I have much pleasure in supporting the Second Reading of this Bill. I am, however, inclined to think that had the Government been left to itself this Bill would not have been introduced. Pressure was exerted by two important sections of the community from quite independent standpoints, and with the example of the recent amalgamations in England, the Government, in its wisdom, determined to undertake the grouping or unification of the railway systems in the Free State. I welcome the Bill, not altogether for the reasons which induced the Government to undertake this legislation, but from the broader aspect that there are probably very few countries in which unification of the railway system could be carried out so easily as in Ireland. In Ireland there is practically no internal competition, and therefore Ireland is an ideal country for the unification of all the railway systems.
As I have stated, pressure on the Government came from two sources. The travelling public and the commercial communities, weighed down by the heavy transportation charges which came into being after the war, clamoured for relief. The labour community also sought unification, not, however, with the object of bringing down the cost of transportation, but as a stepping stone to nationalisation, under Government control. A bill recently introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Thomas Johnson set out the requirements of the Labour Party, but the rejection of the measure by a large majority was an indication that Government control was not considered a popular solution of the problem.
As stated by the President, when introducing the Bill, unification will undoubtedly tend in some measure to reduce working expenses by concentration of management, standardisation of rolling stock, and the possiblities of placing contracts on more favourable terms for large supplies of coal and other railway stores. It must be remembered, however, that these economies may be disappointing during the early years of unification, and may disappear altogether when the claims for betterment of the newly absorbed branch lines are put forward. These claims invariably arise when weak lines are taken over by the larger and more highly equipped companies operating the main trunk railways of the country. It is, however, in the reduction of working expenses that real relief must be looked for, and so long as the high standard of wages which at present prevails is maintained little improvement can be hoped for. In railway economics there are, as in nearly all commercial undertakings, three partners—first, the capitalist or proprietor, who provides the funds for the adventure, and who is entitled to a reasonable return upon the capital he has sunk in the business. Then there is the workman or employee, who makes the goods or performs the services, and who is entitled to fair and reasonable remuneration for his services; and thirdly, the consumer, who purchases the goods or services, and who is en-entitled to transportation facilities at a reasonable cost.
Very briefly I would like to examine the relative conditions of this partnership applied to the railways in the Free State in 1913 and 1923. The figures are necessarily approximate, but are quite sufficiently accurate for purposes of comparison. The proprietor, who ventured his fortune, received £3 18s. per cent. on his invested capital in 1913, and £2 15s. per cent. in 1923; that is to say, he has suffered a decrease in his income of 30 per cent. The railwayman or workman who has given his labour, received in 1913 an average wage of 20/- for a week of sixty hours, or 4d. an hour; in 1923 his average wage was 54/- for a week of forty-eight hours, or 13½d. an hour. The railwayman thus enjoys an increase of 237 per cent. for his labour. I now come to the customer, otherwise the travelling public and trading community. In 1913, where the customer paid 20/- as a charge for travelling or freight on goods, in 1923 he had to pay 48/-, an increase of 140 per cent. Now, what conclusion can be drawn from these few figures? Is it not that whereas the labour bill on the Irish railways has soared to an unprecedented height, the proprietors of the railways and the users of the railways are suffering most grievously as a consequence, and that although unification may bring about better co-ordination of the railway services, there will be no real relief to the public in the cost of transportation until labour sees fit to accept more reasonable remuneration for its services.
Part VI. of the Act deals with the Baronially Guaranteed Railways, and provides for them in an exceptionally generous manner. When it is remembered that these railways were built with the consent of, and often at the request of the ratepayers in the districts they serve, and that they confer on the resident population most substantial benefits, it is not unreasonable, I submit, that those who derive such advantages should in some measure pay for the cost of the undertaking. Now, what are the facts? 266 miles of railway have been constructed in these districts, at a cost of £1,144,270 guaranteed capital, and as a contribution to the interest on this outlay the baronies concerned were assessed for a maximum contribution of £28,102, which is equivalent to less than 2½ per cent. on the capital involved. It is proposed under the Bill that this contribution should continue for ten years, at the end of which period it is to cease, and the baronies or counties are then to be entirely relieved of this most modest burden. This, I conceive, is most unreasonable, and if it were possible so to alter the Bill I would strongly appeal to the Minister to delete the ten years limit and allow the statutory obligation on the baronies to remain as a permanent charge. As a burden on the population the rate charge is infinitesimal; on an average it is less than one shilling in the pound on the valuation, and I suggest that if it were put to any of the baronies concerned whether they would prefer to do without the railway or provide the very moderate interest hitherto paid, there is no shadow of doubt as to what the answer would be. Apart from these considerations, I welcome the Bill as good legislation. The details have been most carefully thought out, and are the outcome of very arduous work and negotiation. The Minister is, I submit, to be congratulated on the result, and may we hope that when the measure becomes statutory, it will confer a lasting benefit on the Irish Free State.