-THE WRONG WAD FOR BRITAIN
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ONLY a super optimist could have expected that any proposed amendment to the Transport Act, 1947, would come to grips with the fundamental economic problems with which the British transport system is beset. An improved financial prospect for British Railways cannot be legislated into existence and this, after all, is the basic ailment which at present demands urgent and effective treatment.
As an outline of intended legislation the Government's White Paper provides little hope for traders, but a great deal more for those who contemplate a get-rich-quick plunge into the road haulage industry. The political Opposition will, perhaps, be the more responsible for this in view of its threats to renationalize at a later stage. -. But as a statement of transport policy the White Paper goes no further than to express some general views which have been common ground between most users of transport over the past six years.
B.T.C. Policy Too Rigid
"Integration," the Government claims, "has made little progress." This is not surprising, for the British Transport Commission fostered and followed a policy far too rigid to meet the needs of traders. But the Government needs to go further than this simple statement of fact, and should certainly refrain from dismissing from its mind any future attempt at co-ordinating road and rail transport. There is a fundamental difference between the more functional and harmonious policy of co-ordination, as compared with the mere theoretical and technocratic approach of integration. The "working arrangements between separate transport entities" referred to in the White Paper are precisely the kind of approach to this problem likely to yield the best results, and, incidentally, would avoid the major criticism of over-centralization.
Having acclaimed the need for "new and constructive legislation," the Government then proceeds to unfold a policy as regards road haulage which involves the destruction of British Road Services without any guarantee of replacing it, at least for some time to come, with an equally efficient and stable road haulage industry in the hands of private enterprise. The Parliamentary Opposition's threat of even harsher renationalization still further discourages any real hope for a stabilized road haulage industry under private ownership.
It may rightly be argued that constitutional Government cannot flourish under threats, and intimidation of this kind, but equally road haulage cannot give of its best as the servant of industry and commerce. How much wiser might it be to allow private and publicly owned road haulage to exist. side by side for several years by removing mileage restrictions on private operators. The supremacy of private enterprise would soon be asserted and, in a few years' time, no political party would• dare to suggest the revival of what would by then be an almost extinct B.R.S. By this means, privately operated road haulage would itself provide an effective answer to the doctrinaire conflicts which prevail.
Most users, and many operators, had already made up their minds to an arrangement of this kind before the advent of the Government's proposals. Was nOt the Government informed of this?
Having " freed " road haulage, to enable it "to provide cheaper and more efficient transport," the Government at the same time intends to burden it with a penalizing impost to prevent it from becoming cheaper. The initial £4m. levy "will be adjusted at
intervals.This vicious principle, once established, can _
easily be widened to meet the loss of revenue experienced by railways through the development of cheaper and more efficient systems.
Commercial road vehicles during 1951 contributed more than £160m. to the Exchequer, and only a minor proportion of this vast sum was used for improving and maintaining road transports permanent way. It is interesting to note that British 'Railways' bill for the maintenance and renewal of .way and structures during 1950 amounted to f49:9m., its contribution to the Exchequer as regards licensing, etc., being nil: Can it seriously be suggested that the added initial impost of £4m. can make any effective contribution to assist an undertaking which on net revenue account for 1950 showed a deficit of £39.5m.? Surely not, unless full regard is paid to the qualifying word " initial."
The 'levy, it is stated, "will also include some provision for loss of railway revenue arising from further transfer of traffic to the roads" and not used for making good "loss of railway revenue due to recession in trade or a failure on the part of the railways to secure reasonable economies." Will it really be possible to determine the true causes of loss of revenue to the railways? In a trade recession, industry and commerce might well turn to cheaper means for transport in order to meet growing overseas competition. Hence the direct cause of a turnover of traffic to road could be a recession, although the railways might reasonably attribute the direct loss of railway revenue to the transfer of traffic to road.
Within the broad arid complex pattern of British industry and commerce, it is impossible to draw and apply such fine distinctions. For these reasons alone the proposed levy is ill-conceived; it would be impracticable in application and, like most purply political gestures, is unrelated to the needs of the hour. •
From the users' point of view it is doubtful whether road haulage could "play its appropriate and expanding part in the transport system" under the conditions which would be created by the kind of amending legislation now contemplated.
When regard is had to the Government's avowed intention to achieve the almost impossible task of denationalizing road haulage, the virtually complete absence of any concrete proposals regarding road passenger transport strikes an even more hollow note. To have called a halt to the scheme-making powers of the British Transport Commission as regards road passenger transport is a worthwhile step. But it is, after all, merely a simple recognition of hard facts, for even the previous Government had found it necessary to recognize de facto the infertility of Section 63 of the Transport Act. The promised review of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, particularly if it holds out hope for a more liberal interpretation of Section 72 as regards the public interest and convenience, should be welcomed.
