HL Deb 17 July 1846 vol 87 cc1223-9

rose to bring forward the Resolutions with respect to the Gauge question, of which he had formerly given notice. The noble Earl said that he should have brought them forward at an earlier period, had it not been for the late change in the Government; and he then undertook the task in consequence solely of a request to that effect from his noble Friend the President of the Board of Trade (the Earl of Clarendon). As the grounds of those resolutions were very fully stated in the Minute of the Board of Trade presented to that and to the other House of Parliament, and as they were founded on the Report of the Gauge Commissioners, he did not feel it necessary to occupy their Lordships' time at any great length on that occasion. Those resolutions did not refer to the railway system generally, but related exclusively to one point— namely, the question of the gauge on which railways were formed; and the object of the resolutions was to determine the gauge on which existing railways should be permitted to remain, and to establish some regulation with respect to the gauge on which railways at present in the course of construction, or to be hereafter constructed, should be made. He would take that opportunity of observing that the 4 feet 8½ inch gauge, on which the great majority of our railways had been constructed, had not been originally adopted upon any fixed principle, or from any proofs of its superiority, but solely from the accidental circumstance that that was the usual width of the waggons which ran on tram roads at the period when railways were first introduced. At the end of the year 1844 there were in this country about 1,900 miles of railway on the narrow gauge system, and about 300 miles on the broad gauge system. But the question of the break of gauge had not up to that time arisen. At the commencement of the year 1845, however, when the enormous number of about 250 Railway Bills came before Parliament, the question had been raised, and especially with two lines—namely, the line from Oxford to Rugby, and the line from Oxford to Worcester and Wolverhampton. Commissioners were subsequently appointed to inquire into the gauge question. Very strong attacks had been made on the report of these Commissioners, and their judgment and impartiality had been severely impugned. But, after having inquired into the observations made in their report, and the objections urged against it, he felt bound to state, in justice to those Gentlemen, that he entertained the highest opinion not only of the ability and the industry with which they had discharged the difficult task intrusted to them, but of their entire fairness and impartiality. The Commissioners had come to the conclusion that a break of gauge was a very serious evil; and further, that there were no mechanical means of mitigating that evil. They were of opinion, therefore, that a uniformity of gauge was most desirable, and they afterwards proceeded to consider how it might be attained. After having read several extracts from the evidence given before the Commissioners, the noble Earl proceeded to observe that the Report which they had made on this subject had been referred to the department of the late Government to which the consideration of such matters was usually left; and the Board of Trade had accordingly devoted the most serious and anxious intention to so important a subject; and the result of their deliberations was contained in the minutes which their Lordships of the Committee of the Council for Trade had furnished. The Board of Trade had felt, as well as the Commissioners, the full difficulty of this subject of establishing uniformity of gauge; but they had endeavoured to deal with it as well as they could after giving all the circumstances of the case the fullest consideration which they could bestow. They found that it would involve an expense of not less than about one million sterling to alter the existing broad gauge lines to the narrow; and they did not consider it would be fair or just to the broad gauge companies to compel them to incur such an expense, and more especially as these companies had the greatest claims upon the public tenderness, in consequence of the great improvements which they had effected in railway travelling, both with respect to speed and safety. Such a compulsion would be a breach of faith that they could not approve of, seeing that those companies had laid down their works under the sanction of Acts of Parliament; neither could the Board of Trade recommend that the sum should be contributed by the Exchequer, nor by the narrow gauge companies. Either of these three courses would be unjust, or unreasonable, or both. Therefore, as they could not compel the companies at present formed on the broad gauge to change to the narrow, it behoved them to consider how they might best arrange this matter with reference to the railways in course of construction and extension, as well as those that were in existence, or might be hereafter proposed. Some had recommended that the country should be divided into districts, and that the broad gauge should be adopted in one, and the narrow in another. But this course the Board of Trade deemed objectionable, and they had accordingly decided against it; and if the House adopted the resolutions which he had then to propose, and which had already been agreed to by the House of Commons, he thought it would tend much to the public convenience. The noble Earl then proceeded to refer in detail to the circumstances under which the Board of Trade had sanctioned the recommendations conveyed in the resolutions, to which latter he also alluded. One proviso had, in the end of the third resolution, he observed, reference especially to the Manchester and Southampton Bill, which he understood had passed the other House of Parliament. These resolutions, if not followed by a Bill (as some seemed to think they ought, to be operative) carrying out and embodying the spirit they contained, might have the effect of influencing the decisions of Parliament with reference to the drafting of all future Railway Bills, into which clauses in accordance with these resolutions might be inserted. Some of their Lordships might say they ought to have a more grand and comprehensive scheme than the present; that, in carrying out the recommendation of the Commissioners for the establishment of uniformity of gauge, they would do something more extensive; but it appeared to him that these resolutions were of a more practical and useful nature, and he would be satisfied to forego the credit of introducing a grander or more comprehensive system, if he had the satisfaction of inducing their Lordships to adopt that which he believed would be a more just and practical remedy for the arrest of the evils which they all acknowledged existed in the break of gauge in the railway communication of this country. The noble Earl concluded by moving the following Resolutions:—

