Art. VIII.—The Railway and its Place in Social Economy.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 12th October, 1895.]
My aim in the following paper is to direct attention to the place which the railway should occupy in our social economy, and to the principle by which we should be guided in dealing with it. Having been familiar with the early development of railways in England up to the year 1844, and having witnessed the beginning of our own railways in this country, I now venture to state as clearly as I can certain conclusions to which I have come on this important subject.
It is hardly necessary to remind you of the origin of the railway. The renowned George Stephenson, an English working-man, whose first wages amounted to 2d. a day, was the inventor to whom the world is indebted for the locomotive engine and the construction of the first railway. On the 27th September, 1825, the Stockton and Darlington line was opened for traffic. Only seventy years have passed since that memorable day, but marvellous indeed have been the results of what was then begun. Not England only, but the whole world has felt the mighty change due to the development of the new mode of locomotion.
In that first enterprise the funds were necessarily provided by private persons, who combined together to construct the line and carry on the traffic; and they naturally and properly required those who used the railway to pay such charges as would cover all working-expenses and leave a fair margin of profit on the capital employed. And the same method of providing funds for railway work has continued to be the usual method in Great Britain and elsewhere until comparatively recent times. A large number of companies were formed,
having the necessary powers conferred on them by Acts of Parliament, and thus the railways of the country became private property, and the carrying business a large monopoly. It is true that the traffic is divided among many companies, but, so far as the people at large are concerned, the railway system is a real and irresistible monopoly, having enormous power, which has often been exercised to the serious injury of local interests. There is every reason to believe that this was, in the nature of things, at first quite unavoidable, and therefore is not to be regarded as a just occasion of blame to those courageous men by whose energy and ability, and at whose cost, the great advantages of safe and rapid transit were provided. The idea of a railway was new to the world. It could not be put to the test of practical experience without a large expenditure. It was never for a moment supposed to be within the sphere of a political government to carry out; there was therefore no alternative but to do it by private means. All that the governing power of the nation, represented by Parliament, appears to have thought it had to do was to exercise a sort of arbitrary control over what the engineers proposed. And in many instances this was so done as to cause an enormous and wholly unnecessary expenditure in parliamentary costs before a shilling could be expended in the actual making of the line. Thus it came to pass that the idea of private property in a railway was quite natural; and the consequent idea that every railway was to be looked upon as a concern wherewith to provide dividends for the owners was also perfectly natural. Of course, when we came to these new lands as immigrants we brought these old ideas with us, and it is not to be wondered at that they have proved of sufficient force to keep us from seeing how entirely inapplicable they are to any country in which railways are, as they ought always to be, the property of the people. By slow degrees a truer view of the function of railways has been perceived, and it is more and more recognised that, in this country at least, railways are and must ever be the chief highways of traffic, and therefore should be, like all other highways, free to all who require to use them. Free highways should ever be found in the country of a free people. What do the words “free highways” mean? They mean that the person who uses the highway should not have to pay toll every time he uses it; that no one should be able to say to us, “Before you walk or ride or drive or carry your goods on this road you must pay toll.” Now, all this is quite plain and easy to understand when applied to an ordinary road in the country, or to a street or lane in a town; but how does it apply to a railway? I think it is not difficult to make it plain. When any one uses an ordinary road, he either walks
or provides himself with an animal or a carriage of some sort by which he may be conveyed to the place at which he wishes to arrive. It matters not whether he uses a conveyance of his own or hires one for the journey, the transit is effected at his own expense either of labour or money; but the road along which he travels is free—it has been provided for him by the officers of the State, who are appointed and provided with public funds for that special purpose. It matters not whether they are Road Boards, Town or City or County Councils, or Commissioners, or officers of the General Government, their work is public work carried out with public funds, and for the use of every individual of the community.
How, then, is it with a railway? The only difference is that which the nature of the railway traffic renders necessary. There is absolutely no difference in principle. The user must still pay for the cost of transit of himself and his goods, but the road must be free.
Railway transit, from its very nature, must always be carried on under a special system of management. The iron road cannot possibly be used in the same manner as the ordinary road. The propelling force, whether steam, electricity, or hydrocarbon, requires special engines and skilled drivers; the carriages, whether for passengers or goods, must be specially constructed; and everything connected with the traffic must be specially devised and directed in perfect order for the safety and convenience of those who use the road. For these reasons, no such private use of the road can be permitted as that which is the universal rule of the common road. It follows, therefore, that the cost of the rolling-stock and station-buildings, as well as the current expenditure of every kind necessarily incurred in carrying on the traffic, must be provided by the payments of those who use the road, and to this end such fares and rates of freight must be charged as will amply cover all such expenditure, but not more.
To put it shortly, then, there should be a complete separation in the railway accounts between the cost of forming and maintaining the line and that of the traffic over the line. The cost of the line or public highway should be paid by the owner —that is, the whole people, under the name of the State; and the cost of the traffic by the user—that is, every one who travels or has goods carried upon the line. It seems to me that when the time comes that the true idea of the railroad as the chief highway of the nation shall be generally accepted, as I think it will, there ought not to be more difficulty in carrying it out than there is now with all other highways.
It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss the question of management, but it seems to me obvious that it must necessarily be entirely independent of what is known as
political control—a species of private ownership of the worst kind—and must be intrusted to the very best and most competent experts obtainable. There is every reason to expect that the removal of the toll now exacted from every one in the high fares at present payable would result in a great increase of prosperity in the settled districts of the country, and that the opening-up and beneficial settlement of new districts by judicious railway extension would tend to lighten the burden of taxation by increasing the number of those who bear it.
I have purposely avoided any attempt to estimate the possible reduction in railway charges if the principle of payment for carriage only were adopted, but there is no doubt that it would be considerable, and would tend largely to increase the traffic, to the great benefit of the whole community.
My desire is to concentrate attention upon, and to obtain a calm and reasonable consideration of, the principle I have now endeavoured to set forth, not only by those who are now present, but by all thoughtful people throughout the country.