A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 22

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[ 294 ]

CHAPTER XXII

DECLINE OF CANALS


Considering that, in spite of the unreasonableness, the exactions and the large profits of many of the canal companies in the later days of their prosperous monopoly, the canals themselves had rendered such invaluable service to the trade, commerce and industry of the country, the question may well have arisen why they were not allowed, or enabled to a greater extent than was actually the case, to continue their career of usefulness.

There has, indeed, for some years been in the United Kingdom a canal-revival party which favours the idea that either the State or the local authorities should acquire and improve the canals with a view to enabling them better to compete with the railways—which, as the story of the Liverpool and Manchester line shows, were at one time expressly designed as competitors of and alternatives to the canals.

So far has this resuscitation idea been carried that in December, 1909, the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways reported in favour of the State acquiring, widening and otherwise bringing up to date a series of canals radiating from the Birmingham district, and establishing cross-country connections between the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Humber. The reasons for the decline of the canals and the practicability, or otherwise, of reviving them may thus be regarded as questions of more than merely historical or academic interest for (1) the traders who might benefit from the said revival; (2) the traders who certainly would not benefit, but who, in conjunction with (3) the general taxpayer, might have to contribute to the cost if the State did acquire the canals and failed to make them pay.

The "real commercial prosperity of England" has well been dated from the period of early canal development, when artificial waterways began to supplement the deficiencies [ 295 ]of navigable streams limited to certain districts and liable to floods, droughts and other disadvantages, and of ill-made roads which even the turnpike system had failed to adapt to the requirements of heavy traffic. In these conditions the movement either of raw materials or of manufactured articles other than those which could be carried on packhorses had, as we have seen, been rendered all but impossible in many parts of the country on account either of the difficulties or of the excessive cost of transport. Canals, constituting a great improvement on any other existing conditions, came to the rescue, and supplied the first impetus to that industrial revolution which the railways were to complete.

This was a great work for the canals to have accomplished, and it was a work that was essentially done by private enterprise. Clifford says that "Parliament, by its legislation in furtherance of canals and of agriculture, probably contributed more largely to the national prosperity than by any group of public measures passed towards the close of the last [eighteenth] century." There is here not a word of recognition for Brindley, the Duke of Bridgewater and the other pioneers of the canal movement, or for the private investors who provided the £14,000,000 spent on the actual "furtherance" of canals. Parliament did not inspire, originate or in any way improve the canals; it found none of the money which they cost, nor did it even seek to direct their construction on any such well-organised system of through and uniform lines of communication as would have made them far more useful, and assured them, probably, a longer lease of life. Yet Mr Clifford has no hesitation in giving all the praise to Parliament because it allowed the canal promoters and proprietors to carry out the work on their own initiative, and at their own risk, as the improvers of rivers and the providers of turnpike roads had done before them.

"Canals in this country," says the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways, "were constructed upon no general scheme or system. As soon as it was seen that they were a profitable investment, independent companies were formed in every district, and, according to their influence or their means, obtained from Parliament Acts conceding powers to make canals of the most varying length and character." If, in conceding these powers, Parliament [ 296 ]had established some central authority with a view to securing such uniformity in construction and such connected routes as were practicable, it would have rendered a greater service than by simply approving schemes put forward in what the Final Report itself describes as a "piecemeal" fashion. This, however, was not done; nor, in fact, was action taken to prevent the canal companies, after they had shown their enterprise and risked their millions, from becoming in the pre-railway days grasping monopolists whose one idea was to exploit the trader to their own advantage, leading him to welcome the railways, as an alternative to the canals, still more cordially than he had previously welcomed the canals as an alternative to the roads and rivers.

So long as the locomotive remained in a comparatively undeveloped stage, the canal companies refrained from regarding railways as serious rivals, and continued to look upon them in the light, rather, of contributors of traffic to the waterways; but in proportion as the locomotive was improved and the rivalry of the railways became more and more pronounced the canal companies grew alarmed for the prospects of their own concerns. They entered on no new undertakings—the last inland canal, as distinct from ship canals, was completed about 1834—and they got anxious as to the future of those they had on their hands. They had first scoffed at the railways as "nothing but insane schemes," or as costly "bubbles," and they had then worked up a powerful opposition against them. Having failed in each of these directions, they next took steps which they would have done well to take earlier—they reduced their tolls, and they also began to consider how they could improve their canals.

