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Digging Up the Past
NATURALLY, • at a time when the future is uncertain, the commentators turn to. history for clues. In his paper to the Scottish section of the Institute of Transport, Mr. G. W. Quick Smith concentrated his attention on the book of chronicles and deliberately eschewed the works of the prophets, unless the report of the Royal Commission on Transport can he regarded as coming within that category. Listeners were left Mr. Quick Smith's opinion on the prospect for road transport to work out for themselves. They had little more to guide them than had the explorers on Mount Everest seeking to reconstruct the lineaments of the Abominable Snowman from a line of footprints.
Mr. Quick Smith at least has provided a lucid pointhy-point commentary on the development of transport over the past 20 years. His treatment of the road-rail controversy is commendably, fair. He stresses that the complaints formerly levelled against road operators have now been dealt with, in some cases more than adequately, by legislation and taxation. He makes a useful distinction between the necessity of keeping the railways going and the desirability of making the best use of the railway system.
• Masterly Appraisal So masterly an appraisal of the past emphasizes the doubt that history is not always a safe guide to future conduct. Mr Quick Smith notes the persistence of the "theme of co-ordination." Is this so very startling a discovery? The Royal Commission used the word as part of the title of its final report in 1930. Co-ordination can be applied to so many things, from the synchronization of timetables to nationalization. Nobody seriously contends that it is undesirable. The main quarrel concerns' the -form that co-ordination should take and whether it should develop naturally or be imposed upon the transport industry from without. The means are all-important. By treating history as a continuous process, Mr. Quick Smith obscures the significance of the quarrel between supporters and opponents of the Transport Act.
He is impressed by the discovery that the principles behind the Transport Act were foreshadowed by recommendations added to the Royal Commission's report by three of its members. They contended that there could be no co-ordination where there was com
petition. Unification was to them the only possible solution, and this meant some form of public control or ownership. They suggested the formation of a statutory corporation, free from all political influence and Governmental interference, which should manage the co-ordinated transport facilities in the interests of national industry and trade.
There is nothing uncanny in the fact that the suggestions of these three gentlemen have borne fruit. Many of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission as a whole have since been put into effect. This does not necessarily mean that they were wise or beneficial. The proceedings of the Commission mark the watershed between the old transport and the new. Its report has influenced opinion ever since it was published.
There was a well-known mathematician whose studies of the sun, the moon and the stars forced him to the conclusion, flattering to himself, that the universe was created by—a mathematician. Mr. Quick Smith in his paper was expressing his own views and not necessarily those of the British Transport Commission. He cannot, however, free himself completely from his environment. He need not be surprised, when tracing the history of transport during the past quarter of a century, to find himself frequently as it were gazing into a mirror. Like Winnie the Pooh on the trail of the Woozle, the footprints that he discovers turn opt to be his own.
The three members of the Royal Commission who so bravely followed their own line did not have the benefit of the experience of the past five years. If asked to make recommendations to-day, They might argue along different lines. In 1930 they were not in a position to appreciate the problems that would arise later.
They were optimistic enough to visualize a nationalized transport system which would "operate for service rather than profit." This does not necessarily run counter to the obligation upon the B.T.C. to pay its way, but it may sound strange to those critics who contend that the B.T.C. neither provides an adequate service nor makes a profit. The three members of the Royal Commission do not seem to have realized that once road transport had become firmly established, many traders would refuse to use any other medium. Although freedom of choice for the customer has been written into the Transport Act, even Mr. Quick Smith still hopes that in time the trader will become "as indifferent to the mode of transport as one who posts a letter to-day."" One would like to know whether this happy state of indifference is to be achieved by bringing the standard of service of each form of transport to the same level of efficiency, and whether the levelling process will be in an upwards or a downwards direction.
Main Bulwark C licences were unknown when the Royal Commission sat, but it was well aware of the existence of what it called the ancillary user. He was not looked upon as a serious competitor and his freedom was not threatened. As the C licence is now one of the trader's main bulwarks against the comprehensive unification for which Mr. Quick Smith is blaming certain members of the Royal Commission, they may 20 years later be tempted to join the growing number of those supporters of the B.T.0 who want restrictions to be imposed upon the ancillary user.
The need for the moment is not to commend the stranglehold of the past upon the present, nor to attempt a solution of the 1950s' problems with a method suggested to meet those of the 1930s. Circumstances have changed. There are now nearly lm. vehicles operating under C licences. The railways are no longer the predominant goods carriers of the country. Trade and industry, with a clear choice 'between different forms of transport, know their own preferences best and have a right to insist upon them.