But these measures are merely the trimming of frayed edges, whilst the ill-constructed fabric is apparently to remain intact. Yet it would be a far easier task to denationalize those road passenger undertakings so far acquired, and for the B.T.C. to divest its part holdings in other road passenger transport operations_ The total acquisition price of the three principal road passenger undertakings nationalized was £42.5m., and the chances of recovering the major part of this sum are greater
than is the likelihood of retrieving the purchase price of road haulage undertakings.
Of a total of 75,700 passenger vehicles in operation, only 24,200 are under the complete control of the B.T.C., and these include London Transport's 10,000 vehicles; hence unscrambling road passenger transport is an easier task. Moreover, the lukewarm attitude shown by the previous Government regarding the formulation of passenger schemes holds out some hope that the political blackmail exerted in respect of road haulage might not be applied to road passenger transport. Other purely electoral considerations also tend to support this view. Users of passenger transport, with the bitter experience of fares increases in mind, can justifiably clamour for a review of the Government's proposals regarding road passenger transport.
Transport users will find no difficulty in agreeing with the Government's view that "the railways are a national asset" and that "they cannot be allowed to fall into decay." They will, however, search the exposition of trardport policy in vain to discover what action the Government intends to take to prevent the present and continuing decline of the railways.
Users cannot reasonably dispute the Government's claim on behalf of the Commission for a greater latitude to vary charges. Much will, however, depend upon the method by which this principle is to be given effect in the -proposed legislation. Strong opposition can be expected if any new method of adjusting charges does not have full regard to the trader's right of appeal to the Transport Tribunal. At the same time it would be unrealistic to prevent the Commission from speedily adjusting its charges according to the exigencies of the times. The Government would be well advised to seek the closest consultation with industry and commerce on this important issue.
Decaying Railways Similarly, users will be at one with the Government in proclaiming the need for avoiding excessive centralization. They may even accept uncomplainingly the genuflection to Scottish national aspirations—provided that Scottish railways do not become too isolated from the entire British system. But users just cannot accept the idea that either of these measures can prevent the railways from falling into decay.
No Act of Parliament can place British Railways in a position whereby they can look road transport competition in the face.If our railway system is to remain a vital social and strategic asset it must be able to meet the challenge of the internal-combustion engine. Yet this important issue receives no recognition in the published outline of the Government's future transport policy.
The previous Government found it necessary to expound a plan for capital investment in the coal-mining industry, which at the time approached £650m. Yet mining is almost entirely dependent on a railway system
which itself cries out for a healthy influx of capital for modernization and development. The Nation plans to spend over £4,000m. on rearmament, without apparently recognizing that in a time of emergency rearthament may prove to have been in vain if the railway system cracks under the stress of modern conditions of waging war.
The past 40 years proved conclusively that successful modern warfare and defence do not depend entirely upon ships, guns, aircraft and Tanks. The appalling chaos created in Europe through the breakdown of railway communications during the last war should provide an object lesson.
To rearm British Railways would cost only a small fraction of the total proposed expenditure over four years or so, and involve only a minor reallocation of materials and manpower. But the dividends yielded thereby would make an effective contribution to Britain's peace economy, as well as enable the Nation to meet more effectively the threat of war.
Modernization and development of the railway system should have a three-fold objective: the reduction of operating costs, the stimulation of increased speed and efficiency of movement, and the improvement of those conditions which will enhance railway employment and thus attract and maintain a high standard of operatives and administrators. This opens up a broad field for both shortand long-term action, which would ultimately enable the railways to meet the challenges of peace and war. Most certainly, it is only by this method that the problems of road and rail competition—and of road and rail co-ordination—can be resolved with satisfaction.
With all these facts in mind it is not perhaps surprising that leading organizations representing users and traders have urged upon the Government the need for a comprehensive, speedy and effective inquiry into the British transport system. No particular section of interests—politicians, industrialists or transport operators—can justifiably lay claim to a monopoly of wisdom
on these vital national issues. It is a question of all hands on deck for an objective and comprehensive effort to review and modernize British transport. The fundamental problems involved transcend in importance all merely sectarian issues.
Yet the Government will indeed be obstructing its own ends if legislation ignoring these vital considerations is enacted. In effect, such action would either restrict the field of any subsequent inquiry that may prove necessary, or produce the undesirable—and politically unpalatable—conclusion that the Government's legislative action was ill-advised.
It will require a most unusual act of British statesmanship to rise above the popular clamours of the day and to plan realistically for the healthy future of British transport. Any Government which could meet the measure of this task would perform a national service of lasting benefit to the community. Moreover, if the recommendations of such a national inquiry were implemented, transport as the handmaiden of industry and commerce would be elevated from the slough of political controversy in which it has wallowed helplessly. for 4everal frustrating years and be able to plan a 'future uninfluenced by outside issues.