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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 76

The Future Control of our Railways

The Future Control of our Railways

It is now six years since the following paper was published in the "New Zealand Herald" of the 14th and 24th April, 1893, but time has strongly confirmed me in the views expressed.

To the Editor.

Sir,—One of your Southern contemporaries has recently sent to various prominent men, and also to me, a circular letter, asking the following questions:—
1.Are you in favour of the railways being managed by a non-political Board: and if so, state your reasons?
2.Are you in favour of the railways being managed by a Board, the chairman of which is a member of the Ministry of the day; and if so, state your reasons?
3.If you are in favour of some other form of control, state vour views and your reasons therefor.

As this matter is of great public interest, and is sure to be keenly debated in the next, session of Parliament, I shall feel obliged if you will afford me space for the following reply to the above questions:—

In considering the future of our railways, it is first of all necessary to have a clear understanding as to the meaning of certain terms employed.

In this country it is universal to confuse railway management with the policy that should govern that management. The two things are totally distinct.

Railway management-may be divided into two departments—the engineers' and the traffic departments. The engineers deal with everything pertaining to the maintenance of the lines and page 42 rolling stock, and the traffic managers deal with the passengers and goods traffic. In countries where railways are privately owned, the policy that governs these engineers and managers is dictated by the various Hoards of Directors, which are composed almost entirely of commercial and financial men.

It is because our legislators did not properly distinguish between these terms that they committed our railway policy to men who never had a day's training to fit them for dealing with it

Then, what is meant by the term non-political"? Here it has come to be considered as synonymous with irresponsible. In this country we have an irresponsible Hoard, but so far from the railways being removed from political control, they have been placed under the worst possible form of political influence. As a matter of fact our railways have been handed over to a political party. That party is now making the most strenuous efforts to retain the advantage it has gained, for they well know that if they can retain their grip of its railways, they will soon dominate not only its politics, but also the trade, commerce, and social conditions of the country.

In answer to the first question—"Are you in favour of the railways being managed by a non-political Board?" I reply,—

For the last, ten and a-half years I have made a special study of the railway problem, having on an average devoted at least from three to four hours per day to it. I have read all that I could procure of what has been published on the subject, have written and published what would form several good-sized volumes on the railway question, have entered into controversy with many writers, and have thoroughly studied it from all its various points of view. As the result of my investigations I have arrived at this conclusion: I am, utterly, and in the strongest manner possible, opposed to railways being administered by what is here called a non-political Board, or by an irresponsible Board of any kind or sort whatever, no matter by whom or in what manner that Board may be appointed, nor of whom it may be composed.

I say this for the following reasons, which appear to me to be all sufficient:—
1.I believe it to be impossible to form a non-political Board. It is not possible to wholly remove railways from political influence. Private ownership even will not do this. In England and America they are private property, but we have evident proof that, they are subject to political influence, and, what is worse, they exercise great political power. The railway interest in Great Britain is represented in the Legislature by eighty directors of companies in the House of Commons and fifty in the House of Lords.
2.Railways, in every country where they exist, are preeminently its great highways. They are the channels along which its trade, commerce, and social intercourse must flow. No Government has the right to hand over the highways of its page 43 country to the supreme control of any set of men, nor would they dare attempt it in the case of the common roads. To keep control of inter-communications is one of the first duties of every Government.
3.An irresponsible Board is more open to corrupting influences than any other form of government. One bad man on the Board could work great mischief before he could be found out.
4.Placing our railways under an irresponsible Board means the creation of a most dangerous political and social power in our midst. Our railways now employ between four and five thousand men. This number will soon be largely increased; they are all voters, and are all bound together by mutual ties and interests. They are all absolutely dependent on the Commissioners for their daily bread, and for advancement and promotion. They dare not offend them. The Commissioners are equally interested in conciliating the employees, for they will want all their help at the polls. The inevitable result will be, that the number, pay, and privileges of the employees will be unduly increased, not only to the detriment of the community, but also to the demoralisation of the service itself. A close observer will have noticed what is already going on both in Australia and here.

