Hyndman November 1916

The Railway Problem Solved


Source: Nineteenth Century and After, November 1916, pp. 1023-1039;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


In the August number of The Nineteenth Century and After Mr. Pratt enters upon an elaborate criticism of my February article in this Review entitled ‘The National Railways after the War’. His whole paper.[1] is a defence of the railway companies of Great Britain, and he gives a number of statistics, purporting to correct the figures which I had cited to show how incompetent our present railway system is. I shall have no difficulty in showing that my statements were perfectly correct, and that I have even underestimated the waste which is inevitable, as railway traffic is conducted to-day in this island. But I have a much more serious object in view than merely to refute Mr. Pratt’s criticisms. The nationalisation of railways is one of the most important questions of the day, and anything which helps to bring about this great reform is of immediate interest to the country as a whole. I therefore deal first with the general principle involved.

All great monopolies die very hard. Such important vested interests grow up around them, and they obtain so much direct or indirect political influence, that the difficulty of doing away with them, or even of controlling them, is enormous. Naturally, also, the longer such monopolies exist the harder it is to combat them to the public advantage. Government by party cannot be relied upon, in ordinary times, to make head against well-organised private, or company, ownership of the means of production and distribution necessary to the well-being of the nation at large. In such matters party lines are obliterated, so far as those who advocate the maintenance of the monopoly are concerned. The representatives of the system attacked adapt their methods of defence to the politics of the time. Unless the world generally is completely deluded, the secret funds of both parties in the United Kingdom have been largely subscribed by corporations, as well as by individuals, who desire to use political influence in order to further their own interests or personal ambitions.

One of the leading managers of the Standard Oil Company in the United States, in the course of his examination before a committee appointed to look into the affairs of that vast trust, admitted quite frankly that in a Democratic State the politics of his company were Democratic: in a Republican State they were Republican. The representatives of the Standard Oil, that is to say, regarded mere political issues solely from the point of view of how much use could be made of this or that dominant faction to further their own pecuniary ends.

I do not say that Liberal or Unionist M.P.s, who are directors or shareholders in British railways, take quite so cynical a view as this of their duties towards the community. But it is very unlikely that any great reform, involving a large expenditure of money, would receive active support from the railway members on either side of the Speaker’s Chair. Nor would it make much difference, in that respect, whether the proposed improvement would save the lives and limbs of the men employed by the railway companies, or tend to the better organisation and cheapening of transport generally. Experience, in fact, tells us that the railway interest in Parliament is extremely conservative, not to say reactionary. This is not to impute exceptional turpitude to the politicians who thus behave. They are simply easy-going, indifferent men of the world, who are quite content with things as they are, and don’t want to be bothered with fresh ideas, or new-fangled devices, no matter how advantageous their acceptance and application might be to their own employees, or to the public generally.

Similarly, touching the Board of Trade.[2] The officials of that Board, like the officials of other Government Departments, constitute a permanent bureaucracy. They hold a perpetual brief in favour of their own capacity. They hold, also, well-paid easy positions. Being quite satisfied with things as they are, how can we expect them to lend their aid to any proposal which may give them a great deal of extra trouble without any increase of salary? The bureaucrats, free from all direct personal criticism, have at their disposal a politician of influence, who knows, as a rule, nothing whatever about the detail workings of the department of which he is the nominal head. This ‘statesman’ duly repeats what he is told to say by his subordinates, who, possessed of that bigoted esprit de bureau which has had such terrible effects in relation to the Declaration of London in the Foreign Office, carry on the same system, year by year, Ministry by Ministry, and consider any agitation from without as an insult to their department. Moreover, no politician, however clever, can fail to be at the mercy of the permanent staff for many a long day after his appointment as its chief. Only a really able man, such as Sir James Graham, or Lord Palmerston, dares to admit this obvious truth. And the tradition of political life is to declare that the permanent officials, who get matters all their own way, are persons of super-eminent sagacity. Mr. Asquith only followed the usual course in this respect, when he gave his personal assurance as to the ability and character of the Board of Trade officials, and stated that the railways, ‘controlled’ by his own administration, had been marvellously well managed during the War. How far this collective self-praise was justified will appear below.

Lastly, in dealing with the railways themselves, we have the boards of directors, with their engineers, traffic managers, etc. Now when the railway system was first introduced by George Stephenson, in the face of the most virulent opposition from the reactionists of his day, it was universally believed that the railways would be run upon competitive principles. Individual traders and companies would be able, in some manner not specified, to use the tracks laid down for the conveyance of their own goods. That illusion was soon dispelled, and nowadays the railway companies themselves make no pretence of competing with one another. As a rule they combine against the public. They impose, subject only to very slight Government interference, such rates of freight as the traffic will bear. There is no public spirit in them. They would no doubt ask, in all good faith, if reproached on that head, why should there be? They claim that they are earning comparatively low interest upon the capital embarked in their various enterprises, and that they are, therefore, serving the nation in the matter of transport at small cost. On the other hand, it is proved, by their own none too trustworthy statistics, that foreign railways are doing similar work at much lower cost. It is, also, beyond question that they are exceedingly slow to adopt any improvement, either for passenger or freight traffic, even when its advantages have been established beyond dispute in other countries.

