Co ordination Better Than Competition
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THE problems associated with road-rail co-ordination, as an alternative to road-rail competition, have been argued--albeit rather aimlessly as a rule—for years. Briefly, however, these problems, in the main, rest on the relationship between road and rail rates, and on the " division of function" between the two forms of transport.
It will be wise, at once, to face the fact that it is practically impossible to decide precisely what particular traffics should go by rail or
road. Division of function, therefore, becomes rather an ideal than a practical aim. We must consider, instead, the position as it exists to-day, and investigate those elements operating against even a limited degree of co-ordination.
For the road-transport contractor there is to-day no greater obstacle to full and efficient operation than the existence of the situation which unfairly favours the railways in competition. That situation, as we have seen all too frequently of recent years, allows the railway authorities to object, often successfully, to any attempt by the road haulier to improve his services, without any similar protest being possible from the "road side." Yet the railways are constantly adding th and varying their own services, and, incidentally, adding to their own road fleets.
Recrimination, however, even if justified, is largely a waste of time and effort. The remedy must be sought elsewhere. The first step, now that the wages and allied issues appear happily to be moving towards a solution, is that of agreed rates. It cannot be urged too strongly that the whole industr, should lose no time in tackling vigorously—one might even say courageously—the task of framing a schedule of economic rates.
The present uneconomic and largely chaotic condition of affairs is, perhaps, the worst millstone a great industry has ever allowed to become tied around its neck.
The basis on which the industry can best proceed to its admittedly tremendous task is already provided in the report of the Transport Advisory Council. That report is unquestionably one of the most helpful pieces of advice yet brought forward for the good of the industry, and, in the matter of co-ordination, it holds out distinct hope of compromise in place of antagonism.
The crux of the whole problem lies in the recommendation of the Council that, if the rates charged were stabilized for each form of transport, the greatest degree of co-ordination would be secured, since each channel of transport eventually would take the traffic for which it was best suited.
Here, then, is the starting point for the Area Rates Committees and their associated rates officers. Until area rates are agreed upon there is little likelihood of further advance towards a truly national schedule.
Road-transport leaders must realize that, although the T.A.C. report urges that "any attempt to dictate services" for certain kinds of transport would be impracticable, it is impracticable only in so far as the industry is capable of settling its own business in its own way. If the roadtransport industry is not thus capable, then rates and conditions will be enforced from other quarters. Hence the need to-day for prompt— not to say precipitate—action.
A Notable Example.
As a beginning, the industry might well examine some of the voluntary rates agreements at present existing. One might go farther than this, in fact, and suggest taking a leaf out of a Government Department book. I refer to the voluntary rates agreement for the whole country—probably the first of its kind for the entire country that has been evolved— established under the scheme of the Ministry of Agriculture for reimbursing farmers with some part of the cost of obtaining lime and basic slag.
Shortly after this scheme was propounded, it may .be recalled, the various road-transport bodies entered into negotiations with the special committee which the Minister appointed to deal with the subject, and with the railway authorities. As a result a schedule of minimum rates was prepared and brought into operation.
This scheme is not comparable, admittedly, with the magnitude of the effort necessary to meet the needs of the entire road-transport industry. The point is that it contains the basic principle of construction essential if a remedy for the present system—or lack of system—is to be devised. It represents a considered effort towards rates stabilization in collaboration with competitive interests.
So we come to the greatest obstacle to stabilization of rates—undercutting. This, at all costs, must be eliminated to the greatest possible degree. and the best method, of course, is by the legislation promised by the Minister of Transport on the subject. This is a real step forward, but the need for this legislation is urgent if full benefit is to be reaped.
At the moment of writing, unfortunately, one cannot say that the position has advanced further than preliminary contacts between the Ministry and the leaders of organizations chiefly concerned. Whilst these are important, it is in the most vital interests of the industry that they should not be unduly protracted.
It should be the aim of the associations of transport operators to get a skeleton schedule of rates completed before the end of the forthcoming summer, for the whole course of events in the industry during the next five years will be shaped by it. Recent moves for the purchase of transport undertakings will have to take on a new aspect when this one stroke is completed.
Owners of undertakings, when approached on this subject of selling out, should remember not only the difficulties they have encountered during the past ten years, but the possibilities held out by the next five years. With the completion of the national rates schedule and the prospect of a continuance of trade activity, the future should be rosy.
It would be a wilful negation of all their hard years of toil for an industry that is now becoming a leading factor in the country's commercial transport if, for some superficially attractive consideration, they allowed control of a now fast-appreciating asset to pass to other interests instead of bringing its legitimate reward to themselves. C.E.C.