Its railways being by far the largest business investment in the country, it is most important that the people should keep a careful eye over it. The effect of irresponsible Boards is to destroy all public interest in our railways. This is already manifest, for the people have settled down into a, state of apathy, and both say and feel that it is useless to try to do anything, for the Commissioners will still do as they please.

The paid-up capital of all the banks doing business in the colony is only £4,625,000. The paid-up capital of our railways is £15,500,000. For the public to neglect this vast investment must be a great mistake, and must lead to serious results.

6.It is contrary to all reason and experience to suppose that purity of administration can be secured by setting up a despotism.
7.An irresponsible Board stops all reform in administration, as the Commissioners and their numerous staff are too deeply interested in maintaining the present position. We have had proof of this in the obstinacy with which the Commissioners have refused to give effect to the recommendation of two Parliamentary Committees to try the new system.
8.Irresponsible Board management, has already proved a disastrous failure in Victoria, and it is fast breaking down in New South Wales and the other countries that have adopted it.
9.Placing our railways in the hands of an irresponsible Board means giving to that Board the power to ruin any district, any industry, or any man that may be dependent on the railways as a means of transportation. This is power which no Government has a right to give to any set of men, no matter how pure they may be.page 44
10.If the most important departments of the Government are to be administered by Boards, and more especially irresponsible Boards, the effect on the character of the Parliament of the colony must be most disastrous. Any country so governed must rapidly sink in position. Our Parliament ought to be composed of our best men; everything possible ought to be done to elevate and not to degrade it. The more departments there are put under Boards the more degraded will Parliament become; for it cannot be expected that really good men will consent to become the mere endorsers of the actions of irresponsible Hoards. What New Zealand wants is statesmen, but it would be absurd to expect a country so governed to produce them.

The following is my reply to questions two and three, asked on the above subject. I feel so deeply the vast importance of rightly administering our railways, and I am so thoroughly convinced of the great mischief that is now being done, and so clearly do I foresee what it must lead to, that I have not hesitated to say exactly what I think and know.

Question No. 2. "Are you in favour of the railways being managed by a Board, the chairman of which is a member of the Ministry of the day?" No, I am not. At the same time I am of pinion that such a Board would be a great improvement on the present one, seeing that the Minister would be re-sponsible to Parliament, while the present Board is not responsible to anybody.

While I express myself thus strongly against Board management of any kind. I wish it to be distinctly understood that no one can be more impressed with the desirability of removing our railways as far as possible from political influence than I am. I believe this can be done, while at the same time we can retain direct Parliamentary control, which I strongly advocate.

How I propose to do this brings me to your third question: "If you are in favour of some other form of control, state your views and your reasons therefor."

My proposal then is:—
1.To abolish the offices of Postmaster-General and Minister of Public Works.
2.To amalgamate the Public Works Office and Crown Lands Office.
3.To create a Minister of Inter-communications and place under his charge the working railways and also the Postal and Telegraph Departments.

These are all kindred departments, which must more or less work together, and therefore could be worked much more cheaply and advantageously from one centre.

To assist this Minister it would be quite necessary to appoint two under secretaries, one for railways and one for post and telegraphs.

page 45

Now, as to to political influence. It is in the matter of railway construction that this colony has suffered most from political influence. The Act of 1887 leaves this important matter just where it was.

To get over this difficulty I propose that Railway Construction Bills should, as new lines are wanted or supposed to be wanted, be passed through Parliament, but before any such Bills became law, I would refer the final decision to a commission to be composed of the judges of the Supreme Court and four lay members, two for each island, these to be elected by the local governing bodies, chambers of commerce, and pastoral and agricultural associations. Should any line of railway be thrown out by this commission, that line not to be brought forward in Parliament again for at least three years.

