COMMERCIAL MOTORS AND RAILWAYS.
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Is An Attempt to be Made to Limit and Handicap Road Transport ?
THE COMMERCIAL MOTOR" of last week
there appeared a most important leading article
, on the subject of road transport, and in the first paragraph of that article a hint was given of the possibility that railway interests may be taking advan-, tage of the present crisis to establish themselves on a firm basis to the disadvantage, after the war, of the road vehicle. I fisnalybelieve that, in suggesting this possibility, the Editor of THE COMMERCIAL MOTOR has put his finger on to the real underlying meaning of much that has occurred aud is occurring. Road transport by motor vehicle has made greater progress-of a more general character in this country than in any ather, and this is largely for the reason that our rail; vay ortatnization is defective and our railway rates unluly high_ Apparently our rates per ton-mile are, inder normal circumstances, about double those of aermany. The higher the railway rates, the greater the radius over which a motor vehicle can show auperior economy to railway transport_ We have a goad example of this in the use of naotorvans by the
a34 Post Office for journeys of a hundred miles or so. If the charges made by the railways for the conveyance of parcels were much lower, it could never be economical for the Post Office to invite tenders to run motor vehicles over such distances, between large towns directly connected to one another by main-line railways.
A Parallel Case.
Admittedly, we have no conclusive evidence that there is an organized conspiracy against independent motor transport. Nevertheless, the evidence that does exist, taken in conjunction with many little indications and a good deal of past experience is such, in my opinion, as to justify the assumption that commercial motor interests have much to fear from railway. influences. Looking to the past, we may consider what railways did to crush the competition of the canals. Inland water transport, where proper facilities exist, may be slow, but is extremely cheap. Consequently, when the strength of canal competition was realized, the railways acquired many of the canals, apparently not for the purpose of making them into profitable investments, but rather in order to hold up the rates charged, even if the canals had to run at a. loss.
The Royal Commission on Canals in 1006 reported that there was then a total mileage of canals and navi-. gations in use in the United Kingdom amounting to 4670 miles. Of these, 1360 miles—or about one-third— are owned or controlled by the railways. In acquiring these, the railways were simply making a strategic move. The canals controlled by them are so constituted as to be essential to the whole system. This system bas been permitted to decay until it has be-come an almost negligible -factor in our transport facilities. The Royal Commission coMmented to the effect that steps ought to be taken "to terminate the ownership of canals by railway companies, which have strangled canal traffic in their own supposed interests." The Commission was clearly of the opinion that this policy was a thoroughly_ bad one. Incidentally, the unprofitable owmership of canals is one of the factors towards reducing railway dividends, or, 'alternatively, towards putting up railway rates.
What Water Transport Could Have Done.
Before condemning the railways for setting out to kill canal transport, we have to consider whether the S.ystern of canals was worth perpetuating. in this connection, we may note briefly the view that is taken in Germany, a country the inhabitants of which, whatever else we may think of them, are seldom accused of stupidity in commercial matters. During the last 25 years Prussia has spent 50 million pounds on canals. Big sums have been expended in Germany on improv ing navigable rivers, and the country has applied the principle that rivers exist mainly to feed canals. The result is a magnificent system of inland waterways, developed mainly since 1880, or, in other words, after the possibilities of railways were thoroughly understood. The advantages of cheap water transport are now given to towns and districts hundreds of miles from the sea. Power-propelled craft are rapidly replacing old canal boats, and if Canals are found unsuit-able for larger and speedier vessels, they are improved. in fact the ways are adapted to the traffic, and not the traffic to the ways.
To carry coal from Hamburg to Berlin by water costs 2s. id. per to'n and 7s. 4id. by rail. To carry corn over the same journey by water costs 2s. 6d. per ton as against 13s. W. by rail. In 1907 there were over 26,000 vessels employed on transport on German inland waters, and at that date over 3000 of these were already power-propelled. In 1911 the waterways of Germany dealt with over 76 million tons of goods, relieving the railways of just those classes of traffic for which they were found lea-st suited, and thus enabling them to deal with other ,traffie more efficiently and at lower rates. Right up to the present moment, huge new canal projects are on foot in Germany.
How Railways Attack Competitors.
Meanwhile our own railways are Obsessed with the one idea that they must maintain high rates, whatever else happens. If any competitive form of transport comes into existence, it must be throttled at birth. Even an improved system of operating the railways themselves is deprecated apparently because reduced rates would follow its introduction.
It is then clear enough that, in discouraging canal traffic and controlling it for that specific purpose, the railways are not merely relieving us of an obsolete system, but are keeping down what might be a very dangerous competitor to them and a very valuable asset to the community. With this as a precedent and an experience, is. it not reasonable to suppose that, if op portunity arises, the railways will treat •commercial motor transport in exactly the same manner 'r We may, of course, be presented with the seemingly satisfactory reply. that the railways so far appreciate the merits of motor transport that they themselves are using it in increasing quantities. This is no reply at all. One of the first steps in crushing a competitor would, in a case of this kind, be to utilize the competitor's own system, discouraging other people from doing so. The railways employ motors largely as a means to an end, and not as an end in themselves. They are generally careful enough to explain that it does not really pay to rim motor Vehicles, but that they -do so merely with a view to developing traffic up to a point which will justify new railways.
So-called Co-ordination of Traffic.
I may be wrong, and on the other hand I may be right, in believing that many of the proposals. put forward as methods of co-ordinating traffic are nothing more than methods engineered by railway interests to curtail the use of motors. The theory of working motop only within a limited radius would fit in beautifully with any such scheme. It is most improbable that the railways really like to see motorcars extensively used for long-distance travel, and commercial vehicles for the carriage of goods except in purely local services. What is more natural than to take advantage of a time when the shortage of fuel for motors is acute to inaugurate a system which shall permanently handicap road vehicles as against rail transport ?
I should like to know how far railway interests are really operating quietly behind the agitations which are raised from time to tithe against motorists, with the Ultimata object of increased taxation or restrictive legislation. Would not the railways like to see motors compelled to pay rates for the roads on which they run ? If the railways recognized in motor transPort a very dangerous competitor, as they undoubtedly do, is it to be supposed that vested interests, that have practically killed transport on inland waterways and have time and again successfully opposed propositions of a. competitive nature which might have benefited the public materially, will fail to use all the means in their power to keep their newest and' most serious rival under strict control? The power of the railway interests is immense,' and it is exerted in many ways that are not apparent to the general public. At the end of the war there will be a period during which there may be a serious shortage of raw materials. Unless I am much mistaken, the railways have taken very adequate measures to ensure priority for themselves, nominally because transport is absolutely essential. If this is the real basis of the argument, they should welcome regulations calculated to maintain all useful forms of transport, and soJramed as to treat all alike. Will they do so It is always difficult to put together a conclusive case on indirect evidence and.by a study of symptoms. Little things 'occurring one After another sometimes lead us inevitably to a conclusion which is almost certainly correct, but which cannot be completely justified by concrete evidence. This is a position that the writer has reached at the moment, and he wishes to warn commercial motor interests that they have a most powerful enemy which not only may use, but is using, immense influences to 'their detriment In time we shall know whether this-Conclusion is correct. if it proves to be so, and if we have not realized the position until it becomes obviously capable of proof, then we may expect, and shall deserve, restrictions and taxation which, whatever their nominal purposes, are really intended to force people to continue to give the railways the carriage of goods at rates which are in no way justified. VECITIB.