This has been conclusively shown in three most important matters:

The Westinghouse Brake. – The value of this brake in railway service need not now be discussed. It is universally admitted. But it took many years to introduce it in Great Britain; though in the United States of America its safety and efficiency were the subject of unceasing praise, and, on a Scotch railway with exceedingly awkward gradients, its importance had been long established. Every possible obstacle was put in the way of the adoption of this great invention, and even when the reform could be no longer resisted one of the greatest English lines preferred an inferior brake, which obtained the licence of the Board of Trade.

Sleeping Cars. – A full generation passed before English railway companies would admit that these cars were not only convenient for passengers, but profitable directly and indirectly to themselves. Friends of mine, who had been struck with their utility in the United States, made an attractive proposition to two of the great railway companies, offering to place Pullman cars on their main routes on most favourable terms, the cost of haulage and every kind of service being amply paid for by themselves. They were laughed at, though they happened to be wealthier and more successful men than the railway directors who derided them.

Automatic Couplings. – These, it is admitted, are used advantageously in America. They were adopted not only because they saved the lives and the limbs of the men who were employed in shunting, but also because they avoided much damage to the wagons during the shunting operations.

At page 402 of his article Mr. Pratt gives a series of figures from the Board of Trade Blue Books in order to show that my statement as to the losses of railway servants in killed and wounded on British railways during shunting operations is absurdly exaggerated. Thus the highest number of killed according to Mr. Pratt in any year between 1904 and 1914 is eighteen, and the greatest number of wounded is 737; both in the same year, 1907. But at page 8 of the Board of Trade Return for 1915 I find that no fewer than 106 railway servants were killed and 2751 injured by ‘accidents occurring during shunting operations.’ Let it be borne in mind that this discrimination ‘during shunting operations’ excludes all accidents incidental to those operations. The preventable accidents which may justly be put down as directly due to the present chaotic system of managing traffic are 398 killed and 4937 injured. In another part of the Return (p.13) an additional 21,000 injured servants of railway companies are given as having been wounded in the course of their duties during the year. I really do not see what Mr. Pratt hoped to gain by such a strange representation of the real number of men sacrificed by the railway companies.

It is the opinion of the majority of those who belong to the class which does the work and suffers immolation that the adoption of automatic couplings would, as in America, do away almost entirely with this particular form of danger to life and limb To state that there is no mechanical or electric means for uncoupling without running an additional risk does not answer the contention of railway reformers on this head at all. There are several appliances already available which meet this objection completely. Even if there were not, uncoupling is obviously not nearly so dangerous an operation as coupling; seeing that in the first case the wagons are being separated and removed from the shunter engaged upon the line: in the second case they are being driven right at him. The real reason why automatic couplings have not long ago been adopted on English railways is the cost of their application. This, I understand, is estimated at 13,000,000 on all the wagons used. Mr. Pratt, the special advocate of the companies, does not refer to the question of cost at all, though he must be well aware that this would tell more than anything else against the adoption of the improved method of connecting wagons, no matter how perfect the appliance itself might be. Money counts for more than lives on the railways, as in many other departments of English industry.

It is not necessary to argue this particular point any further here. If the Central Goods Clearing House is speedily adopted the dangerous and wasteful plan of shunting will be done away with almost entirely.

Clearly, however, all those who, at the present time, are denouncing the mismanagement of British railways, and demanding nationalisation, accompanied by complete reorganisation, with the adoption of absolutely necessary reforms and improvements, carry on their agitation at very great disadvantage. The enemy to the prosperity of British trade has three strong lines of trenches, already constructed, and admirably equipped, not only to resist all real progress, but calculated to give their defenders the opportunity of making matters still worse than they are to-day. These are Parliament, the Board of Trade, and the railway directors themselves, who, coming behind the other two, greatly strengthen their own power of resistance by the obstacles which have first to be overcome. As I said in my article on ‘The National Railways after the War,’[3] the War proved at once that the railway companies, to be effectively used for national purposes, must be placed under national control. This was, or ought to have been, a long step towards complete railway nationalisation, on a basis which should greatly benefit the whole country.