A commission its here suggested would be as free from political influence as it is possible for any commission to be, and would form an effective cheek on the construction of "political railways."

There are two other ways in which it is claimed undue political influence has been exercised with reference to our railways: the appointment of employees and the manipulation of rates and charges.

As regards the appointment of employees, I would follow the example of the Victorians. There, when the Commissioners want men in any of the various grades, they are obliged to advertise for them. The Government appoints examiners. All who choose can go up for examination, and those who pass, ballot among themselves for the various appointments. By this means neither the Government nor the Commissioners have the patronage. Men from all classes of society have an equal chance, and new blood and the most able men would constantly be drawn into the service.

The only way of removing rates and charges from political influence is to greatly simplify the classification, rates charges, and regulations; to as far as possible equalise fares, rates, and charges, take them down to the lowest possible limit, then make them fixed for a certain period, and only alterable as the postal rates are, by Act of Parliament, which would, of course, make the alteration universal.

If these three things were done our railways would be much freer from political influence than they are now, while Parliament would retain supreme control.

What we want to do is to reduce railway administration the a system. At present it is what Professor R. T. Ely aptly describes as "the abominable no-system of railway." This; "no-system" has been deliberately designed for the purpose of plundering the public to the utmost possible extent; it gives enormous power and influence 'to railway men, and they will fight to the very last to retain it.

I know that the Railway Commissioners say that, it is impossible to do what I propose. I say that it not only possible, page 46 but easy, and I claim that time and the course of events has proved that I know more about it than they do. At any rate we have very convincing proof that, they are afraid to let me try.

Whatever may be the future of our railways, I deliberately say this: that in the public interest the Government Railways Act of 1887 must be repealed at the earliest possible date. If it is allowed to remain in force much longer, it will bring about an intolerable state of things, and lead to years of political trouble and turmoil. I regard the passing of that Act not only as the greatest legislative blunder the colony has ever made, but I look upon it as also a political crime.

The Victorian Act is bad enough, ours is infinitely worse. In Victoria some safeguards were taken for the public. Here, while every possible care was taken in the Act to place the officials outside the reach of the law, not one line, not one word is there to safeguard the public. It is simply a bold, daring attempt on the part of a certain set to secure all the power and patronage obtainable from having supreme and irresponsible control over the railways of the country, and so far they have succeeded.

Do not let me be misunderstood. I thoroughly believe that the Minister responsible for this Act, the late Sir F. Whitaker, was actuated by the purest motives, and I also believe that those M.H.R.'s who voted for it, did so in the hope that it would do good, though most of them had very serious doubts on that point.

I, however, have not the slightest belief in the honesty of the set of wire-pullers who secretly procured the passing of the Act and the appointment of the present Board. I believe with Mr. Saunders that that "was effected under party, political, personal, and official considerations of the most objectionable character."

I have no confidence either in the Act of 1887, or in the men who are administering it. Not only are they determined to stick to the "abominable no-system and work it in the narrowest and most objectionable way, but I am prepared to produce printed evidence to show that they have habitually resorted to untruth in order to prevent any reform in the administration of our railways taking place. Such men should not be entrusted with the important public interests which have been with so little consideration handed over to them.

We never hear of political influence in reference to the postal service. Why do we in reference to railways? Simply because of the mystery, complexity, and confusion with which the whole thing has been purposely and unnecessarily surrounded, which prevents the community generally from knowing what is going on.

If we are to do any real good with our railways we must assimilate their working to the postal system of working. There is no reason whatever why this should not be done, except the page 47 determined resistance of the railway men, who are deeply interested in maintaining the present "no-system."

The first step towards improvement will be to repeal the Act of 1887, and left, the railways revert to direct Parliamentary control. We know what that means, and can deal with it. We do not know what the present position means, nor can we deal with it.

If in these letters I have spoken warmly, it is because I have felt deeply the vast importance of placing our railway administration on a proper footing.—

I am, etc.,

Samuel Vaile.