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What Is Meant by "Public Interest"?

3rd December 1943
Page 22
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Page 22, 3rd December 1943 — What Is Meant by "Public Interest"?
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

IT is high time that the term " Public Interest " was defined, explained and, in the light of its past interpretation with regard to road transport, exploded. It is long past the time for the public to take an interest in this matter, and to make a stand., insisting that its rights and reasonable desires take precedence over those of railway, stockholders, numerous and influential though they may be.

The public should, in fact, be allowed some degree of liberty in deciding what is and what is not " in the public .interest." • This plea of public interest has, for nine years, served as an excuse for depriving the public of the conve-. niences and economies which should have ,been freely available as the result of their use of road transport in preference to rail. It has deprived traders of the undoubted benefits of a free market in transport. It has also prevented many thousands of people from enjoying the pleasures of the open road by travelling by coach.

Policy That Will Retard Progress

The term was .again used, still. with its' customary implication—that road transport must submit to further repression, miscalled control—by the present Minister of War Transport, Lord Leathers, in the course of the debate in the House of Lords on October 27.

That debate was ad,mirably summarized in " The Commercial tfOtor " dated November 5. One reference to the subject, however, is .inadequate. It demands a thousand articles in a thousand newspapers, because the matter is vital to every inhabitant of the country. If the policy forecast by the Minister be pursued it will put a brake upon the future industrial progress of this country, the result of which will he felt for 50 yeats or more.

That policy, briefly summarized, is to resume, and greatly to intensify after the war, the pre-war repression measures against road transport, in order.' to bolster up and support the railways. Modern and progressive methods of conveying goods and passengers—methods which afford the maximtim of convenience and expedition at' minimum cost—are to be curtailed so that, preference can be given to a means for _ conveyance which, except in the case of particu-lar traffics, is outworn and dernoded.

The Minister is, in fact, ;convicted out of his own mouth. He. corn' mences by stating that cheap trans

port means a system so co-ordinated and run that it can provide, and does provide, the best possible service for the ,least real cost to the community as a whole. I do not overlook, or even attempt to minimize, the importance of the word "real."

The statement of the Minister's policy is clear and unequivocal. It is so true as to be almost axiomatic.

The Minister then, however, proceeds to define the means whereby the object can be achieved, without producing any sort of proof that his conclusions are correct. In fact, he pre-judges the issue and proceeds in one step to that conclusion, but entirely overlooks the need for produeing evidence in support of his • contention.

'Proof Needed to Back Contentions

All that he does is to make two further statements, entirely unsupported by proof, (a) that if the railways be deprived of their highergrade traffic (because traders find it cheaper and ,better to consign it by road) they must either obtain compensatory revenue or sink into financial impotence, and (b) that the railways are a national asset which must be retained in full efficiency, and their financial position must be firmly established.

Before these ex parte statements be examined it is necessary to be clear on one point. Is the Minister budgeting for a perpetual state of war, or preparation for war, or is he looking forward to a reasonably prolonged period of peace?

In the' former event, there may be SOMo justification for prolonging the life of the railways until. such time as provision be made for the production of oil fuel in this, country in quantities sufficient to render us inde

pendent of imported supplies, and for the production and perfection of synthetic rubber of a quality good enough for pneumatic tyres.

In any, case, subsequent to the. achievement of these objectives in rubber and fuel supplies, it may be stated that the railways need only be preserved until such time as the inland transport of this country is so effectively and completely revolutionized that all the traffic is carried by road and by canal.

None of these propositions is so impossible as many may think; they are not even impracticable. We could produce our own fuel supplies, if full advantage be taken of methane, shaie oil, oil from coal, and' alcohol. Here, again, vested interests, rather than material or physical difficulties, are likely to bar the way. The position with regard to synthetic rubber is probably similar, at. any rate so far as materials and practical considerations are con cerned.'

Railways Can Be Done Away With

The practicability of doing away with the railways can be demonstrated with almost mathematical accuracy, especially if the figures quoted in the House of Lords debate be taken as accurate. The solution of that problem is provided in the answer to this simple and straightforward question: What additional road-transport facilities would be needed to carry all the traffic ordinarily carried by the railways? :•

'Let us assume, in the first place, that there is a direct relation between the' value of the traffic carried and the vehicles needed for its conveyance. . The above-mentioned figures were, for 1938, as follow:—Cost of total traffic carried, £588,000,000; cost of rail traffic, 2163,000,000. The cOst of all road-borne traffic was, therefore.,, £425,000,000.

Takingthose figures as a basis, there would need to be an addition of no more than 38 per cent. -to the 1938 total of motor vehicles in order to obviate the need for the raitways altogether.

But that is not all; there are other figures equally relevant. The average speed of a railway wagon was quoted at 0.5 rn.p.h., and that of a motor vehicle at 10 m.p.h., i.e., 20 times as fast. It seems logical, therefore, to divide that 38 per cent. by 20, whereupon we arrive. at the astonishing conclusion that the additional road facilities needed are less than 2, per cent. It will probably be argued that cost of conveyance is not a true criterion of' vehicle capacity—the old complaint about the tendency of road transport to take the high-grade traffic will undoubtedly be produced here—and, further, that the comparison in speed of travel is inapplicable to passenger traffic. The answer is that, with railway 'tracks converted to high-speed motorways, and with a complete system of properly designed motor highways as a supplementary method of transit, the average speed of road vehicles could be stepped up quite easily by 100 per cent.