Unfortunately, in this as in many other matters during the War, our Government only entered upon an ineffective compromise. They secured the shareholders entirely from loss, and they interfered very seriously indeed with the convenience of the public in every way. But little or nothing was done even to co-ordinate the management of the different companies. The result, in some respects, was a chaos, which, even yet, after more than two years’ experience, has not been reduced to order. Thus when the railways were first controlled by Mr. Asquith’s administration for the transport of war material, food, etc., for our armies at home and abroad, an important committee, of which I am a member, representing all the trade unions, co-operative societies, and Socialist bodies in Great Britain, at once suggested that the whole of the wagons belonging to the various railway companies should be ‘pooled.’ That is to say, we urged that the whole waste of time and labour involved in treating the wagons of the different companies as if each company represented a separate and possibly hostile interest should at once be avoided, by dealing with all these wagons as if they belonged to one great organisation. Nothing was done. Months upon months passed by, and I believe, even now, not more than three of the companies have arranged to handle their respective freight rolling-stock as if they were held in joint interest. Can anything be more absurd or more fatuous than to continue the old chaotic system of hauling empty trucks hither and thither, in order that the old company distinctions should be carefully maintained? This, too, at a time when everything depended upon the simplification of the whole system of transport?

Was Mr. Asquith aware, also, when he gave his certificate of eminent competence to the railway companies, that it had taken as much as five weeks to deliver by railway war munitions from Liverpool to London?

Could he have examined into the inordinate percentage of breakages which were the despair of the men who had to unload the railway wagons at the ports of reshipment? I judge not.

What sort of management is that, likewise, which cumbered up the London sidings with masses of coal trucks, immobilised and almost ‘ungetatable,’ to such an extent that the London County Council was in desperate straits to provide the coal imperatively needed in the depth of winter for the children’s schools? This was before difficulties of cartage arose, and was due in the main to the hopeless methods of conducting terminal traffic to which I referred in my article. The railway companies and the Board of Trade between them made a complete mess of the whole thing; and London, the poor of London more especially, had to suffer great privation on that account. I saw all this myself very close at hand.

Mr. Pratt, no doubt, has a perfect right to quote Mr. Asquith on the side of the companies and the Board of Trade. But, as a common Englishman, I also have a perfect right to dispute the Prime Minister’s competence to award praise or blame in this matter of railway management (of which he has no special knowledge) at a time when he had an endless number of other affairs to consider and decide. Certainly, facts such as those which I cite above would hardly lead any unprejudiced person to accept the estimate of the Premier and Mr. Pratt upon the intelligence and public usefulness of the railway companies as at present managed.[4]

But we have here a dilemma, one horn of which must transfix the apologists for the British railways and their directors. If by partial Government control this great monopoly has suddenly become so efficient as they (backed by Mr. Asquith) declare it to be, then, manifestly, it would never do to return the railways after the War to the companies, whose previous record was far from being satisfactory. The road is, in fact, at once clear to full nationalisation of railways. If, on the other hand, as I contend, this partial Government control has by no means eliminated the costly and mischievous muddling, which has rendered British railways a most pernicious system of protection in favour of foreign competitors, then, likewise, all must recognise that transport ought to be created a branch of the new national service, as a necessary part of our national reorganisation of industry. Is that clear?

Now, believing that neither the railway companies nor the Board of Trade (which is so strongly denounced by competent authorities for aiding and abetting their malfeasance) should be put in control of the railways, as a national organisation of transport, I looked round for some suggestion which would meet this very difficult case. Then I came across Mr. Whateley Arnold’s proposal that the public interest would best be served, in every way, by bringing the railways, as a national service, into direct connexion with the Post Office. In spite of its serious mistakes about the telegraphs and telephones, and its ugly habit of sweating subordinate employees, the Post Office has on the whole a good record. The traditions of the department are in favour of honesty and respect for public interests. Mr. Henniker Heaton, no doubt, had a great deal of trouble in carrying the important reforms associated with his name. That I admit. But I think he would have experienced even more difficulty elsewhere.

I therefore still adhere to the view that, in the thorough railway reorganisation which must come as rapidly as possible, the Board of Trade, which has no useful centres in every city, town, and village such as the Post Office possesses, should be put aside in this matter. The Post Office, assisted by some trustworthy outside agency, publicly selected, should undertake the task of organising railway nationalisation, simplifying railway rates, and working towards the establishment of transport at cost, or free transport. This alone would put our country, whether as a competitive or as a co-operative community, in a totally different position from that which it occupies to-day. Such a transfer of the national freight and passenger business to a competent public department, with accounts publicly audited, would call for a severe scrutiny of the present railway accounts; would at once bring about great economies; and would, if public attention were carefully directed to the administration and working of the entire machine, sweep away those obnoxious methods of exerting political and pecuniary influence which at present hamper all progress.