In 1835 there was a general reduction of rates on the Old Quay Navigation between Liverpool and Manchester, but this belated policy of seeking to make terms with the traders did not prejudice the fortunes of the new railway between those places. As regards the improvements sought to be introduced on the canals, Nicholas Wood, in the third edition (1838) of his "Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads," says:—

"Canals, ever since their adoption, have undergone little or no change; some trivial improvements may have been effected in the manner of passing boats from one level to another, and light boats have been applied for the conveyance [ 297 ]of passengers; but in their general economy they may be said to have remained stationary. Their nature almost prohibits the application of mechanical power to advantage in the conveyance of goods and passengers upon them; and they have not, therefore, partaken of the benefits which other arts have derived from mechanical science.

"The reverse of this is the case with railroads; their nature admits of almost unrestricted application of mechanical power upon them, and their utility has been correspondingly increased....

"At the time of the publication of the first[1] and second[2] editions of this work scarcely any experiments had been made on a large scale to elucidate the capabilities of canal navigation—none, certainly, satisfactory; since then the competition of railways has aroused the dormant spirit of the canal proprietors, and various experiments have been made to ascertain the amount of resistance of boats dragged at different velocities; attempts have been likewise made to adapt the power of steam to propel the boats upon them, and other experiments have been adopted to increase their activity as a mode of traffic, and especially for the conveyance of passengers."

These various experiments had little practical result, and the navigation companies found it more to their advantage, in many instances, to make good use of their position and influence, while they were still a power in the land, and force the railway companies either to buy them out entirely or to guarantee them against loss. Such results were generally secured either by first threatening opposition to the railway Bills, and then stating the price for withdrawing therefrom, or, alternatively, by projecting schemes for the competitive lines of railway specially favoured by the State policy of the day, and likely, therefore, to be readily conceded.

When, in 1845, the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway Company—afterwards amalgamated with the Great Western Railway Company—were seeking powers of incorporation, they were opposed by the Severn Commissioners, who represented that they had spent £180,000 in improving the waterway, in anticipation of securing a revenue of £14,000 a year. In order to overcome this opposition and get their Bill, the railway company agreed to make up to the Severn [ 298 ]Commissioners any deficit between the amount of their tolls and £14,000 a year. Under this obligation the railway company paid £6000 a year for many years; but in 1890 the obligation was commuted by a payment by the Great Western Railway Company of £100,000, and by the giving up to them of certain mortgages to which they had become entitled in consideration of the Commissioners discharging them from the liability under their guarantee. In stating these facts in evidence before the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways, Mr T. H. Rendell, chief goods manager of the Great Western Railway Company, added (Question 23,834): "It is desirable to mention that, because it is rather suggested that State aid should be given to enable this very waterway to come into fresh competition with the railway. Of course, if that were so, it would be only fair that the Severn Commissioners should re-imburse the railway company the compensation they have received."

The acquiring of the Stratford-on-Avon Canal by the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway was another of many instances of purchase by a railway company being the price of withdrawal of canal opposition to railway Bills.

By threatening to apply to Parliament for powers to build an opposition railway, the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, in 1851, also induced the Great Western to buy them out, the railway company agreeing to pay £7773 a year for the canal, which has been a loss to them ever since.

In the same way the London and Birmingham Railway Company, now the London and North-Western, originally acquired control over the Birmingham Canal Navigations as the result of a declared intention on the part of the canal company, in 1845, to seek for powers to build a competing line of railway through the Stour valley. The railway company only overcame the threatened opposition by guaranteeing the canal company £4 per share on their capital, obtaining, in return, certain rights and privileges, in regard to control and operation, in the event of their having to make good any deficiency in the revenue. This they have had to do every year since 1874, with the single exception of 1875; and down to 1910 the total amount paid by the London and North-Western Railway Company to the proprietors of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, under this guarantee, had been [ 299 ]no less than £874,652. The payments for the years 1906-10 were as follows: 1906, £37,017 14s. 9d.; 1907, £22,262 2s. 7d.; 1908, £44,690 3s. 11d.; 1909, £45,697 10s. 3d.; 1910, £39,720 3s. 9d.

