greatly increased by the reversionary interest of the State in all the grants, and this of course is augmented by the shortness of the lease.

Any one who reflects on the unequalled advantages which England offers for railways, with the surprising effect of reduced fares in increasing traffic, and repairing the loss of revenue which at first sight they appear likely to produce, will probably conclude that a tariff of rates which should be in every item very much below the French tariff, would yield an ample return on all the principal English lines. But with the same tariff, the same length of leases, and the same conditions, in every other respect, that exist in France, can any one doubt that our English railways would present a wider and a far more profitable field for investment than the French? Within the last year or two, the attention of Parliament has been called to the necessity of regulating the rates of charge on railways, and of making other stipulations for the benefit of the

public, but no measures hitherto taken are adequate to secure these objects.

A measure passed during the session of 1843, gave Parliament the right to revise the tolls; but this right was not to come into operation till after the lapse of 20 years, and then it could only be exercised on permanently guaranteeing to the shareholders the enormous dividend of 10 per cent. This stipulation exempted all lines, with the exception of those that might turn out to be peculiarly profitable, from the chances of revision; and, with respect to the latter, it recognised the monopoly or protective principle, that a very high profit should be secured in all time to come to a few great capitalists, sacrificing, for this object, the public interests, and going far to prevent the public from being benefited as they ought to be by the increasing traffic of the country, and the reduction of tolls by which it should be accompanied.

But in 1845 Parliament took a juster view of the subject, and reserved to itself the power, whenever it saw fit, to revise and regulate the tariffs of fares and charges on the lines for which Acts were to be passed in the course of that and of all following years. Excepting, therefore, the lines for which Acts were obtained previously to 1845, Parliament has it fully in its power, as well in regard to the companies which procured Acts last year, as in regard to those now before it, to enact moderate tariffs of charges. And it is well that such is the case; for the tariffs of fares and charges inserted in the Railway Acts of last session are so far above the Continental tariffs, so far above the rates which many even of the British railways have found it for their advantage to adopt, and so near the highest rates that have ever been charged, that unless the public interests are to be wholly lost sight of, it is imperatively necessary they should be subjected to an unsparing revision. We have also reserved the right of purchasing up railways at 25 years' purchase on the nett revenue, or on the revenue over and above the expense of working them and keeping them up. But this is an enormous sum to have to pay for such property. In the case, too, of the most productive railways, (and these are the only ones the regulation of which is of great national importance,) the large amount of their revenue would make their cost, at 25 years' purchase, so very great that Government might have much difficulty in prevailing on capitalists to furnish funds to buy up the railways even on their getting a mortgage over the latter. And supposing this to be done, heavy fares would still require to be charged on railway travelling to defray the interest of the purchase money. The next generation, especially when they see the French entering into the free and full possession of their railways, will, perhaps, not form a very exalted estimate of our foresight, and will probably be inclined to wish that some small portion of that hostility, so vigorously directed against the protection so long given to agriculture, had been directed against that which is now so lavishly and inconsiderately given to railway projectors.

The subject of railway amalgamation, which is now going on to an immense extent, is one which demands the immediate attention of Parliament. Mr. Gladstone's Bill of 1843 provided that, in the case of future railways, after the payment of a dividend of 10 per cent., the surplus revenue of the company should be applied to the reduction of charges to the public. Now, whatever may be thought of this provision, seeing the infinite number of ways in which it may be evaded, it at all events imposes on Parliament the duty of watching amalgamation Bills, lest they make an end of the advantages, such as they are, which Mr. Gladstone's Act was intended to secure to the public. For it is plain that a railway which yields a large revenue, and which may therefore come within the 10 per cent. clause, may, by amalgamating with a less profitable line, reduce the dividend on the larger capital formed by the union of the two below the rate at which the provision comes into effect, and may consequently defeat it altogether. There is no doubt that amalgamation is of some advantage, by enabling longer journeys to be performed in the same carriage, but much more stress is laid on this circumstance than it deserves. The transfer from one carriage to another of passengers and luggage takes place at stations where a stop is made for refreshments; and with moderate care the inconvenience may be reduced to the merest trifle. In respect to goods, nothing would be easier, provided the companies were desirous of mutually accommodating each other and the public, than an arrangement for allowing the loaded trucks to run through,

But there are plans of amalgamation on foot, in which it is confidently believed that the accommodation of the public, by avoiding stoppages and trouble at the junction of different lines, is a mere pretence put forward to cover the real object, which is to strengthen the sinews and to extend the sphere of monopoly, by uniting in a compact body different companies which, while separate, may interfere with each other's profits, either by direct competition or by encouraging the competition of third lines. It is needless to say that, in all cases in which such motives may be imagined or suspected, Parliament is bound firmly to oppose amalgamation.

