No Victory for Road Transport
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NOT the least surprising result of the Bouts-Tillotson case is its acclamation as a road-transpoi': victory. On all sides one hears people, possessing apparently the flimsiest acquaintance with the facts of the case, complacently talking of "a setback for the railways."
It is symptomatic of the low state of road-transport morale that hundreds of operators witnessed the advent of this case with fear and consternation, quite prepared and even expecting to see long-distance transport by road shattered at a blow.
They Would Not Dare. _
I cannot imagine how anyone in his right senses could have anticipated such a result. It was only necessary to ask oneself whether, from an administrative point of view, such a result would have been either propitious or politic. No Licensing Authority would have dared to refuse this licence !
And you may take it, here and now, that no Appeal Tribunal will dare to alter the decision. If you would know why, just ask yourself whether any Minister of Transport would be prepared to shoulder the responsibility . of the virtual closing down of a company of the size and importance of Bouts-Tillotson Transport, Ltd.
Surely we know our Road and Rail Traffic Act better than that !
Perhaps you imagined, because such a notable person as Mr. Ashton Davies, appropriately arrayed in seemly black, lent his presence to dignify the proceedings, that the railways really anticipated such a sweeping result? Of course not. They were merely indulging their familiar propensity for fishing, the chief difference, of course, being that this was a whaling expedition, whereas their previous efforts had been confined to sprats.
Out for the Sprats.
They were not °Ili to catch the whole shoal, but simply to get as much as possible for nothing, and they did very well. They were successful to the extent that 55 tons of unladen tonnage were deleted from the original licence. Not the least gratifying feature of the case was that everyone, apparently, was pleased with the result. , The lay Press, stimulated or once info recognizing the existence of a road-transport industry, was able to headline the decision, "Railways Lose Test Case in Road Transport Fight." The Press then thankfully dropped a subject in which it had .little interest and with which it had no sympathy, for the more fanciful pastime of providing astronomical and mostly unauthenticated sales figures for the Motor Show.
The railways gratefully "pocketed " the 55 tons, with the additional advantage that they can at the same -time complain that the Act does
not go far enough, in view of the fact that they have lost the case.
Meantime, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee can twirl their whiskers and gleefully shake hands on the glorious impartiality of British legislation.
To me the deletion of these 55 tons is the most significant and sinister feature of the whole case, coming, as it does, after numerous other cases in which A licences have suffered amputation as a result of the temporary non-licensing of vehicles.
This deletion, represents no less than 7 per cent, of the total unladen tonnage of the applicant company. Compare the recent case of Messrs. G. Sheppard and Sons, Warmley, Bristol, when the Western Licensing Authority refused to renew the licence for two vehicles out of a total of seven, because one of the machines had not been used since September, 1935, and the other since December of the same year. This action was taken in spite of the fact that the applicants stated that they now found their lost trade returning.
This is the beginning of a stranglehold which, unless checked, will gradually and inexorably destroy independent long-distance road transport. What is the underlying principle? Simply that haulage contractors are not to be allowed any margin of tonnage whatever.
• The Ministry of Transport does not recognize fluctnations in the business of road operators. It refuses to make any allowance for factors arising, which may temporarily cause a retrograde movement in an operator's affairs. Illness, unfair railway competition, a little judicious taxation, a temporary break in the rhythm of some industry—all may be contributory causes to the partial withdrawal of tonnage. But if it is not being used, out it must go.
We are all familiar with the expanding suitcase. You expand it, put in your clothes and, when it is shut, press the halves -together until the case fits the contents. But you cannot increase the , size without opening the case.
Putting the Lid On.
This is exactly the position into which road transport has been manceuvred. A little work filched and down goes the lid a little more, and the case is compressed again.
And what if the contents again tend to become too big for the case? Expand the case? Increase the tonnage? Certainly. It is just as easy as trying to expand your case when you have lost the key.
The plight of the road-transport contractor, to-day, may well he compared with that of the untouchab!es. in India. This unfortunate minority has no caste ; the haulage contractor has no "Act." His main competitor is the railways, against the competition of which he has no redress at all.
The railways may have all the excess facilities they like; supported by public funds, financed by Government loans, protected by Acts of Parliament, they are in a position to maintain, for ever and a day, facilities in excess of requirements. There is no power on earth which can prevent their maintaining excess facilities. Even were their present services to be fully utilized, can one doubt that they would progressively create further excess facilities, so long as one independent road-transport contractor remained on the roads?
Their catch phrase in the traffic courts is : "Our facilities are in excess of requirements." Consider the reverse side of the picture, as exem
plified in the present case. That which serves the railways in case after case is a weapon which only they are allowed to use. The same argument for a haulage contractor, is tantamount to suicide. Yet the following appears in the summary of
the Metropolitan Licensing Authority's decision:— " 'Unfair' competition between road and rail has, to some extent, been ameliorated by the control of road transport and the increasing of licence duties. It is anticipated that, ie time, with improved methods of enforcement, these factors will collectively exercise a greatly increased influence on the competition to which rail transport has been subjected in the past."