There has been much talk in the past of railway companies having obtained possession of canals in order to "strangle" the traffic on them. It is difficult to see why, except under pressure, railway directors, who count among the shrewdest of business men, should have incurred such substantial obligations towards canals which, at the time, everyone regarded as doomed to extinction before a superior means of transport. It is equally difficult to believe that, having incurred these costly obligations, the companies deliberately "strangled" the traffic on the canals, instead of allowing them to earn—if they could—at least sufficient to cover the cost of their upkeep.

Whatever the precise conditions under which they acquired control, the railway companies were compelled by Parliament to incur obligations in regard to maintenance which have had the effect of continuing the existence of many a little-used waterway that would long ago have become hopelessly derelict if it had remained under the control of an independent canal company, instead of being kept going out of the purse of a powerful railway company in accordance with the statutory obligations imposed by Parliament.

These obligations were, of course, based on the principle of ensuring competition even though canals and railways passed under the same control, the former being supported and kept more or less efficient out of the revenues of the latter. This policy, however, was regarded as only an alternative to another, to which Parliament gave the preference—that, namely, of maintaining, if possible, a still more effective competition by strengthening the position of the canals, now the weaker of the combatants in the economic struggle, and enabling them to continue their independent existence, in preference to seeking absorption by the railways.

In 1845 an Act (8 & 9 Vic. c. 28) was passed, the preamble of which, after alluding to the provision in the Railway Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, giving power to railway companies to vary their rates, declared that "greater competition, for the public advantage, would be obtained" if canal [ 300 ]companies, etc., were to have like powers granted to them in respect of their canals, etc.; and the Act therefore conferred upon them the necessary powers for varying their tolls.

The preamble of another Act passed in the same Session (8 & 9 Vict. c. 42) recited the powers given to railway companies as carriers of goods on their own lines, and stated that "greater competition, for the public advantage, would be obtained if similar powers were granted to canal and navigation companies." The Act accordingly extended to them the same powers. With a like object, and again adopting the principle sanctioned in the case of railway companies, the Act further authorised canal companies to make working arrangements between themselves, and, also, to lease their canals to other canal companies, with a view to a better provision of through water routes, and, consequently, a more active competition with the railways. Two years later another Act (10 & 11 Vict. c. 94) was passed, giving the canal companies power to borrow money for the purposes here specified.

In his presidential address to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1885, Sir Frederick Bramwell, dealing with various matters relating to the transport conditions of the country, said: "This addition to the legal powers of the canal companies made by the Acts of 1845 and 1847 has had a very beneficial effect upon the value of their property, and has assisted to preserve a mode of transport competing with that afforded by the railways."

It is true that the powers to act as carriers were taken advantage of by leading canal companies, who worked up a good business as carriers, although, to a certain extent, with a result directly at variance with the widely accepted view that canals should carry heavy and bulky commodities, and railways the lighter and more compact goods. What actually happened was that the canal companies, as carriers, competed with the railways in the transport of domestic supplies, while the railways still carried most of the coal, iron-stone, etc., for which many people supposed that canal transport is specially adapted.

While, however, as the result of these particular powers, some of the canal companies improved their financial position, and were enabled to maintain a better competition with the railways, very little use was made of the authority given to [ 301 ]them to combine among themselves and establish through routes, converting series of small canals into connected waterways under one and the same control, if not actually owned by one and the same company, as was being so actively done with the railways.

Some action had certainly been taken in this direction. The Birmingham Canal system of to-day is composed of three canal companies which had amalgamated prior to 1846, supplemented by a fourth which joined them in that year. The Shropshire Union, also, is formed of four canal companies originally independent. But these are only exceptions to the rule, for though the Joint Select Committee of 1872, following up what had already been done at an earlier period, recommended that the utmost facilities should be given for amalgamations between canal companies, few of such amalgamations have, as the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways points out, taken place since the full establishment of railways. Goods sent to-day by canal from Birmingham, for instance, to London, to Liverpool or to Hull will pass over waterways controlled by from six to eight different authorities, according to the route followed.

One must, however, recognise the fact that the securing of uniformity of gauge and the establishment of through routes presented far greater difficulties in the case of artificial waterways than in that of railways. The physical geography of England is wholly unfavourable to efficient cross-country water transport, and this fact, in itself, is sufficient to render impracticable any such scheme of canal resuscitation as that which has been put forward by the recent Royal Commission.