To go on as we are going means nothing short of national ruin, whether we adhere to the competitive, or go forward to the co-operative, principle in industry. Whatever Mr. Pratt may allege in favour of his clients, that is beyond dispute. At present, according to his own showing, London alone is more and more cumbered with its own increasing traffic and the growing difficulty of handling business within the limits of space and the costs of extension possible. But that is the whole point. As the late Mr. J.J. Hill, the American railway magnate, truly said: ‘Transport is being strangled by its own increase’.

The expenditure on English railways is increasing out of proportion to the great growth of their traffic. That is the truth. There must be something very wrong at the basis of the entire system of transport for this to be the case. There is. Other countries, including the United States, are suffering from similar congestion from the like causes. But no European nation is so badly off as we are. That, too, is indisputable. Look at these figures which are not to be found in Mr. Pratt’s criticism of my article. They show the charge for transporting a ton per mile in European nations:

United Kingdom 1.192

France 0 726

Germany 0.637

Holland 0.590

Norway 0 867

Denmark 0.956

These calculations are set out from the statistics prepared by Mr. Slason Thompson, Secretary of the Railway Managers’ Association of Chicago, and are quoted here from Mr. Roy Horniman’s book just published on How to make the Railways pay for the War. I believe they considerably understate the overcharge on the English railways. Certain it is, at any rate, that, some years ago, before the English railway companies had been exempted by the Board of Trade from publishing the actual cost of transporting goods of all kinds per ton per mile, I showed, in my evidence before the Royal Commission on Labour, that it cost the great English companies four or five times more to haul a ton of goods a mile, with equal break of bulk, than it did the Pennsylvania Railway or the Norfolk and Western Railway. The cost of haulage on the American lines has increased since then; but the English railways are still far behind these companies in cheapness of actual cost of freight.[5] When, therefore, I stated in my article that our railway system constituted a heavy protection in favour of the foreigner, I might fairly have rested my case on these facts and figures alone. I observe, however, my critic does not dispute that, by differential rates in favour of through traffic of chilled meat, fruit, etc., the British farmer has been put at a great disadvantage in competing in our own cities with the foreign grower.

But this is not all. The British railways are already very costly to the public. They are becoming still more costly by consent of the Board of. Trade. Before the War they were allowed to raise their rates of freight, on the ground that the rise in the cost of labour, of material, and of taxation necessitated the change. As a matter of fact, wages before the War had slightly fallen in proportion to the development of profitable traffic. The cost of all the principal materials used on railways had been very considerably reduced. Thus steel rails are nowadays cheaper per ton than the old iron rails and last much longer. It has even been stated that a decrease has occurred in the expenditure on rails of 80,000,000 within a few years. Locomotives have increased in efficiency from 15 to 25 per cent., and in tractive power as much as 97 per cent.[6] Coal shows a considerable saving as compared with the results obtained. It is the same in every direction. Taxation does not even infinitesimally balance these great reductions of cost in other directions. In fact, the Government has been completely misled. The railway companies demanded the right to charge the country more for their already excessively overpaid services; not because their own costs had increased, but because their whole system of transport is belated, inefficient, and seriously harmful to the national industry in every direction.

My argument, therefore, so far, amounts to the following contentions:

(1) That the great monopoly of national transport ought to be removed from the hands of private companies, whose interests are not those of the nation at large.

(2) That the Government, by taking control of the railways for public purposes immediately upon the declaration of war, took also the first step towards a co-ordination of the chaotic system previously in vogue.

(3) That the Government did not go nearly far enough in the matter of reorganisation, since they still deal with wagons under almost as many managements as there are companies, instead of under one management. That the praise bestowed upon this half-and-half National administration has been almost wholly undeserved, seeing that public interest has been quite unnecessarily sacrificed, both in regard to war transport and ordinary commercial needs.

(4) That the railway companies of Great Britain are more expensive than those of other countries; they still adhere to differential rates in favour of foreign produce; and have lately, on wholly false grounds, obtained an increase on the rates of freight previously charged.

(5) That the railway companies are extremely slow to adopt any improvements for the public advantage, or to protect their own servants, and that they are now drifting into almost hopeless confusion in dealing with their traffic.

(6) That it would be a retrograde and reactionary step on the part of the Government to return the railways after the War to the control and management of the companies themselves.

(7) That a thorough system of railway nationalisation should forthwith be formulated and set on foot, in order that we may be able to cope partially with the difficulties arising from inferior transport after the war.

(8) That this should be undertaken by a small, independent committee of capable men, committed to railway nationalisation, representing the railway servants and the trading community, with full powers to put in force their recommendations.

