A Bad Risk
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AST week I suggested that mistrust of the possibility
of selling many more large units, rather than a conversion to the principle of nationalization, was responsible for the sudden concern shown by the Minister of Transport lest the trunk network of British Road Services be broken, up. He estimated that there were about 8,000 vehicles for which plans had been lacking. A substantial proportion of them was operating on the main trunk routes of B.R.S., and their retention would leave B.R.S. with a fleet of about 11,500 vehicles. .
By a comparison with the 171,600 vehicles on A and B licences, and nearly 1m. on C licences, the Minister endea.voured to Minimize the significance of such a fleet. He would not find the British Transport Commission in agreement with him. It is generally acknowledged that the earlier lists of transport units contained vehicles that the Commission would rather be without. The heavy trunking vehicles suitable for long-distance work were .put up for sale with increasing reluctance, and the Commission: as they were entitled to do, have kept the best for the last.
War of Attrition If the Commissipn's plan was to wear down the patience of the buyers and of the public, they have certainly succeeded. They have an excellent chance of keeping perhaps as many as 8,500 vehicles, the pick of their former fleet, operating from the choicest depots.
B.R.S. with 8,500 vehicles can play an important, if not major. part in tho profit and loss of the Commisaion. Last. year the net revenue of B.R.S. was Om. When central charges are deducted, a figure of perhaps £5m. was left as profit for the year. The result was just as good as for 1953, although during the. year the number of vehicles was reduced from 35,849 to 25,442, and the available operating stock from 30,514 to 22,484. Other things being equal, the assumption is that, with a fleet of. 8,500 selected vehicles, B.R.S. might make almost as much profit in the future as they have done in the past two years.
Other things are not necessarily equal. Throughout 1954, independent hauliers with A and B licences were restricted by the 25-mile limit. The effect of its abolition was not felt at once, but may become more significant as time goes on. There is justification for considering the consequences if, instead of making their expected profit year after year. B.R.S. revert to making a loss, possibly substantial.
According to the White Paper on Transport Policy, issued by the Conservative Government in May, 1952, "experience, has shown that the Road Haulage Executive, with the elaborate system of depots 'working under their direction, cannot give trade and industry the speedy, individual and specialized services afforded by free hauliers before nationalization, and could not stand up to.competition from them." The White Paper may be a discredited document only three years after publication, but it has within it a warning message that the Government should not ignore.
Should B.R.S., left with 8,500 vehicles, begin to incur a loss, the Commission would find great difficulty in coping with the situation., They can hardly put B.R.S. into liquidation. They have a recognized, if undefined, obligation to the public to keep the services going. At that unfortunate juncture they would have little possibility of selling their road trunk services to independent bidders, for they can apparently find few buyers even now, when the services are making a profit.
No Subsidy Wring the recent debate on the Commission's report and accounts. Mr. Enoch Powell observed that "we have no right to ask that B.R.S. should cover a deficit arising on British Railways." The reverse is equally true. If a still substantial B.R.S. became a financial embarrassment to the Commission, the Government, whatever their political persuasion, would have to do something about it. The idea of paying a subsidy to B.R.S. is neither sensible nor feasible. The Government would have to introduce legislation to ensure that the State road haulage undertaking was provided with more traffic at profitable rates.
The legislation would not be difficult to frame. There would need to be a tightening up of the licensing system to restrict entry into the road haulage industry. There would need to be a clauie limiting hauliers to a radius of (shall we say?) 25 miles. It might be worth considering curtailing the freedom of the C-licence holder. And if at that date compensation were still a word permitted in polite society, long-distance hauliers would have to be bought out and their vehicles transferred to B.R.S.
• All the Government would have to do would be to 'refurbish the Transport Act of 1947. The Socialists, if they were in power, would no doubt add one or two extra clauses. As Mr. R. J. Mellish said during the debate, " I want to see not only renationalizat ion of the transport industry as it was before, hut much greater control over C-licence owners."
He is not alone in holding this view. Some of his colleagues on the Labour benches are equally forthright in their attitude towards the ancillary user.
Responsibility on Conservatives These sentiments one would hardly expect to hear from a Conservative. The Government, in making their settlement over the last and most contentious stages of disposal, should therefore bear in mind the danger of leaving B.R.S. with a much larger fleet than originally intended. The Socialists would applaud any decision that puts a stop to disposal. but they would accept no responsibility. The risk of failure to provide a profitable service would lie with the Conservatives, and they would have to take the blame.
Trade and industry, to whose opinions the Minister is evidently lending an apprehensive ear, must in the end choose between a road haulage system provided by free enterprise or by State ownership. The individual trader might prefer an unlimited choice. He might like to have keen rates and speed on the one hand, and a "post office" service on the other. He is getting something like this now, but it is highly doubtful whether it could remained fixed indefinitely. It miiht be better for the trader, in the long run, if the process of transition were allowed to continue. He might find that the trunk services he is anxious not to lose would still be available to him under free enterprise.