The physical condition of England in relation to the building of canals is well shown in the article on "Canals" published in "Rees' Cyclopædia" (1819) where it is said, in this connection:—

"Great Britain ... has a range of high land passing nearly its whole length, which divides the springs and rain waters that fall to the opposite coasts: we shall call this range dividing the eastern and western rivers of Britain the grand ridge.... No less than 22 of our canals now do or are intended to pass this grand ridge, forming as many navigable connections between the rivers of the east and west seas!... The Dudley canal crosses this grand ridge twice, the two ends [ 302 ]being on the eastern side, and the middle part on the western side thereof; the Kennet and Avon crosses the eastern and western branches, into which it divides on the Chalk Hills, west of Marlborough, by which parts of this canal are in the drainage of the west, the south and the east seas! The Coventry Canal, also, by means of its Bedworth branch, crosses the grand ridge twice. The populous and remarkable town of Birmingham is situate on high ground, near to the grand ridge, and has six canals branching off in different directions, either immediately therefrom or at no great distance, and, what is singular, owing to a loop, or sudden bend of the ridge at this place, no less than five of them traverse the grand ridge, either by means of tunnels or deep-cutting."

While the grand ridge here in question presents no difficulty to powerful locomotives, the position is altogether different with canals fed by streams of water that will not flow up-hill. In the case of the Birmingham Canal, specially referred to in the extract just given, there are three separate "levels." The lowest is 209 feet, and the highest 511 feet above sea level. Boats doing the cross-country journey, or passing between Birmingham and the coast, would have to overcome such heights as these by means of locks, lifts or inclined planes.

Here we have a very different proposition from that which is presented by canals on the flat surfaces of Holland, Belgium and North Germany—with, also, their abundant water supplies, from great rivers or otherwise—whereas the upper levels of the Birmingham Canal are kept filled with water only by means of costly and powerful pumping machinery, supplemented by reservoirs.

When the original builders of canals had to cross the grand ridge, or any other elevation over which they required to pass, they sought to economise water consumption and to keep down both cost of construction and working expenses by making the locks on the top levels only just large enough to pass boats of a small size. The dimensions of any boat making a through journey are thus controlled by those of the smallest lock through which it would require to pass. On lower levels where the water problem did not arise—or not to the same degree—the locks could well be made larger, to accommodate larger boats engaged only in local traffic.

[ 303 ]The material differences in cost of construction and operation between waterways on a low and uniform level and those crossing considerable eminences, by means of locks, were well recognised by Parliament when approving the lists of tolls to be paid on different waterways. On the Aire and Calder the minimum toll, if a boat passed through a lock, was fixed at five shillings. On the Rochdale Canal the minimum toll for a boat crossing the summit level was ten shillings.[3] The reason for this difference is that whereas the Aire and Calder navigation is but little above sea level throughout, the summit of the Rochdale Canal is at a height of 600 feet above sea level, and is crossed by means of ninety-two locks in thirty-two miles.

The reader will see, therefore, that the want of a common gauge in the construction of artificial waterways, mainly designed, at the outset, to supply the needs of particular districts, may often have been due to more practical reasons than simply a lack of combination or a difference of view on the part of canal constructors, the problem of gauge on canals built at varying elevations, and all depending on water supply, being entirely different from any question as to the gauge or the running of railways on the same or similar routes.

"The necessity of a uniform gauge on canals as on railways," says Clifford, "is now clear enough. We need not wonder that, in the eighteenth century, Parliament was no wiser than the engineers, and had not learned this lesson." It was, however, not entirely a matter of wisdom. There were, also, these inherent defects of the canal system itself to be considered. It is very doubtful if even Parliament, had it possessed the greatest foresight, could have forced, or have persuaded, the canal companies to construct locks of precisely the same dimensions at elevations of 400, 500 or 600 feet, where water was difficult to get or costly to pump, as on canals more or less on the sea level, and deriving an abundant water supply from mountain streams or navigable rivers.

Forbes and Ashford, in "Our Waterways," also think it is much to be regretted that in this country no standard dimension was ever fixed for canals, "as has been done in France." But the superficial area of the United Kingdom, [ 304 ]with its mountains and valleys, and hills and dales, presents a wholly different problem, in the matter of canal construction, from that offered by the flat surfaces of France, of Holland, of Belgium or of North Germany. In 230 miles of waterway between Hamburg and Berlin there are three locks. In this country there is an average of one lock for every mile and a quarter of canal navigation. The total number of locks is 2,377, and for each of these there must be allowed a capitalised cost of, on an average, £1360.

