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THF. Government's decision to allow British Road Services to keep their trunk network is no stroke of political genius. It cannot be expected, as the Association of British Chambers of Commerce hope. to cut the ground from under the Socialists and automatically to take road transport out of politics. The gesture has come too late to be a coup d'etat.
B.R.S. are being permitted to retain only what the Government have good reason to believe cannot readily be sold. The Parliamentary Opposition cannot be blind to this opportunism. and are unlikely to accept it as a conciliatory offer. If, as The Commercial Motor suggested, a compromise had been proposed at the beginning of the year, when the Government hell the initiative, the plan which they now propose would have been politically more effective.
Experience may, however, achieve what timing has not. With a fleet of about 8,500 vehicles. B.R.S. should be able to operate reliable trunk services al. competitive rates, and continue to earn a fair profit. Supporters of nationalization and trade and industry should thus both be satisfied. and the political atmosphere in which road transport exists should become more peaceful.
Free Competition Free-enterprise hauliers will still be able to compete with the State-owned trunk services. Nearly 17,000 vehicles have already returned to private enterprise, and apart from the 4,000 parcels vehicles and 2,000 contract-hire vans, an unknown number—probably loss than 4.000— remains for disposal as transport units. If these are put up for sale with the speed and regularity pursued in the past by the Road Haulage Disposal Board, they should be sold by the end of the year.
Private enterprise will then have recovered sonic 20,000 of the vehicles wrested from it and, with the disposal of B,R.S. (Parcels), Ltd„ the stage will be set for a long run of fair competition between the State and the haulier.
According to the experience of the A.B.C.C.— an independent and authoritative body—the spur provided by the return of hauliers to long-distance work has improved the efficiency of B.R.S. trunk services. Continued healthy competition, based on observance of the law on drivers' hours, wages, and the maintenance of vehicles in fit condition, will be to everyone's good.
Meanwhile, the disposal of the parcels network remains an urgent necessity. It came into the hands of the British Transport Commission almost by accident through its ownership by the railways. It has since been knitted so closely into the B.R.S. system that its separation has been a matter of the utmost difficulty, and great obstacles to the preparation of a prospectus that would satisfy investors have been created.
Offers for Parcels Network It is believed that several offers will, however, he made for the shares of the company when they are put up for sale in October. The Post Office is reported to be interested in their purchase. A rival bid is likely to be made by a group of financiers, including a former Lord Mayor of London.
Obviously, other things being equal, it is preferable that the network should be taken over by a private-enterprise group. The post-war record of the Post Office is not such as to suggest that it could operate the undertaking any more efficiently than B.R.S. An energetic board of directors could, however, infuse new life into the business.
It is important that B.R.S. should not be allowed to retain more vehicles than are needed to operate the regular trunk services. The Minister's statement on this point was ambiguous. and it will be necessary to ensure that the Bill to be promoted in the autumn contains a careful definition of trunk work and excludes casual longdistance haulage.
B.R.S. are organized and equipped to provide regular scheduled services of high frequency and their activities should be limited to that specific
work. In return for about 4,500 extra vehicles they might reasonably be expected to give up heavy haulage and other specialized activities, which should be regarded as the domain of the free-enterprise haulier. Untrammelled by extraneous duties, B.R.S. would then be able to devote their entire energy to building up an effective and profitable trunk network that would he a national asset.
Under those conditions there is no reason why the State and free enterprise should not enter into harmonious relations, and co-operate in research and the improvement of transport techniques. The rusty liaison machinery set up between the two sides of the industry should be oiled, renovated and replaced in service. It will be needed when disposal is ended and the industry settles down to the new pattern of competition.