(9) That the Post Office be consulted with a view to using its present organisation, local centres, and wide experience in the co-ordination of a complete national system of freight and passenger traffic.

(10) That the accounts of the present railway companies be examined by independent accountants having power to call and question witnesses on oath either from the companies, the Board of Trade, or the general public.

(11) That the Railway Nationalisation Committee be empowered to inquire into and report upon any important improvements in national transport which are now available and are being kept back for any reason.

(12) That any agreement for the payment of permanent interest upon the capital of the railways, or for the Government purchase of the railways from the debenture and shareholders, be postponed until a thorough investigation of present costs, charges, contracts, etc., has been carried out.

(13) That the Board of Trade shall have no direct influence on the investigation, examination, or reorganisation, except in the way of furnishing figures to the Committee and giving official evidence if called for.

(14) That every effort should be made to introduce free transport of goods, or at least transport at cost, as a portion of the general reorganisation of British industries.

I now proceed to deal with Mr. Pratt’s criticisms of the statistics in my article, with regard to the ruinous immobilisation of railway wagons and the stupendous waste of locomotive power under the present system. This necessarily brings me to further consideration of the scheme for a great Central Clearing House for goods traffic in London and other commercial centres, in order to obviate the fatal block of traffic, which is becoming worse and worse every day, and affects not only carriage by railway, but also obstructs and endangers all urban traffic, especially in this metropolis.

Says Mr. Pratt: ‘That so distinguished a Socialist as Mr. H.M. Hyndman should become a champion of this essentially capitalistic scheme has been the occasion for no slight degree of surprise.’ Why? We are not yet living under Socialism, and so long as capitalism lasts Socialists themselves cannot possibly escape from it. They are living in the profiteering period. All they can do is to work in that period to the best of their ability, and to do their utmost to transform society, peacefully if possible, from a competitive to a co-operative system. I could have taken a personal and pecuniary interest in Mr. Gattie’s New Transport Company, and no sane Socialist would have thought of blaming me. But, since it is most important that Mr. Gattie’s great reform, or even revolution, in transport should be acquired by the community at the lowest possible price for the general benefit, I decided to argue for the adoption of the project quite independently of personal gain, and I have no direct or indirect concern in the success of the company.

When the Government took control of the railways at the beginning of the War I was convinced that the question of railway nationalisation, which I had advocated for forty years, would very speedily become an important element in the inevitable reorganisation which must follow upon the conclusion of peace. I therefore was at some pains to discover whether there was any serious proposal which would reduce the cost of transport considerably and bring order out of our existing chaos. My attention. was called to Mr. Gattie’s Central Clearing House. I read all the literature obtainable on the subject. I went to Battersea, examined the model installation there, and was convinced of the practicability and value of the scheme. I found that men of distinction and thorough practical experience such as Signor Marconi, the late Professor Ayrton, Mr. Edgar Harper, the late Sir William Preece, Mr. J.H. Wicksteed, Dr. H.S. Hele-Shaw, as well as railway managers, English, Anglo-Indian, and foreign, were not only greatly impressed with the value and promise of the plan but several of them had directly associated themselves with the enterprise. I also discovered that its opponents had never taken the pains to investigate the principles of the invention, or to examine into the possibility of its immediate and practical application. Furthermore, I learned that Mr. Gattie’s claims as to the cost of the installation of his Clearing House, and its vast economies when established, had never been seriously challenged, either by the railway companies, or by the Board of Trade, or by any person of authority. Those claims, which I prefer to divorce entirely from the profits that might be realised either by the railway companies or by the New Transport Company, are as follows:

(a) That the total cost of the establishment of a completely equipped central goods clearing house with all necessary railway tunnels, roads, approaches, clearings, cost of rehousing of displaced population, etc., would not exceed 14,000,000 according to the estimates of Mr. Edgar Harper, Chief Valuer of the Inland Revenue and late Chief Statistical Officer of the London County Council.

(b) That the total installation would not occupy more than 30 acres of land at Clerkenwell, and that this building, with its electrical and mechanical appliances, would be capable of doing rapidly and effectively more than twice the work now done badly and slowly by the railway companies on 4500 acres of land of great value in the heart of London and environs.

(c) That the application of the scheme to the United Kingdom would effect, in terms of money, an economy of 200,000,000 a year in the cost of home transport generally.

(d) That it would reduce the numbers of commercial vehicles used on the streets of London from 100,000 to less than 10,000, with all the enormous advantages to traffic and foot passengers which would thence follow.

(e) That it would practically eliminate shunting and thus do away with great loss of life and limb as well as render unnecessary 90 per cent. of the existing wagons and 70 per cent. of the present locomotives.

