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23rd September 1960
Page 144
Page 144, 23rd September 1960 — FREE TRADE
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

CONTROLS and restrictions have their advocates in all political parties. This point was made in a recent speech by Mr. Enoch Powell, M.P., the Minister of Health. _ The temptation was great, he said, to deal with a problem by invoking the powers of Parliament so as to limit the scope of individual choice. It was much harder to leave people to manage their own affairs and to have patience while individuals worked out their own solutions "to the problems of a changing environment."

What Mr. Powell had to say is highly relevant to the present situation in the transport industry, although he may not have had this in mind. Road operators can only hope that the opinion of the Minister of Health is shared by the Minister of Transport and will prevail whatever the advice Mr. Marples receives, whether it is from the special advisory group on the British Transport Commission or from the various pressure groups inside and outside Parliament whose recommendations are varied but seem mostly to be directed against the commercial-vehicle user. If the Government White Paper that seems likely to appear before long points in the same direction, operators could do worse than ask Mr. Powell for assistance in putting their case.

There is a reverse side to the tendency towards restriction that he has detected. Men grow to love their chains and they will sometimes prefer to exchange freedom for an easier and less competitive life. They may suppose that a guaranteed price and the elimination of the opposition will produce a richer reward for less effort. This may well be the case in some industries, but there are good reasons why it does not apply to transport.

In the past the railways found their rigid rates structure a substantial excuse for their inability to meet the challenge of road transport. Now they are free to charge practically as much as they like or as little as they like, and on the whole they appear to be worse off. The position wduld probably be no better, and might even be still worse, if they had remained bound by the old price system and their road haulage competitors were out of business.

Fixed Rates

Hauliers have never known what it means to operate within a fixed framework of rates. They have to justify every penny. The rates committee of the Road Haulage Association will have a strong case when they meet on October 19. They have made no definite proposal for an increase in charges for over three years. Assuming that the new wage scales now under consideration are confirmed, basic wages rates will soon be something over £1 a week more than they were three years ago.

Many other costs have risen, and it is hardly likely that the committee will do otherwise than recommend a substantial all-round increase in rates. There will still have -to be a hard battle by the individual haulier to put the recommendation into effect. He is free to charge what he likes and the customer is free to accept it or otherwise, so that there is plenty of room for manceuvre.

Hauliers may envy the passenger operator, who at least knows what fares he has to charge and does not have to haggle with each customer. On the other hand, the fixing of fares may have something to do with the financial difficulties of many passenger operators, including the railways. According to the statistics supplied to the select committee on the nationalized industries, nearly the whole of the railway deficit is incurred on passenger traffic in spite of the continuous decline in freight receipts. Official G26 rates schedules do not seem to help the Commission much on the passenger side.

Hauliers may also wonder at times whether things are not better ordered in the United States, where there is strict control over charges by truckers. News from America, however, does not show a -particularly bright picture of a universally prosperous road transport industry. Like the British hauliers, operators in the south andthe middle west are seeking a rates increase and give asl one of the reasons a rise of 10 per cent. in wages over the Past two years. Some of the operators claim that they are working at a loss and others say they are not earning enough profit to make their businesses worth while. They appear to find as much difficulty in getting permission for a rates increase as British operators do in applying an increase they have agreed among themselves.

To make matters more complicated in the U.S.A., there is confusion about what rates ought to be charged for certain operations. The railway " piggyback " services that are becoming an increasingly prominent feature of goods transport in that country have recently been criticized by a Government examiner. He has found that greatly reduced rates are being charged by the railways for certain piggyback services that only a few operators, and most of them the American equivalent of a clearing house, find it practicable to use. The American road operator scents discrimination in this practice, thus demonstrating that even statutory rates may have their pitfalls.

Road-Rail Straggle

The new version of the piggyback service, and one that it is proposed to establish in Britain, is the Roadrailer. British Railways have said without reservation that they would have no objection to hauliers or traders making use of this facility, provided that the obvious technical conditions are satisfied. What will not he known until the scheme comes into operation is the price that hauliers will have to pay for the service. It is possible, although not inevitable, that there will be complaints of discrimination similar to those now being advanced in America.

One never knows quite what will happen when different forms of transport come into contact with one another. An unusual view of the road-rail struggle was given by Mr. Douglas Tennant, general secretary of the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association, when supporting a resolution calling for a fully effective co-ordinated transport system at the conference of the Trades Union Congress (The Commercial Motor, last week). Improved roads, said Mr. Tennant, would mean the expansion of the businesses of hauliers who were not concerned with a balanced system but only with "capturing cargoes." Be went on: "This is playing hell with the railways, and the railways in turn are playing hell with coastwise shipping."

Therefore, of course, there must be a curtailment of freedom. Inevitably at some stage, or other in a discussion of this kind one meets the tempting argument against which Mr. Powell has given such a salutary warning. Passenger transport, whether by road or by rail, would do wonderfully well if there were no cars. Public goods transport would flourish if it became illegal for the trader to carry his own traffic. These are extreme statements, but they are not all that far removed from what some people are saying. Integration or the closed shop in transport will always be impracticable while the customer remains free.

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