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Political Commentary By JANUS KEY passages in such a document as the latest annual report of the British Transport Commission may often be found, not where the author is striving for effect, but where he is for the moment off his guard, either through fatigue or tedium, and his prose style trails off into gobbledegook. There is nothing distinguished about the following passage, but it seems to open a door leading to the heart of the Ivory Tower: "The Commission have not failed to initiate measures designed eventually to restore their finances to reasonable equilibrium, and these Will be described in the next report."
. There is something to be said for regarding the successive reports as instalments in a leisurely serial. After seven years it becomes less difficult to find one's way about the 300-odd pages. Most of the statistical information, in particular. is given in the same form year after year. The old hands can be detected by the expert way in which they flick over the leaves to see how much traffic was carried by British Road Services, what amount the Commission spent on publicity. whether the road passenger services made their Usual profit (the)' dial, and whether British Railways still have their own coach lighted by oil (in fact it disappeared from the reports, although not necessarily from the permanent way. in 1953).
Nevertheless, it is asking a good deal to expect the reader to prolong his breathless expectation for a whole year, The real meaning of the passage may be that the Commission, knowing their present position is not very healthy, are anxious to turn the attention of the public towards the brighter future.
The prescription for the financial ills of the Commission may be no more than the four-point programme recently summarized by the chairman. Sir Brian Robertson. He spoke of plans for an improvement in productivity. The railway freight charges scheme now under consideration by the Transport Tribunal he regarded as the charter of the railways' commercial freedom. The British Railways modernization scheme ha been launched, and the Commission are feeling the benefits of decentralization.
In the meantime, the report attempts a diagnosis of the Commission's present troubles. The tone is a little peevish, as if to suggest that the Commission are more sinned against than sinning. To explain the fall in the working surplus, the report gives pride of place to "the simple fact" that fares and rates "were never able to catch up quickly enough with rising costs in the shape of higher wage and price levels." There is also an apologetic reference to labour troubles and to "the effects of partially breaking up B.R.S."
Less tolerance is shown for the transport user who, in a time of high prosperity, declines to enrich the Commission. When prosperity becomes sufficiently great, the report argues, "ii may conceivably bring little or no advantage to public transport if it tends to encourage the transport user to make himself independent and to furnish himself with the greater luxury or convenience of his own private transport."
It is true that people are using the services of the Commission less than before. Compared with 1953.
there was a decrease in 1954 of 1.3 per cent, in the total number of passenger journeys by road and rail, and of .0.6 per cent. in the case of .rail alone. Passengers Carried by London Transport decreased in number by 3 per cent., whereas the number carried by the Commission's other road services increased by 2 per cent. in Scotland and by 0.4, per cent. in England and Wales.
The volume of goods traffic also fell. by 3 per cent, on the railways and by 16 per cent. on B.R.S. The railway decline must be regarded as the more serious, for on the whole the tonnage carried had increased throughout the life of the Commission up to the end of 1953. The decline of B.R.S. was inevitable in view of the fact that the carrying capacity of the fleet was 24 per cent. smaller at the end than at the beginning of 1954. Even had there been no disturbance, however, it may well be that B.R.S. would have carried less last year than the year before. The tonnage of 39.8m. in 1953 was below the figure for 1952. and well below the peak of 47m. reached in 1951.
From random references to B.R.S. in the report it may be inferred, although nowhere is it explicitly stated, that the Commission are not in favour of disposal. In the results for 1954 the report sees wistfully the reflection of the culmination of the long process of reorganizing the road haulage businesses acquired by the Commission under the Act of 1947." An improvement in operational efficiency is said to be made "in spite of disposals."
Net traffic receipts, which the report describes as profit, came to L8.7m., not much less than for the previous year. The report has a note on what it calls "the peak 12 months" of B.R.S. operations, ending about the middle of 1954. In that arbitrarily chosen period, " profits " of well over £10m. were earned. Since then, the report adds melodramatically. "the cumulative effect of disposals has been making large and increasing inroads into the profits."
As usual, it is not possible to calculate exactly what margin of real profit is left to B.R.S. Over and above the working expenses are a number of other items, chief of which is the payment of interest charges. The share attributable to B.R.S. over each of the past few years might be between .£2m. and £3m. In theory, the process of disposal should mean a reduction in the responsibility of B.R.S. towards the central charges. and the sale of about a quarter of the assets during 1954 means that the real profit is somewhat better than in 1953. Nobody supposes that B.R.S. can continue making profifs of the same order with a greatly diminished fleet, but even if disposal continues to the bitter end B.R.S. could still be a useful branch of the Commission.
Nowhere in the report is there any reference to the abolition of the 25-mile limit. Perhaps this is another point that will be "described in the next report." The
limit was intended to give the Commission as a whole the monopoly of long-distance traffic. They held that monopoly for the whole of 1954, in spite of which their
activities had a setback, although B.R.S. chntinued to do well financially. One may speculate whether further difficulties will arise this year as a result of greatefreedom for hauliers.