(f) That the present goods depots in London number seventy-four, and that, apart from the great area they uselessly occupy, they employ no fewer than 700 goods trains daily in carrying freight from one of these goods stations to another; all which useless work would be done away with by the adoption of Mr. Gattie’s scheme.

(g) That the value of the land made available by the removal of these depots, etc., would alone realise by sale at least 45,000,000; that consequently the installation would pay for itself, by this item alone, more than three times over.

These are the claims which Mr. Pratt, in opposition to the eminent persons named above as supporters of the scheme, has taken it upon himself to rebut. In his endeavour to do this he deals especially with Mr. Gattie’s calculations upon the incredible waste of the present railway companies in the matter of wagons. It may be noted that even Mr. Pratt allows that ‘in connexion with traders’ wagons prolonged delays do admittedly occur.’ I should think they do! But there is no need whatever to take advantage of this admission. The following clear statistics put the actual position beyond all question:

The number of wagons owned by the railway companies as by the

Board of Trade Returns for 1913, p.97 760,746

The number of wagons privately owned are given by the Board

of Trade, in a letter to a well-known director of the New Transport

Company, as ‘a similar number’ 760,746

Number of wagons hired by the railway companies but the figures

not disclosed by the Board of Trade, assumed at 78,508

Say, total wagons 1,600,000

There has always been difficulty in obtaining accurate statistics from the Board of Trade of the actual number of wagons used on the railways. I prefer, therefore, in order to leave the opponents of reform no loophole for further criticism, to put aside the total of the hired wagons altogether and to reduce the private wagons to 650,000, or a deduction of nearly 200,000 wagons from what are believed to be the true figures. We have thus certainly more than 1,400,000 wagons in regular use on the British railways. These 1,400,000 wagons, according to the Board of Trade Railway Returns, 1913, p. xvi., including livestock of all kinds (23,544,000) carry 377,000,000 tons in the year, working 365 days in the twelve months.

Thus we have 1,400,000 wagons hauling 377,000,000 tons of freight in the course of 365 days.

Consequently, dividing 377,000,000 by 1,400,000, we find that, in round figures, each wagon hauls 270 tons of freight per annum.

Again, dividing 270 tons per wagon by the 365 days in the year we arrive at the fact that each wagon hauls each day a freight of 270/365ths of a ton, or an average of 15 cwt. a day.

But how far on the average does it haul this very small average weight?

According to Sir George Paish, who has the credit of being an exceedingly cautious man in matters of statistics, the average length of a goods train is twenty-five wagons.

Splitting up the 1,400,000 wagons into trains of twenty-five wagons each there are no fewer than 56,000 such goods trains, and the Board of Trade Blue Book gives the total of train miles covered by goods trains in the year at 140,449,000, including pilot trips.[7] Deducting an estimated mileage of 34,535,000 for these pilot trips we have as the bona-fide train miles run in the year 105,914,000 train miles.

105,914,000 divided by the 56,000 trains shows that each train of twenty-five wagons travelled 1890 miles in the year, or a little over 5.2 miles a day. That is to say, each wagon of the whole 1,400,000 travels 5.2 miles a day. And as shown above it transports that distance no more than 15 cwt. But the real average freight carried in a railway wagon is not 15 cwt. but 6 tons. The average distance traversed by a laden wagon in the day, consequently, according to these official figures, will be one-eighth of 5.2 miles, or considerably less (13/20ths) than three-quarters of a mile per twenty-four hours.

How long does it take to accomplish this distance? The average speed given in the working time-tables of the railway companies for goods trains is twenty miles an hour. At this rate the laden wagon will be in movement on the line not more than 21 minutes out of twenty-four hours. It will be mobilised therefore much less than one-half of 1 per cent. of its life, in the proportion that 21 minutes in the day bears to the whole 1440 minutes comprised in the twenty-four hours.

If I adopt Sir George Paish’s estimate and assume that the goods wagon travels with an average load not of 6 tons but 3.4 tons, then the relation which 15 cwt. bears to 3.4 tons must be taken instead of the relation of that weight to 6 tons. The average distance travelled by a wagon in the day will then be about a mile and one-fifth in the twenty-four hours instead of three-quarters of a mile.

That distance would be traversed in about three minutes and a half out of the 1440 minutes in the whole day.

Thus Mr. Gattie’s statement, which I fathered in my article and exhibited in the diagram, that a railway wagon was in active movement, engaged upon hauling freight, for only one-half of 1 per cent. of its existence, was a very generous calculation. The actual figure is probably not more than a quarter per cent. The statistics and the diagram were too favourable to the management of the companies.