The fate that overtook the once prosperous canals of South Wales when the railways could no longer be suppressed by the canal companies, and were allowed to compete fairly with them, has been materially due to their own physical disadvantages in respect of the large number of locks they require to overcome the steep inclines of the mountainous district in which they were made. These facts are brought out in the Fourth (Final) Report of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways, where it is said:—

"The Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals were bought by the Marquis of Bute in 1885. They form a continuous narrow waterway with a total length of about 32 miles. In this distance there are 53 locks.... The waterway is used at the Cardiff end by small coasting vessels, but above this point the traffic has fallen off considerably. The total tonnage carried on the canals amounted in 1888 to 660,364 tons; in 1905 to 249,760 tons. Two railways run parallel to the canals and carry almost all the coal brought down from the collieries near the canals. The gradients from these collieries to the port are considerable. This makes the haulage of full railway trucks easy, and, on the other hand, in the case of the canal makes necessary a great number of locks relatively to the mileage, with consequent slowness of transport.

"The Swansea Canal belongs to the Great Western Railway Company. It is a narrow canal, 16½ miles in length, and has 36 locks. The traffic has diminished ... for reasons similar to those given with respect to the Glamorganshire Canal."

Much more, however, than the provision of locks was necessitated by the physical conditions of a country naturally unsuited for artificial waterways. In some instances the canals were taken across broad valleys by means of viaducts designed to allow of the waterway being maintained at the same [ 305 ]level; and certain of the works thus carried out were, in their day, deservedly regarded as of considerable engineering importance. The Chirk aqueduct, which carries the Ellesmere Canal across a 700-feet stretch in the Ceriog valley, and at a height of 70 feet above the level of the river, and the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, 1007 feet long, which takes the same canal over the river Dee, are spoken of by Phillips, in his "General History of Inland Navigation" (1803), as "among the boldest efforts of human invention in modern times." Elsewhere the canals had to pass along high embankments or through deep cuttings. Canal tunnels of up to three miles in length were not infrequent, though some of these were made so narrow—in the interests of economy—that they had no towing-path, the boats being taken through by men who lay on their backs on the cargo, and pushed against the sides of the tunnel with their feet. Alternatively, it was sometimes possible to avoid rising ground or deep valleys, necessitating locks, by making wide detours in preference to taking the shortest route, as a railway would do. Thus the distance by canal between Liverpool and Wigan is thirty-four miles, as compared with a distance of only nineteen by rail. From Liverpool to Leeds is 128 miles by canal and eighty by rail. These windings made the canal compare still more unfavourably with the railway when it was considered that the speed of transport on the former was only about two and a half miles an hour, without counting delays at the locks; and of these there are, between Liverpool and Leeds, no fewer than ninety-three.

But just because these engineering works had been so bold and so costly, or left so much to be desired in regard to length of route, and just because so many physical difficulties had had to be overcome, it may well have happened that when what was universally considered a better means of transport was presented, general doubts arose as to the wisdom and practicability of reconstructing, in effect, the whole canal system to enable it to compete better with the railways in catering for that through traffic for which the canals themselves were so ill adapted.

Supplementing these considerations as to the physical configuration of the country is the further fact that in the colliery districts the keeping of the canals in working order involves great trouble, incessant watchfulness and very [ 306 ]considerable expenditure on account of subsidences due to coal-mining. In my book on "Canals and Traders" (P. S. King & Son) I have told how "throughout practically the whole of the Black Country, the Birmingham Canal, for a total distance of about eighty miles, has been undermined by colliery workings, and is mainly on the top of embankments which have been raised from time to time, in varying stages, to maintain the waterway above the level of the ground that has sunk because of the coal mines underneath." Many of these embankments, as I have had the opportunity of seeing for myself, are now at a height of from twenty to thirty feet above the present surface of the land, and in one instance, at least, the subsidences have been so serious that an embankment twenty feet high and half a mile long has taken the place of what was formerly a cutting. If the Birmingham Canal had not been controlled by the London and North-Western Railway Company, who are under a statutory obligation to keep it in good and effective working condition, it would inevitably have collapsed long ago. No independent canal company, deriving its revenue from canal tolls and charges alone, could have stood the heavy and continuous drain upon its resources which, in these circumstances, the canal would have involved; and like conditions apply to various other railway-owned canals in the north, in Wales, and elsewhere.