  1. "1. That it is the Opinion of this House, that no Line of Railway should hereafter be formed on any other than the Four Feet Eight and a Half Inches Gauge, excepting Lines to the South of the existing Line from London to Bristol, and excepting small Branches of a few Miles in Length, in immediate Connexion with the Great Western and South Wales Railways; but that no such Line as above excepted should be sanctioned by Parliament unless a Special Report shall have been made by the Committee on the Bill, setting forth the Reasons which have led the Committee to advise that such a Line should be formed on any other than the Four Feet Eight and a Half Inches Gauge.
  2. "2. That it is the Opinion of this House that Provision should be made by Law to prevent the Directors of any Railway Company from altering the Gauge of such Railway.
  3. "3. That in order to complete the general Chain of Narrow Gauge Communication from the North of England in the Southern Coast, and to the Port of Bristol, any suitable Measure be promoted to form a Narrow Gauge Link from Gloucester to Bristol; and also from Oxford to Basingstoke, or by any shorter Route connecting the proposed Rugby and Oxford Line with the South-Western Railway, without Prejudice, however, to the Formation of any other Line, also connecting upon an uniform Gauge, and by a direct Route, the North of England with the Southern Coast.
  4. "4. That it is the Opinion of this House that it is expedient that the South Wales Line and its Branches to Monmouth and Hereford should be formed on the Broad Gauge.
  5. "5. That it is the Opinion of this House that it is not expedient to alter the provisions of the Acts 1227 for forming a Line of Railway from Rugby to Oxford, and for forming a Line of Railway from Oxford to Worcester and Wolverhampton, with respect to the Gauge on which they may be formed, or with respect to the Powers therein conferred on the Board of Trade."


said, although there might be a general concurrence with the views and resolutions of the noble Earl, few persons would be satisfied with the state in which these resolutions would leave the question under discussion. He regretted the adoption of these resolutions for one reason, and that was that they seemed to preclude the hope of this country ever possessing uniformity of guage; a matter which all parties unconnected with railroads were so unanimous in believing was a most desirable object to accomplish. It would be, in fact, the only thing creditable to this Empire, which had distinguished itself by the first introduction of this system; but if not adopted, he feared that England, which had originated railway communication, would present nothing to future ages but a bungling and complicated system, when it ought to have been more perfect than that of any other country. He thought that great blame attached to the Commission for not having reported what in their opinion was the best gauge. It was, he thought, impossible even for those most interested in the narrow gauge to deny that, as far as increased speed was concerned, the advantage was decidedly in favour of the broad gauge. The point, therefore, which the Commission should have determined was what gauge was most for the advantage of public. He believed that if they had recommended a medium gauge, many of the difficulties would have been got rid of, and that such a recommendation would have met with little or no opposition if it had reference to railways now in the course of being constructed, and to those which hereafter might be constructed. He believed if such a medium gauge had been recommended and so applied, that in a few years the number of railways constructed upon that recommendation would have been so great, that the old lines would have found themselves under the necessity of adopting a similar arrangement; and he did not think that the existing gauges could have had any reason to complain if Parliament had sanctioned such a gauge. He thought the present resolutions objectionable, inasmuch as they contemplated two gauges throughout the country, and because they would do nothing to check the evils at present complained of. In his opinion, these resolutions would be found powerless for good; and he was not, therefore, inclined to look upon them with any particular favour. It appeared to him that the laying down of a double line would compel the adoption of broad-gauge carriages. If they were to mix the broad gauge and narrow gauge carriages, they would be running the risk of accidents occurring, particularly as regarded passenger trains. He believed that the two accidents which had occurred on the Great Western line had arisen from the circumstance of the carriages being of too light a description. With regard to the transfer of merchandize by slower trains, he did not think that the objection arising from the mixing of carriages was entitled to the same weight. He was not, however, inclined to oppose the resolutions, for they might be of some service; but he would impress on the noble Lord the President of the Board of Trade the expediency of even now instituting an investigation as to what was the best gauge, and the one most likely to be ultimately beneficial to the country. If an announcement of such an investigation were made, it would make the public aware that a uniformity of gauge had not been lost sight of. If, on the contrary, they passed these resolutions without any such announcement, the impression would at once be created that the two gauges at present in existence were to be continued, with all their rivalry. He hoped the noble Lord at the head of the Board of Trade would turn his attention to the subject, and make some declaration of his views, so that the public should not imagine that the country was to be subjected to the grievous evil of having two gauges.


had given notice of a Motion on the subject, but, in consequence of what had fallen from the noble Lord opposite, he should defer bringing it forward until some future day, when he hoped the noble Lord would give him his support. He thought it was a great misfortune that the Commissioners had not inquired as to what was the best gauge for the public, instead of limiting their inquiries to the merits of the two gauges at present in existence. He believed if they had gone into the inquiry as to a medium gauge, that they would have made a very different report. He thought the present resolutions objectionable, inasmuch as they tied them up to the adoption of an inferior gauge.


regretted that legislation had been so long delayed on the subject, and had no doubt that great confusion had resulted from the want of some regulations.


said, that great advantages would result from the adoption of some definite gauge, and thought it would be very desirable to insert a clause in all Railway Bills compelling companies to lay down their lines in a particular manner.


said, the advantages of the broad gauge were so great that the public would eventually demand its extension.


said, although the minute of the Board of Trade did not establish the uniformity of gauge, it dealt with the subject in the best possible manner consistently with existing interests. He could not hold out any hope to the noble Lord opposite that he would endeavour to establish uniformity of gauge, and thought the best course would be to endeavour to disturb as little as possible the resolutions which had been proposed to their Lordships.

Resolutions agreed to.

House adjourned.