It is very easy for Mr. Pratt to declare that the figure originally set out by Mr. Gattie is ‘absurd.’ It is absurd, but not in the sense which Mr. Pratt meant. It is nothing short of national idiocy that such a hideous muddle of goods transport, essential to the industrial life of the country, should be allowed to go on. Tens of millions sterling a year are wasted by the present fatal system of dealing with goods traffic on British railways, and progress is hampered in every direction. The facts that I am a Social-Democrat, and that I have no personal experience of railway management, do not in the least affect the correctness of the figures given above; nor do they weaken the deductions, which, those figures being correct, must inevitably be drawn from them by all who look carefully and honestly into this crucially important subject.

I now turn to Mr. Pratt’s criticism of the statistics given by me (but admittedly derived from Mr. Gattie) in relation to the terrible waste of locomotive power on British railways. Here, again, it will be found that, whatever be the merits of Mr. Gattie’s own plan for organising the existing railway chaos, he has understated rather than overstated the case against the railway companies and their mismanagement of their business.. I shall not, however, give the figures in this instance so fully as in relation to the wagons. They are, of course, taken, as were the former, from the official statistics. The figures given are those for 1907, as the number of hours during which the engine-drivers are employed are not given for any later date.

The number of steam locomotives and steam rail motors in that year was 22,551. The number of engine-drivers employed was 26,452. The number of hours they are upon duty in the week average 70.72 for each driver. The total number of steam train miles is given at 412,152,267.

Multiplying the number of engine-drivers by the number of hours they are employed for fifty-two weeks we find that the number of actual hours which the 26,452 men are in active work on duty amounts to close upon 100,000,000 train hours in the course of the year. Their engines, therefore, run at the rate of no more than four miles an hour on an average. But the average speed of a locomotive in ordinary haulage work is not less than twenty miles an hour. What becomes of the other sixteen miles?

This calculation shows that less than one-fifth of the locomotive work under the engine-drivers’ control is devoted to haulage. That is to say, the 81 per cent, of wasted locomotive energy given in my article of February is an understatement of the truth.

But the same facts can be arrived at in another way.

According to the Board of Trade Returns 1913 (p.97) the number of locomotives in the United Kingdom is 24,635.

Mr. J. H. Thomas, M.P., who was himself an engine-driver, has estimated that a locomotive should travel on the line during the year 250 train miles per day for passenger trains and 160 miles per day for goods trains, on the average.

At this rate it would require not more than 2751 locomotives to do the whole of the 250,996,912 miles travelled by steam passenger trains in a year in the United Kingdom (electric trains not being included).

On the same basis it would need only 2177 locomotives to haul the 127,149,409 goods train miles, arrived at after deducting from the official figures 34,535,000 for estimated pilot trips.

Together, therefore, there would be only 4928 locomotives dealing with the traffic and 19,707 locomotives engaged in shunting or doing nothing.

Less than one-eighth of the shunting miles are passenger miles, so that only one-eighth of the locomotives engaged in this work are occupied on passenger work. One-eighth of 19,707 locomotives consequently, or 2,463 locomotives, are engaged on passenger shunting and 17,244 locomotives on goods shunting.[8]

That is to say, the locomotives used in goods haulage represent 10 per cent. of the locomotives employed, and the shunting calls for the remaining 90 per cent. Yet Mr. Pratt has the assurance to express surprise because I, following Mr. Gattie, put the amount of locomotive energy expended in shunting at 811/2 per cent.

The truth is that railway directors, managers, and their advocates have either never looked at the matter of the economy of locomotive haulage at all from the point of view of power utterly wasted; or, knowing the facts, and not being able to see any way to remedy them, they have carefully refrained from publishing any analysis which might reflect upon their own capacity.

This statement applies, of course, both to the almost incredible waste of wagons, and the space which they uselessly occupy at vast cost, as well as to the locomotives whose enormous haulage value is thus frittered away. The loss inflicted upon the public by excessively dear and slow work can scarcely be estimated fully in money. It will never be stanched so long as the present system is kept up.

As against all this woeful mismanagement, which is getting worse and more costly, instead of better and cheaper, as years go by, it is claimed that, working at full power, the Central Goods Clearing House could unload and reload four goods trains simultaneously in four minutes. This without any shunting being needed Similar work to-day of unloading and reloading a train averages seventeen hours, the minimum time required being three hours.[9]

I hold no brief whatever for Mr. Gattie’s scheme or the New Transport Company. If there are serious defects in the proposed plan, the sooner they are exposed and remedied by capable independent authorities the better shall I be pleased. But I have satisfied myself that we have here the real solution of the increasingly difficult and complicated problem of the congestion of goods traffic and the consequent desperately inefficient service on the railways, and in the streets of our great cities. Naturally, therefore, at a time when this nation is being forced, under pain of general industrial and financial ruin, to reorganise its methods of production and distribution on a scientific basis, I am anxious that this magnificent project should come as soon as possible into the hands of capable administrators and be owned and controlled by the community at large. It would be a great misfortune indeed if jealousy, prejudice, or ignorance were to delay its adoption, and I should regret to see it remain in private hands or that it should be used for private advantage. Promptly investigated and capably administered, I am confident it will supply the much-needed solution of the problem of internal transport, and lift a heavy weight off our whole national industrial life.