Concerning the Glamorganshire Canal, it is said in "Transport Facilities in South Wales and Monmouthshire," by Clarence S. Howells:[4] "The present owners have spent £25,000 on the canal since 1885 in an ineffectual attempt to revive its waning fortunes. One of its many difficulties is the subsidence caused by colliery workings."

Dealing with the general position in regard to canal transport in the United Kingdom, J. S. Jeans remarks in "Waterways and Water Transport" (1890):—

"The railway companies have been accused of acquiring canal property in order that they might destroy it, and thereby get rid of a dangerous rival. This is probably not the case. The railway companies are fully aware of the fact that water transport under suitable conditions is more economical than rail transport. It would therefore have suited them, at the [ 307 ]same rates, to carry by water heavy traffic, in the delivery of which time was not of so much importance. But the canals as they came into their possession were naturally unadapted for such traffic without being more or less remodelled, and this the railway companies have not attempted.

"When we consider the enormous disadvantages under which the majority of the canals of this country now labour, the great matter for wonder is, not that they do not secure the lion's share of the traffic, but that they get any traffic at all."

If, for the sake of argument, we leave out of account all the "enormous disadvantages" here alluded to, and assume that the physical difficulties already detailed could be overcome without much trouble or great expense (though this would, indeed, be a prodigious assumption), we should still have the fact that the number of traders in the country who could hope to benefit from any possible system of internal navigation would necessarily be limited to those in certain districts, whereas the railway can be taken anywhere, and be made to serve the interests of each and every district or community in the country.

It is true that when commodities can be sent direct from an ocean-going vessel to a works situated immediately alongside a canal, the waterway may have the advantage over the railway; and the same may be the case as regards manufactured goods forwarded in the opposite direction. Of the 235,000 tons of flints, clay and other potters' materials brought into the Potteries district of North Staffordshire during 1910, no fewer than 200,000 tons, imported at Runcorn, Ellesmere Port or Weston Port, were taken by canal to pottery works located on or near to the canal banks. In these circumstances the North Staffordshire Railway Company, who also control the Trent and Mersey Navigation, cannot, as railway owners, compete with themselves as canal owners. In the case of the Aire and Calder, the physical conditions of which are exceptionally favourable, coal can readily be sent from the collieries immediately alongside the waterway to the steamers or the coal ships in the port of Goole. On the Birmingham Canal, also, the traffic between collieries and works, or between works and railway transhipping basins, on the same level, is already so considerable that no great increase could be accommodated without carrying out on the canal a widening [ 308 ]which would be fabulously costly, and, also, wholly impracticable, on account of the great iron-works and other industrial establishments which line almost the entire twelve-mile route between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, forming, with their hundreds of private basins, the actual boundary of the canal on one side or the other. To "adapt" the Birmingham Canal to through traffic would produce chaos for the local traffic.

Mr Jeans thus goes a little too far when he makes the sweeping statement that "Canals as they were built a century ago have no longer any function to fulfil that is worthy of serious consideration. Their mission is ended, their use is an anachronism." Even the title given to the present chapter, "Decline of Canals," is to be read subject to the exceptions represented by those of the waterways that still answer these useful local purposes and should have every encouragement therein. Mr Jeans is, however, fully warranted in declaring that "it would be the idlest of idle dreams to expect that the canal system of this or any other country as originally constructed can be resuscitated, or even temporarily galvanised into activity, in competition with the railways."

There is a still further consideration.

Whatever the prospective advantages of resuscitation when the point of despatch and the point of delivery are both on the same canal—and especially when both are on the same level of the canal, so that passage through locks is unnecessary—it must be obvious that when commodities are despatched from, or consigned to, places situate at such a distance from a canal that supplementary transport is necessary, the cost thereof must be added to the amount of the canal charges. The sum of the two may then be so little below the cost of rail transport that the latter—coupled with the greater speed and the greater convenience in the way, perhaps, of sidings or of lines of rails coming right into the works—will be preferred. Academic theories, on paper, as to the comparative costs of hauling given weights of commodities on water and rail respectively may, in fact, be rendered futile by (1) the supplementary cost of transport to or from the waterway and of various services or conveniences included in the railway rate but not included in the canal charges; and (2) the consideration that if a large sum of money be spent on [ 309 ]improving the canals the interest thereon must either be met by means of increased canal charges—in which event the canal-users would have no advantage over the railway-users—or remain as a permanent burden on the community.

