With the pleasures and pitfalls of Britain’s rail services now frequently in the news, it is worth recalling that the relationship between Parliament and the iron road is a long one. In fact, the principle of legislative interference in the running of railway companies dates back to the Railway Regulation Act of 1844, a reform overseen by William Gladstone as President of the Board of Trade. Amongst the regulations contained in this measure was one that obliged companies to provide the poorer class of travellers with the means of travelling ‘by Railway at moderate Fares, and in Carriages in which they may be protected from the Weather’. Every trunk, branch or junction line was thus compelled to provide at least one train per day at a cost not exceeding one penny for each mile travelled.
Before the provision of ‘parliamentary trains’, poorer passengers were usually conveyed in open wagons attached to goods trains. Although the new service was ostensibly introduced so that, as Sir Hugh Cairns put it in 1865, ‘the poorer classes ought not to be deprived of an accommodation which was afforded to the rich’, the cheap service was originally intended to create a more mobile workforce. If an artisan or labourer found ‘a particular spot gorged with competitors’, as Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper explained in 1849, by the help of a parliamentary train he could ‘transfer himself to some other spot, where there may be a demand for his industry and skill’. It was freely admitted by the government in 1851 that these trains were intended solely ‘for the accommodation of the humbler classes’, and it is unlikely that the first-class Victorian traveller would ever have mistaken one for his customary mode of transport. Their passengers, known as ‘penny-a-milers’, travelled exclusively by third-class – in fact, admitted Lord Carlingford, the trains provided ‘virtually a fourth class of passenger carriage’ and were, apart from their moderate fares, ‘in all other respects objectionable’. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper complained in 1852 that the parliamentary trains were ‘as uncomfortable as the law will allow’, started at ‘the least convenient hours’, and travelled ‘at a pace that wearies out all patience’.
The railway companies clearly assigned parliamentary trains a low priority, leading the Earl of Malmesbury to draw the attention of Parliament to ‘an outrage’ involving a parliamentary train service which started from Dorchester at six in the morning, ‘full, no doubt, of persons of the poorer classes’, and which during the winter months, made passengers wait for four hours in Southampton ‘until the company chose to start another train for them’.
Notwithstanding the rigours of these journeys, such was the success of the parliamentary trains that in a debate on emigration in 1872 the Hon. Arthur Kinnaird suggested that under the authority of Parliament, ‘certain ships might be chartered to take passengers at a very low rate—say one-third the ordinary rate—and, like the Parliamentary train, be open to everyone’, even ‘to Members of that House, if they liked to go by them’. In practice, however, Kinnaird conceded that the service would be used only by those ‘who ought to do so, because the comforts would be very inferior to those of passengers paying full fare’.
In an interesting survival from this pioneering Victorian railway legislation, some lines continue to operate a parliamentary train service to this day.
J. Prest, ‘Gladstone and the Railways’, in P.J. Jagger (ed.), Gladstone (1998), 197-211.
M. Bailey, ‘The 1844 Railway Act: a violation of laissez-faire political economy?’, History of Economic Ideas, 12: 3 (2004), 7-24.