H.M. Hyndman


1. “Railways and their Critics,” by Edwin A. Pratt, Nineteenth Century and After, August 1916.

2. The Board of Trade is a Government Department which calls for a most drastic overhaul. The manner in which its permanent officials sacrificed the lives of British seamen, by raising the load line on old vessels, in the interest of British shipowners, is one of the worst performances of officialdom in our records. Much that Samuel Plimsoll had gained for our sailors, firemen, stewards, & c., was swept aside at a stroke. The matter was never brought before Parliament for confirmation. All along the waterside protest after protest was put in. Meetings after meetings were held, many of which I addressed. They were unanimous. But the permanent officials, controlling their political chiefs, as usual, prevented any interference with their own fatal enactment, even after denunciation of the measure from the Bench as the cause of loss of life. It was shown that British shipowners were saved an expenditure of some 8,000,000 on new vessels by this official permission to overload the old craft.

3. Nineteenth Century and After, February 1916.

4. On December 31, 1915, The Times spoke of ‘the inadequate facilities afforded by the railway companies for the handling and carriage of goods and the consequent unexampled congestion of traffic. . Grave complaint is made of the difficulty in getting merchandise from the manufacturing districts to the ports, with the result that ships have often to sail for foreign ports only half-laden. The railway companies are said to be deaf to all remonstrances. As they are guaranteed their dividends by the Government during the War they can afford – the trading community contend – to take things easy.’ Since then I understand matters have gone from bad to worse.

5. At p.406 of his article Mr. Pratt writes: ‘A detailed comparison of the rates for ordinary merchandise – [what is “ordinary merchandise"?] carried for an average distance, in this country, with corresponding average rates in the United States, has shown that, under these conditions the English work out lower than the American.’ This statement should surely have been accompanied by figures. American railways have great drawbacks in the matter of haulage, but I never before heard it disputed that their ton-mile cost is less than that on English railways.

6. The locomotive is the greatest money-earning machine ever invented, and at the present time it hardly earns its upkeep. The locomotive has been in use for over seventy years, but only a mere fraction of the advantage to be derived from its vast powers has been realised.... It is a machine which, under favourable circumstances, can haul one ton of goods one hundred miles for a penny. The actual average cost paid for that service is 16s – 192 pence.’

Full statistics showing the utter baselessness of the claim of the companies to charge higher freight rates on the ground of the increased cost of labour and material and increased taxation before the War are given in Mr. Murray’s book The Railway Swindle, and more in detail in Mr. Roy Horniman’s book How to make the Railways pay for the War, recently issued by Messrs. Routledge

7. Returns, p. xiv

8. Of course, I am well aware that there are locomotive engines which devote the whole of their working time to shunting. But, in addition to this, passenger locomotives, to a small extent, and goods locomotives, to a large extent, are employed on shunting. This is sheer waste in every way.

9. The only serious objection to the Central Goods Clearing House for London I have heard, since the matter has been discussed in The Nineteenth Century and After, is that a concentration of railway goods traffic at one spot must inevitably occasion a succession of blocks on the roads in the neighbourhood. This view of the matter was put to me by Mr. Bellamy of the National Union of Railwaymen. The difficulty has been carefully considered and dealt with. First by providing sufficiently wide approaches from all sides for the reception and delivery of the goods. Secondly, by the central and subsidiary arrangements of the whole system. Obviously, blocks in traffic are occasioned by general insufficiency of mobility. They would inevitably arise before and after the arrival and departure of the goods at the Clearing House, unless this defect were foreseen and remedied. But already it is apparent that the introduction of motor omnibuses, motor lorries, and taxis has tended to reduce greatly the blocks in London streets in proportion to the traffic hauled. The blocks now occasioned are due, in the main, to the continued presence of the old horse-hauled vehicles on a considerable scale. But these latter are rapidly being reduced. By the time the Goods Clearing House is ready they will probably have disappeared altogether. Goods would then be brought up and taken away by efficient motor lorries. Thus traffic mobility would be obtained capable of taking advantage of the great rapidity of action in the Clearing House itself and of doing away with any possibility of blocks on the roads, except in the case of accident. Careful calculations, dealing with an increase of traffic far greater than any yet conceivable, prove to demonstration that no trouble will arise from this cause,