The truth is, that unless we are prepared boldly to proclaim and to act upon monopoly principles, no amalgamation should be permitted unless the parties consent to enter into a new contract with the public. If, as I contend, fares and charges, one-half less than those hitherto imposed, should, in most cases, be imposed on new lines, they should also be imposed on all lines which ask from Parliament Acts to carry into effect measures by which they avowedly seek and expect to increase their profits, and to render them more secure than at present. It is the more necessary to call public attention to this point, as those amalgamation Acts, and the clauses for leasing new lines to old companies, though of primary importance, excite comparatively little interest. Certainly, however, they require to be watched with the greatest


jealousy, as they take away almost all the little security left to the public against oppressively high charges. Is it not known to every man in England, that the main object of the existing companies in promoting, leasing, and buying new branch lines, is to prevent the construction of rival lines which might expose them to competition, and oblige them to reduce their charges?

What measure could be more injurious to a large and most important manufacturing population, than the Act amalgamating the Grand Junction, Manchester and Liverpool, and one or two other lines? The railway accommodation of an extensive, rich, and populous district was thus placed entirely in the hands of one company, without any effectual stipulation in favour of the public. The Board of Trade reported strongly against this junction; and I must do them the justice to state that they endeavoured to prevent the introduction of clauses for effecting similar objects in other Acts. But it is likely enough that in the hurry with which so many Acts were passed at the end of the session, when members had no time to consider each case properly, and all were heartily sick of the subject, not a few may contain the same objectionable clauses.

But notwithstanding the errors in our previous legislation, we have yet ample means, provided we choose to avail ourselves of them, to secure to the public a large proportion of the advantages of an improved system of railways. Many trunk lines have yet to be constructed which promise to be highly remunerative, and which will accommodate very large masses of people who are now either without such accommodation, or imperfectly supplied by circuitous routes. Nothing can prevent these lines from being constructed; but the policy adopted by the legislature in respect to them will decide whether they are to be chiefly beneficial to the public or to their projectors. I, of course, allude particularly to the London and York, the London and Manchester, the North Kent, the Salisbury and Exeter, and the London and Portsmouth lines.

There are at present schemes before Praliament for doubling all the great lines which radiate from the Metropolis; and there can be no reasonable doubt, from the growing demand for railway shares and railway accommodation, that every one of these lines will be constructed within no very remote period, even though they should not be sanctioned in this or the immediately following sessions. It may, indeed, be fairly doubted, should Parliament, inconsistently enough, one should think, attempt to maintain them in their monopoly, whether some of the existing lines will be able to accommodate the enormously increasing traffic, especially in goods, that will speedily accumulate upon them.

The establishment of a system of low fares and charges on these lines, would be a twofold benefit to the public. It would directly afford to the districts and towns which they traverse the advantage of cheap communication, and would at the same time create such an efficient competition with the existing lines as would bring

about something like a reasonable reduction in the rates of the latter. Besides the lines projected from the Metropolis, there are now at the disposal of Parliament a vast number of other lines, every one of which will practically enjoy a monopoly of the communications of a more or less extensive district.

It depends wholly on Parliament whether Ireland, which at present is almost wholly destitute of railways, shall have them established on a good or a bad system; whether she shall be parcelled out and delivered over, bound hand and foot, to the tender mercies of a parcel of companies, endowed not with a three years' (so hateful in the case of corn) or a thirty years', but with a perpetual monopoly; or whether the real and lasting interests of the people shall be protected and secured by the adoption of a properly contrived system of railway legislation.

Should the mass of English, Scotch, and Irish Railway Bills now before Parliament be passed without enacting low tariffs of rates, and other provisions for the protection and advantage of the public, the new monopoly system will be completed. The railways that may remain to be made, at the distance of a few years, will neither be sufficiently numerous, nor in situations fitted to enable future Parliaments to create any efficient check over the proceedings of the then existing lines by authorizing their construction.

Under such circumstances, the country must continue wholly to depend for the immense and constantly increasing amount of its internal communications on the liberality and public spirit of a few monopolizing companies, all anxious (and who shall blame them?) to realize the maximum amount of profit that can be squeezed out of the public. And it can only, as the law (Mr. Gladstone's Act) now stands, emancipate itself from this Egyptian thraldom by paying the monopolists 250l. for every 1007. expended by them, or by constructing, at a vast expense, new lines of railway alongside of the lines conceded for ever to the companies.

If the view which I have taken of the defects of our railway legislation be correct, the nature of the remedies which should be applied to obviate them seems sufficiently evident. An inquiry should be instituted by Parliament to ascertain the rates of fares and charges which will yield a fair remuneration for the capital to be vested in such railways as offer a sufficient prospect of traffic to justify their immediate construction. The extent to which railways have already been constructed in this and other countries, and the time during which a part of them have been at work, furnish abundant materials for such inquiry. The degree in which the cost of constructing railways has been reduced since the completion of the first lines, the extent to which the increase of traffic on them has surpassed expectation, the law of progressive annual increase which generally prevails on railways, and, above all, the immense effect of low charges in stimulating traffic, are points deserving especial attention, and which have been

« PreviousContinue »