26 FEBRUARY 1954, Page 17

Compton Mackenzie

ON January 1st, 1865, Queen Victoria commanded the following letter to be communicated to each of the leading railway companies which had their stations in London: What would Queen Victoria have said about such figures ? That negligence can be blamed in so many cases is surely a most serious reflection on the administration of British Rail- ways, The actual loss of life, though heavy enough, may not seem excessive compared With deaths on the roads, 'hut it is to be remembered that this has been due to luck and to nothing else, and if this carelessness should continue those of us who travel by train will soon become as apprehensive of the experience as our forbears were in the first half of the rine- teenth century. Trains are slower than they were fifty years ago, and therefore we cannot console ourselves with the fact that we are paying the price for speed. It is tempting to accuse the railwaymen of lacking a proper sense of respon- sibility toward the public, but Queen Victoria came very much nearer to a realistic view of the matter when she reminded the railway directors of the heavy responsibility they had assumed by securing the monopoly of the means of travelling of almost the entire population of the country. The aeroplane and the motor-car may share the means of travelling today, but the nationalisation of the railways has confirmed a great monopoly and those who fear the demoralising effects of non- competitive enterprise have a right to use the startling figures provided by the Minister of Transport as evidence in support of their gloomiest forebodings. The record of engine-drivers and signalmen in the past has been magnificent, and it is the duty of the officials paid by the nation who are in charge of British Railways to ensure that the younger men now being engaged are 'capable of living up to that standard.

A decline of efficiency was foreshadowed by the result of the various railway amalgamations before the State amalga- mated the lot. In only one case was there a notable improve- ment. The Southern Railway by turning four badly-managed lines into one well-managed one was a success. But did the Great Northern Railway benefit by joining with the Great Eastern and the North-Eastern ? No. The dignified Great Northern unfortunately acquired some of the characteristics of the Great Eastern. Did the London and North-Western benefit by becoming the London Midland and Scottish ? No. Has any line anywhere benefited by becoming a part of British Railways ? If it has, my good fortune has not led me to travel by it.