Orders of the Day — Steel Industry and Road Haulage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1951.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Wilson Mr Hugh Wilson , Truro 12:00 am, 12th November 1951

I served in the Parliamentary and general section which dealt with Private Bills and matters of that kind, and also in the common law section, neither of which dealt with the, Traffic Commissioners.

My view was that the railways, when they were first built 100 years ago, were assumed by this House to be a monopoly, many restrictive provisions were rightly put in each railway Act on that assumption. When the railways ceased to be a monopoly by reason of the development of other forms of transport, it would have been much more reasonable, instead of seeking to extent that monopoly so as to include the roads, to remove the restrictions from the railways in order that they might compete with other forms of transport on fairer grounds. That, in fact, was the original proposal put forward in the Square Deal plan, which unfortunately was diverted in another direction.

The situation today is quite different from that existing before the war. It is certainly not the case nowadays that too much transport is chasing too little traffic; in fact, the situation is quite contrary to that. We only have to think of the embargoes placed on railway traffic during the earlier months of this year in order to realise that the railways could not then handle all the traffic offered to them, very largely on account of shortage of staff. It seems to me that the present Government would help the railways much more if they can find a solution to that very difficult problem of what to do about the call-up of railway firemen, rather than continue the persecution of small road hauliers.

Speaking from my own experience, two evils have been introduced into the railway service by nationalisation, neither of which has anything much to do with the theory of public ownership. The first was the introduction of a spirit of despondency, because there was too much talk about the railways being "a poor bag of assets," and not enough resistance to the idea that they were an obsolete dying industry only to be kept alive for strategic reasons. That has frequently been the view which has not been resisted by hon. Members opposite, and I have heard it myself during transport debates in this House.

Unless we are able to persuade the public that there is a future for rail transport, we shall never get that enthusiasm from traders and passengers, desirable if they are to become good customers, or that spirit of keenness from the railway staff, which can only come about when the workers themselves believe that they have a future in the industry and can look forward to improved conditions as their industry prospers.

There is a simple answer to the people who think that the railways are obsolete, because it must be obvious that any Chancellor of the Exchequer, in any circumstances of which we can think at the present time, must resist on grounds of cost any attempt to make our road system sufficient to carry all the traffic that would arise if we had no railways. Our present road system simply would not carry such traffic now. On the other hand, our railways are there; they were built by the best engineers in their day, and many of them are very fine. There is no reason at all why they should not be used. I think there is plenty of traffic at the present time for both road and rail systems if we could get a degree of competition between the two. It would advantage the railways if there could be that degree of competition, and the public would be allowed to choose which was the cheaper and more convenient service.

The other effect of nationalisation is that there is too much striving after standardisation. It is really an impossible task for a mechanical engineer on the railways to ask him to design a standard locomotive suitable for all types of country, including the steep gradients of the west and the flat country in the east, and suitable for use for any purpose and burning any coal. The result is an average, not the best, because it is obvious that we want different types for different types of work.

When it comes to lesser matters, many items of standardisation have merely produced irritation without any improvement at all. For example, the variation of the signalling arrangements in the Western Region in regard to speed restrictions has produced no improvement in the safety standards of the service and are a mere irritation to the drivers. There are a number of other instances which I could quote concerning entirely irrelevant striving after standardisation.

There are many things which the Government can do for the railways. I have always said that it could do something to repeal many of the ancient statutes which are still imposing restrictions on the railways, and I have before now given the instance of the 68th Section of the Railway Clauses (Consolidation) Act, 1845, as to railway fencing which is a glaring example, but not the only one. The Government might also in present circumstances do something to achieve economies by passing the management of the restaurant cars over to the railways, abolish the Hotels and Docks Executives and give greater authority to the regions in regard to the co-ordination of road and rail traffic at regional or divisional level. I hope they will do something about giving the railways greater flexibility in charging. to which reference was made in some of our party literature during the Election.

Some of these are matters for legislation, and cannot, perhaps, be dealt with at the present time, but others can be dealt with under Section 4 (1) of the Transport Act, 1947. Such improvements would be preferable to continuing the stupid and unnecessary persecution of the small road haulier by the 25-mile limit, which is merely an inconvenience to the public and does very little good to the railways.