Even if there be a serious flaw in the above calculations, and the error is such that the figure of 2 per cent. should be multiplied by five, there is still a limit of 10 per cent. as the number of roadS vehicles needed to replace the railways. As the total machines in use,. exclusive of cars, etc., was approximately 600,000 in 1938, it follows that, by the addition of 12,000 to 60,000 vehicles to those on the road in that year, the railways could be successfully superseded.

Drastic Upheaval, But Not Yet

It is hardly to be expected that so drastic an upheaval of the country's system of transport will be put in hand at once, however beneficial it might be, and notwithstanding the fact that it is, indeed, inevitable. Let us regArd it, therefore, as a longterm policy, and, for the present, decide upon a short-term one.

It will readily be conceded, I imagine, that it is fair and reasonable to proceed from the assumption that, of road and rail transport, the former is the more up to date. In its operation, in regard to its cost, its Speed, flexibility, adaptability and suitability for the transport needs of trade and Industry, are superior to the railways. The sphere of the latter is in the conveyance' of bulk traffic . over long-distance *trunk routes.,

True co-ordination of Junction, carried out in accordance with the real public interest, and regardless of the concern of any particular factor, would recognize those facts and proceed accordingly.

It is relevant, at this stage, to consider the railway stockholders, so as to obtain a true measure of their relative importance, so far as this problem is concerned. It can readily be shown that their claim for preferential treatment (it is ironical, I think, that railway stockholders of all peop19 should demand that) is . incapable of establishment. I have never been able to understand why they should expect to be treated as a class apart from all others who have invested their • money in commercial undertakings.

The shareholders in the railway companies have had a long run for their money. Some of them, with their forebears, have been drawing dividends for a century or more. Very few people with interests in ordinary commercial 'undertakings have been anything like so fortdnate.

Let the railway companies recognize the same unpalatable truth, let them reorganize their capital and their operations so as to bring' them into line with the times. In *particular, let them cut out their redundant and superfluous lines and let them reorganize the services, both for goods and passengers, on the lines still left, so that long-distance traffic only is accepted, with road transport used as a feeder.

I do not accept the recently made plea that redundant lines have been scrapped. Whatever has been done in that direction has been little short of nibbling at the job. The rational procedure is that recommended by Mr. Gilbert Walker in his excellent book "Road and rail." He suggests, in effect, that the present railway system can be classified into lines that are prosperous, lines that show a moderate profit, and lines that are run at a loss. He recommends.that the thjrd class be written off as redundant, and the others worked on more modern methods.

Road Transport's • Sphere of Use

I would, add that, even on the prosperous and moderately profitable lines, the majority of intermediate stations and goods yards could well be eliminated. The districts concerned could be served by road trans-. port, which would then carry traffic, both goods and passengers, for all distances up to 70 or 80 miles, serving in that way as feeders tosthe railways.

The foregoing is, of course, only half the problem; there is still the question, what is going to happen to road transport? In this connection the utterances of the .Minister were ominous, and showed little understanding of the real inwardness of the organization of our industry.

He says that the existence of so many small units in' road haulage vastly increases the difficulties of permanent co-ordination between it and other forms of transport. For co-ordination means regimentation and compulsory merging with larger concerns until, ultimately, the final process of amalgamation with the railways' into one huge monopoly is achieved.And what will the poor trader do then, poor thing?

What the Minister does not appreciale is that the very effectiveness of road transport, its efficiency as the handmaiden of trade and industry, depends on its diversion • into numerous small units and is actually derived from that Characteristic.

'Experienced traders in' every' branch, of industry will confirm that they get the best and most efficient service from small units, largely because they can make personal contact with the proprietor and make arrangements, as well as alter or revise those already made, on the spot and with no delay.

It is not true, moreover, that this preferenee arises from, the fact that the buyer of transport finds it easier to obtain better terms, i.e., cut rates, from the little man. Occasionally that arises, especially when a novice takes over as transport manager.

, Dire Effects to Guard Against

But hauliers, both large and small, will be most perturbed by the Minister's announcement that his Department and the various branches of transport were working on these problems, and he had already had discussions with some of them. That is surely the worst aspect of the whole business. Twice already. has it happened during the war. In both cases the result was disastrous, with dire effects on the haulage industry.

First, we had the remarkable Consultative COmmittee, which delivered the industry bound hand and foot to the then Minister of War Transpart, Lord Brabazon, whose current views on our industry, by the way, are fraught with danger. The outcome of that step was the Chartered Fleet—a failure, if ever there be one. ' Next came the secret employment of Sir Frederick Heaton, the result of which, I understand, was the present Government Haulage Scheme, which is a monument to nobody, unless it be described as an example of monumental ineptitude.

The third time, it is often said, pays for all. In other words,, it is' neck or nothing for' the industry this time. Both hauliers (acting, presumably, through the new and perfected organization for which the Minister professes such admiration) and traders (acting through the many Chambers of Commerce and Trade) must write and insist that the industry be left to carry on its work in its own efficient way.IS must be subject only to such restrictions in fuel and rubber supplies as the exigencies of the war situation demand, and these can be administered by the organization governed by the Regional Transport Commissioners.

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