Railways and their Rise to Monopoly

The study of our railways is interesting and instructive in view of the rapid rise and development of this form of capitalism to monopoly.

The first railway sanctioned by Parliament, known as the Surrey Iron Railway, from Wandsworth to Croydon, was opened in 1805, under the “Iron Railway or Tram-road Act.” passed in 1801, which authorised the construction of a railway for the conveyance of goods and coal. The line was open to the general use of traders and carriers, who supplied their own vehicles and horses (horse-power being the only motive power used), for which the railway company were entitled to charge tolls.

Passing over a period of a few years, during which this Act was followed by several others, we come to the “Stockton and Darlington Railway of 1821 for the construction of a horse tramway. But before its completion, George Stephenson having established the value of the locomotive, application was made to Parliament in 1823 for permission to use steam-power ; the Act allowing the Company to charge a toll “for every gig, landau, waggon, car, coach, chariot, chaise, cart or other carriage which shall be drawn or used on the said railways or tram-roads, for the conveyance of passengers or small packages or parcels.”

The “Great Western Railway Act” (1835), states “That all persons shall have free liberty to pass along and upon and to use and employ the said railway with carriages properly constructed as by this Act directed, upon payment only of such rates and tolls as shall be demanded by this said Company,” etc.

Thus we see that the first idea in the construction of railways was merely the provision of another means of transit (the existing means being the roads and canals) open to the use of anyone upon payment of a toll. But it was not long before it occurred to the railway companies to be their own carriers, “to provide haulage as well as the road, and passenger carriages as well as the haulage,” the general economical advantages securing the ready adoption of the new system.

A Parliamentary enquiry in 1840 resulted in the railway companies being permitted to perform all the duties of general carriers, so that in the course of forty years, from being merely the providers of the railway for the use of carriers, they combined both functions and became the general carriers themselves. Thus the seeds of monopoly were sown.

As time passed the railway companies found that while they held a monopoly with regard to traffic in which quick transport was the first consideration, they had, in the carrying of minerals, grain, timber, etc., where speed was not the prime necessity, formidable competitors in the canals, whose small maintenance and working expenses gave them the advantage (it was declared that goods could be conveyed by water at one-tenth the cost of conveyance by railway). The railway companies therefore set themselves to kill such dangerous competitors, and have succeeded to such an extent that they now control more than one-third of the canal mileage. In evidence before the Canal Committee in 1883, Mr. Condor stated that: “they have obtained their 1,717 miles (out of some 3,800 miles) of canals so adroitly selected as to strangle the whole of the inland water traffic.”

Having obtained a monopoly, and by an amalgamation among themselves to keep up rates and fares made monopoly more complete, “from every district between John O’Groats and Land’s End, and from every industry and trade, come constant complaints against railway companies charging rates that are excessive, preferential, and unjust, and withholding facilities which the traders believe they have a legal right to demand . . . There is no need to attribute to railway directorates either an undue lack of patriotism, or motives uncovered by the usual commercial code. (Oh ! that elastic commercial code.) They are elected and paid to serve the interests of their shareholders, and if these are not coincident with the interests of the public then they can scarcely be blamed for the antagonism. The short-comings will have to be looked for in the intrinsic character of tlie present system.”

There is something delightfully quaint in this admission. Railway directors are elected to produce a profit, and if the interests of the public do not coincide with the interests of the companies, well—so much the worse for the public.

The cry of the commercial capitalist against the railway monopolist is but an expression of the commercial war in which one capitalist section obtains a pull over the other—and uses it. But while they compete one with the other they are united in the constant endeavour to wring an ever greater profit from the producers of wealth—the working class.

There is not the least doubt that railway rates have had a damaging effect upon British trade generally, nor, which is the important matter from the Socialist point of view, is there the least doubt that the private ownership of the means of transit (in common with the private ownership of all the other means of life), is entirely detrimental to the interests of the working class, but “these short-comings will have to be looked for in the intrinsic character of the present system.”

And since these short-comings are inherent in and inseparable from the present system (of private ownership in the means of life), it follows that the remedy must be in the abolition of the present system, and the substitution of another in which all means of production and distribution (land, factories, railways, etc.) are worked by and in the interest of—not a section of the community, to the hurt of the community in general —but in the interests of the WHOLE COMMUNITY.

This is the mission of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, to show the workers how they will have to effect the change, how they may emancipate themselves from the thraldom of Capitalism.

As every interest sends its representatives to the legislative bodies of the country to safe-guard those interests, so must the working class send their representatives to seize the reins of political power. The working class form about seven-eighths of the population, and hold over two-thirds of the voting power. They can possess themselves of political power directly they are ready. Therefore—

“Arise, ye workers of the world,
Gird ye your loins for the strife ;
For in thy power united lies,
The promise of a truer life.”


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