THE RAILWAY RATES BILL.
WrE ventured a little while ago to stigmatise the outcry which was being raised by some of the railway magnates against Mr. Mundella's Railway Bill as fictitious and ridiculous. The fact that the second reading of the Bill took place on Thursday night without a division, in spite of the formidable notice of opposition given by Mr. Bolton, the Chairman of the Caledonian Railway, shows that the House of Commons put much the same estimate on the outcry as we did. He approved of the increase and extension of the powers of the Railway Commission, and the provision for classification of rates. His opposition was practically con- fined to a single clause of the Bill, the twenty-fourth, which provides for the revision of rates by the Board of Trade on the instance of the Railway Companies, subject to an appeal to a Joint Committee of both Houses. Mr. Bolton, of course, characterised this clause as confiscation. But, to prove his case, he was reduced to borrow (if he was not the author of) an argument from an article in the Nineteenth Century, written by Mr. Ernest Moon. This writer, who is the son of Mr. Richard Moon the Chairman of the North-Western Railway Company, has suggested an obstacle to the moral right of Parliament to revise railway rates. In every Railway Act from 1845 to 1885, a clause has been inserted which, taken by itself, every one admits, expressly reserves to Par- liament the right (which it necessarily enjoys in any case) of altering the rates in each special Railway Act. The object of the special reservation was to give notice that Parliament had a moral as well as a strictly legal right to overhaul its bargain (if bargain it can be called) with the Railway Companies. But no, says the special pleader, with a total disregard of the ordinary rules of construction, you must not look at those clauses in these Acts by themselves ; you must look at them in view of the Railway Act of 1844, and of the debates in Parliament before the Act was passed. A more startling proposition coming from a legal source seeing that even a marginal note in an Act may not be looked at to inter- pret the intention of the Legislature as expressed in its clauses, can hardly be imagined. But it is entirely delusive. The Act of 1844 was passed for the furtherance of the purpose, then held by many high authorities, of the purchase of rail- ways by the State ; and with a view to prevent railway pro- perty being depreciated so that it might be bought cheap, it was provided that no revision should take place for twenty-one years, and then only if dividends of 10 per cent, had been paid for three years. Forty-two years have elapsed, and if the stocks had not been so heavily watered, and profits divided by way of issue of new stock, no doubt 10 per cent. divi- dends and more would be paid on all the " heavy " lines ; so that, even so, the right of Parliament to revise rates is estab- lished. But as a matter of fact, the clauses in the special Acts do not refer to the Act of 1844. They owe their origin to the general Act of 1845, where the clause is unconditional ; but they are repeated and stand independently in each special Act, and must be construed independently. Since the Railway Com- panies themselves admit that their actual rates are far under the maximum rates allowed by their Acts, there can therefore be -no hardship in Parliament now exercising its reserved power of insisting on a classification, consolidation, and revision of rates. As, with the exception of Mr. Plunkett, and some ambiguous utterances from Mr. Thorold Rogers in one of his playful moods, no support was given to Mr. Bolton's argu- m,ents, it is clear that the House generally regarded the cry of confiscation as a mere cry of " Wolf !" The late President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Stanhope, gave emphatic support to the Bill, which, indeed, was to a very large extent his Bill, though he managed to take the grace out of his support by a most unjustifiable attempt to make out that Mr.
Mundella had committed a breach of confidence in stating that it was his Bill. Mr. Forwood, Mr. Lionel Cohen, and Mr. Hickman on one side, and Mr. Magniac and Sir Bernard Samuelson on the other, testified strongly to the grievances of the traders and agriculturists, and the absolute necessity of a revision of rates. Indeed, no one who has looked at the Report of the Commission on the Depression of Trade, from which Mr. Cohen quoted only too-largely, can doubt that the railway rates are a burden grievous to be borne. However the various witnesses before that Commission may contradict each other and themselves on the facts and causes and remedies for depression—as regards the effect of high wages, strikes, over-production and foreign competition, and the necessity of technical education, lower wages, Fair-trade or Protection—on one point they exhibit a marvellous unanimity, and that is that the railway rates of the country are a frightful burden on the producer. They sorely tax and hinder him not merely in the race with foreign competitors, but in the efforts he makes to supply his own neighbours and countrymen when no foreign competition comes in. A remedy must be found in the revision and reduction of rates. Equal mileage rates, it was practically agreed on both sides of the House, were an impossibility ; but the House was equally agreed in holding that rates under which the same article is carried from Liver- pool to London for half the cost, according as it is going from or to a foreign source and from or to the home market, are indefensible. Nor is it only the amount of the rates that is complained of. It was stated by Mr. liagniac that there was a list of twenty million rates for various articles on the North-Western alone, and it is admitted that no trader can find out for himself what the price of carriage of any particular article is likely to be from one place to another. A consolidating and amending Act is abso- lutely necessary. The Committees of the House cannot do the work properly ; the Railway Commission pointed out that their proper work is judicial and interpretative, not legislative and executive. Therefore, the Board of Trade is selected as the arbiter between traders and Railway Companies to bring them together. If there should, unfortunately, be an appeal to Parliament, at least the appeal will be heard with the points thoroughly threshed out, and in the light of the judgment of an impartial board of conciliation upon it.
The Railway Rates Bill is the one Bill before Parliament of any magnitude affecting English interests proper, though it, of course, affects Scotch and Irish interests as well. The con- sensus of approval with which it was received on its introduc- tion to the House has not been appreciably diminished by all the efforts of the railway panic-mongers. It contains a long- deferred and much-needed instalment of reform, and we sincerely hope that, in the interests of railway shareholders and their customers and the public alike, it will be pressed on with all the force the Government can command, and not allowed to suffer from the doubts, dangers, and difficulties attending /a haute politique.