How the cost of the supplementary charges and services operates in practice may be shown by a reference to the London coal trade, coal being a commodity which is regarded by those who favour State ownership of the canals as one specially adapted for waterway transport.

Except as regards the consignments of sea-borne coal, the domestic coal supply of London is carried almost exclusively by rail. The trucks can generally go right up to the collieries; they convey the coal to special and extensive railway sidings, there to await orders; and they proceed thence, as required, to the suburban railway station or depôt nearest to the premises of the actual consumer, in any part of the country; whereas coal sent by canal would first have to be taken from the colliery to the canal, and there be discharged into the boat, then be conveyed, say, to the Thames, next be transferred from boat to cart, and finally be taken by road across London to destination, with the subsidiary considerations (1) that with each fresh handling the coal would deteriorate in value; (2) that the traders would lose the advantage of railway coal sidings and station depots; and (3) that the railway truck is a better unit than the canal boat for the various descriptions or qualities of coal dealt in by the average coal merchant, whose prejudices in favour of rail transport over canal transport, when the consumers are not actually located on or quite close to the waterway, can thus be accounted for by strictly business considerations.

The conclusion is forced upon one that, notwithstanding the useful purposes which a certain number of canals are still serving, any resuscitation of canals in general, or even any provision of improved cross-country canal routes passing over the "grand ridge," at the cost of an indefinite number of millions to the country, can hardly be regarded as coming within the range of sound economics. It certainly is favoured by a larger number of traders than the comparatively small proportion who would be able, or willing, to use the canals when they had been improved; but this support is directly due to a belief that nationalisation—though what is proposed [ 310 ]is only a partial nationalisation—of the canals would tend towards keeping down railway rates.

In other words, the scheme is but a further development of that policy which aims at enforcing the principle of competition irrespective of cost, and without regard for the capital expenditure on which a fair return ought to be assured. One of the witnesses examined before the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways said there was a local feeling against the Wilts and Berks Canal being taken in hand by the county council "because," he said, "we are all afraid of the rates; but," he added, "from what I have heard from traders and others, they would like to see it back again, mainly as a means of cutting down railway rates." Mr Remnant, one of the Commissioners, says in his separate report, in alluding to import and export traffic, that most of the evidence given on this question "seemed to point to a desire on the traders' part, not so much for the waterways as for lower railway rates, in order to enable them to face foreign competition"; while Mr Davison, another of the Commissioners, who also dissents from the recommendations of the Majority Report, speaks of many of the canals as being "of little economic value to the trade of the country, apart from whatever influence they may have in keeping down railway rates," though he adds: "If this latter result were otherwise secured their continued existence could not be justified on economic grounds."

Any effect which the carrying out of the Majority Report scheme of canal improvement might have on railway rates would, all the same, be felt only in the towns or localities directly concerned. Benefit would result to (1) those traders who could use the canals, and (2) those who, though not using the canals, obtained the lower railway rates, if reductions really were secured through the canal competition; while traders at a distance from the waterways would not only have to help to pay the cost, though themselves deriving no benefit therefrom, but might even see two classes of their own competitors in the favoured districts gain an advantage over them—one set from State-owned and State-aided canals, and another from the local reductions in railway rates to which those canals might be expected to lead.

The proposals of the Royal Commission may well be approved by certain localities or individual traders on the line [ 311 ]of route of the canals proposed to be taken in hand. They are hardly likely, however, to commend themselves to the traders and taxpayers of the country in general.

My own view is that if the State is prepared to find money for the purpose of cheapening the cost of transport, it could do so to better advantage if, instead of spending millions on an impracticable and partial scheme of canal resuscitation, it lightened the burden of taxation now falling on the railway companies, and thus improved their position in regard, not merely to traders in particular districts, but to the trade and industries of the United Kingdom as a whole.




  1. 1825.
  2. 1832.
  3. "The Law Relating to Railway and Canal Traffic"; Boyle and Waghorn. Vol. I, page 296.
  4. "Publications of the Department of Economics and Political Science of the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire," No. 2 (1911).