Read these words and weep Railways—Abstraction Artists. The railways may abstract traffic when and where they like. They can offer reduced fares to those who wish their goods to be removed, make agreed charges for the bigger consumers, and canvass haulage contractors' clients from the lists compiled in the traffic courts. And, it is evee hinted, "the present system of railway charges may, in future, be modified." In fact, so far as the railways are concerned, there are no gloves and no belt, so "hit where you like" is the order of the day.
Having abstracted the long-dis tance traffic, the railways can then apply for increased local haulage facilities, owing to their "statutory obligations," and proceed to dispos sess the small local carrier. The haulier, on the other hand, must never acquire a fresh customer, never embark upon work different from that which he has previously undertaken and never for a moment let it be imagined that he is a normal business man, who is out to obtain all the legitimate business that he can.
He must be a kind of transport Rip-van-Winkle, carefully nursing the customers of. his youth, through middle life and so to sere old age. What is more, he must, by some means yet unknown to commerce, regulate his business so that his customers always and invariably provide him with .the same amount of work, irrespective of war, disaster or sudden death. In fact, he must take his example from the railways, which still wistfully look back to a peaceful and golden era 23 years ago and vainly endeavour to re-establish the status quo which existed in 1913!
Before we leave the Bouts-Tillotson case, it may be enlightening to discover the " suitability" of these services so often boasted by the railways.
Telling us again the "old, old story," Mr. Ashton Davies submitted to the court that traffic was being road-borne, not on account of rail s30
shortcomings, but simply because. of undercharging. Unfortunately for the objectors' case, it transpired that the applicant company was reorganized in the autumn of 1935 and that since then its rates had been materially
increased. • This, of course, gave Mr. Maxwell Fyffe, K.C. (railway leading counsel) , the opportunity of asking for additional turnover figures, it being assumed, I suppose, that any increase in tariff would automatically cause a, return of traffic to the superior attractions of the railway. Strange to say, when the supplementary figures arrived, they showed in no uncertain manner that, far from this being the case, Bouts-Tillotson Transport, Ltd., had, in fact, increased its turnover since it advanced its rates!
Was Mr. Maxwell Fyffe dismayed? Unlike the famous regiment he pro bably was, but listen to his reply. For fatuous nonsense it takes some beating. He submitted that, prior to October, 1935, uneconomic rates and system of operation had been in force, and that the former had attracted traffic on a false basis from those who were now loath to make any change back, even in the face of a higher tariff, to the carriers whom they formerly employed.
Would He—Or Would He?
Just picture the pretty sentimentality of bluff John Citizen, for 12 months or more, paying to BoutsTillotson Transport, Ltd,, higher rates than he could obtain elsewhere for similar or even better service. Or so. we are called upon to believe.
Is this not a perfect example of the versatility of the railway pleadings? First we have the pitiful bleat, "road-transport is ruining our business by under-cutting," When a transport concern puts its house in order, raises its tariff and proves conclusively that it can still more than hold its own, we are told that this is because its customers are loath to make a change back!
Yet this is the kind of pitiful twaddle that is allowed to play a part in the smashing of a young and virile industry. The Bouts-Tillotson company reorganized in October, 1935; it set about remedying any past shortcoming in no uncertain manner. You will remember that the Act came into full operation only in October, 1934, so that it lost but little time.
A may. be assumed that the past year has provided for the company its full share of problems, and that no criticism could be levelled if it had not completed reorganization in the short space of time which has elapsed. In these circumstances, one might with all reasonableness expect that Bouts-Tillotson Transport, Ltd.. should be left in peace and in full possession of its claimed-tonnage rights for a further period of at least two years.
Instead, the opportunity is grasped of reducing tonnage to a level which will barely suffice for present needs, whilst immediately the company begins to feel the full effect of its reorganization and the general national prosperity, it will have to face theordeal of a fresh application, with the attendant trouble and expense, if it wishes to place additional vehicles into operation.
Even more deplorable is the fact that all the time the concern must keep its eye on the expiry date of its licence. If there be a temporary lull in trade, the directors must by hook or by crook endeavour to keep their full fleet in operation, so that when the time comes they shall not be subject to a further amputation of their undertaking.
Can one imagine anything more likely to lead to rate-cutting than an operator licensing vehicles, which he could temporarily do without, simply so that he may retain them on his carrier's licence?
Could anything be more farcical? At a time when pious efforts are being, made to stabilize rates, a principle' has been evolved which, more than anything else, will make abortive any attempt to reach a satisfactory agreement, whilst, in the event of any setback to the present tide of prosperity, the result will be complete anarchy.
You may be sure that this whittling down of A licences will be pursued with the same relentless vigour that has characterized the persecu tion of B-licence holders. If anything is to be done about it, it must be done right away, while there is' etill an independent road-transport in. dustry. To-morrow will be too late.
The war will be over. A. D.J.