The Ashburton Guardian. Magna Est Veritas et Prevalebit. MONDAY, JUNE 13, 1881. The Government Scheme of Railway Construction.
The proposal of the Ministry to leave the construction of such railway lines as may be deemed necessary in future to private companies or local public bodies, who shall be subsidized by grants of land in the neighborhood of the proposed lines, must commend itself to most thinking people as eminently judicious. Already compelled to resort to burdensome taxation in order to pay its way, the Government is not in a position to embark in any mere speculation, no matter how promising; and, unfortunately, promising programmes are very easy to draw up, and very unscrupulously pressed on the notice of the colony, if the colony only is the loser in the case of failure. Mark Twain tells us that if he was strongly in favor of a particular scheme ; he would spend the last drop of his cousin’s blood in getting it carried into effect. Now this vicarious patriotism gushes forth with special facility when it is only the Government that is to be the loser. Few persons are so scrupulous as to shrink from defrauding the State, if by so doing they can benefit themselves, and yet be quite free from all chance of exposure and punishment. All over New Zealand the argument that so much “ more Government money would be spent in the district,” is one of overwhelming force. Hence the construction of political railway lines to purchase Parliamentary support —lines which have never even paid their working expenses, far less left any profit after payment of working expenses and interest on the capital laid out in their construction. ? Still, new railways are clamorously demanded, and it is really impossible for the Government to tell half as well as the people living in the locality whether they will pay or not. Some years ago, in Victoria, it was proposed to construct a railway line northeastward, following in its main direction the course of the road, to Sydney. The people in the district were confident it would pay, and published piles on piles of statistics and facts to prove their position. But the district had few representatives in Parliament, and for a long time their petitions were in vain. One Cabinet Minister, Mr Francis, bitterly opposed even the appointment of a Parliamentary Committee to enquire into the merits of the scheme; and an eminent member of the Opposition, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, affirmed that one truck a day would take all the down traffic, and one wheelbarrow a day all the traffic up the line. After many obstructions, however, the line was constructed and, to the astonishment of many and the delight of the Colonial Treasurer, within three months from the time when the first section was open it paid all the working expenses, all the interest on the cost of its construction, and left a clear profit to the Government of about four per cent. When completed, this prosperity of the line was not lessened, and it proved to be, after the Yan Yean Reservoir scheme, the best paying speculation ever entered into by the Victorian Government. On the other hand, numerous railway schemes in all the Australasian colonies, and in New Zealand most of all, have been blamed and the lines opened for traffic with the result that the working expenses alone have amounted to more than the whole receipts.
The only test which can be applied to ascertain the actual payableness of a scheme for railway construction is one of the kind proposed by the Government. People who are very reckless about the loss of the State’s money, are often very careful of their own. Our main trunk lines are already constructed, and the people of the colony at large can afford to wait for what are either branch lines, competing lines, or expensive speculative lines. Let those who are interested innew schemes, then, in each locality, embark their own money in their pet enterprises, and if their proposed lines are really likely to bear such splendid fruit as they describe, they will be gainers not losers by taking the risk. Especially will they be fortunate if subsidised with grants of land in the neighborhood of these prospectively profitable lines. No commodity that can be mentioned rises in value as fast and as far as land in places where a permanent and profitable traffic is carried on. They will have the advantage, also, which is no mean one, of managing their own railway lines in their own way, so as to turn them to the best account.