Tay Bridge Disaster Letters 1: ‘The Moral of the Tay Bridge Disaster’ (10 January, 1880)

On this day (28 December) in 1879, the Tay Rail Bridge designed by Thomas Bouch collapsed in a terrible storm. The disaster claimed the lives of all 75 passengers (although only 60 bodies were found). Naturally the tragedy featured heavily in ‘The People’s Journal’ and large features on the inquests were regularly found in the paper throughout 1880. Amongst the reporting there were also letters from readers published about the events. The first of these, by ‘A Christian Democrat’, discussed the way competition had harmed the rail system and, ahead of his time, called for the nationalisation of the railways.



Sir,—The destruction of the Tay Bridge teaches several important lessons to all who are interested in railway enterprise. The Bridge was too high and too narrow for its width. This is the simple explanation of the disaster. From the first it should have been a double line. The Bridge must be rebuilt all on the same level, made firm and good, and the traffic resumed as quickly as possible on the single line. Then a new Bridge should be made alongside the present structure, and the two Bridges united firmly together with tie-rods. It requires no engineering skill at all to see that this is the effectual remedy for all the trouble. Then the traffic will flow in a grand unbroken stream. The capital must be provided, and to the great Companies really interested the money required is not considerable. In the present mood of London it will not be difficult to raise the money with a guarantee by the East Coast lines of even a small minimum dividend. The most practical help to the shareholders of the North British, who deserve well of the public, would be a speedy and influential movement in this direction. Shares should be issued at one pound each. The working men of England will feel a pride in coming forward in their thousands to share in the honour of great national work like this. They know that failure is the usual road to real and permanent success. Often mechanical difficulties seem about to frustrate a clever idea, but they know that careful attention to the causes of errors in the end ensures safety and triumph. Let Sir Thomas Bouch take heart; the working men of Scotland will help him, and all classes will join in strengthening his hands in this hour of trial.

But while I write thus strongly, I insist that it is more than time that the attention of the public should be strongly directed to the utter waste of money which this whole railway system of ours involves. Is it not possible to secure for the public all, and more than all, the advantages of competition without this ruinous waste of money which is being squandered b opposing Companies for the purpose of defeating one another? The North British and the Caledonian are both of them throwing away enormous sums of money. Trains with very few passengers are run from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Aberdeen at very high rates of speed. A new parallel line along the east coast of Scotland is being built at a cost of half a million of money, while the present North Eastern line is quite able to accommodate ten times the traffic which at present passes over it. The enormous expenditure of money at the Tay Bridge Station proves the enterprize of the North British Directors, but the public would have been far better served had one central station been erected.

In the main competition is excellent, but in several important affairs it is inadmissible. This is found from experience to be the case in supplying cities with water and gas. Opposition means extra trouble and greatly increased cost, and hence these inevitable monopolies are in the hands of the public. The Post Office is another example of the advantage of central management and public control. Our railways must sooner or later be brought by the public, and the sooner the better. Government is spoken of as something different from the people. This is not so. Even the army is rapidly changing from being a preserve for the sons and nephews of aristocrats. It is becoming a school where only the diligent and able can rise. The Civil Service is now-a-days a splendid and most efficient instrument, and were our railways administered by the Government with such a man as Mr Baxter for Minister of Commerce, an efficient and permanent staff of officers would be selected to the public advantage. I cannot enter now on so large a subject, but to all who are really interested I can see only advantage. Shareholders would retain their shares, with Government guarantee, raising their value considerably, even when debentures, and by a competent tribunal giving fair and stable valuation to ordinary stock. Railway servants would be raised in rank, would become civil servants, and appointments and promotion would for the future depend on passing an examination, so raising the whole education of the country. Capital would no longer be wasted on making competing parallel lines, but saved to reduce fares and rates. Goods would go from place to place with the economy of a full service, with no unnecessary trains, and with the punctuality of the Post Office. Instead of wasting money on needless trains, new lines and numerous branches would be constructed to bring outlying districts within the railway circle. Local government would give tramways on all the principal old toll-roads. Working men, instead of being forced to reside in great cities on the sea coast, would find healthful and profitable employment outside the city.

With cheap railway fares, education of the very highest kind might spread among the masses of the people. The expense of a University education is not the fees. It is the living from home, which prevents the children of the aspiring working man from sharing its advantages. If this great railway disaster attracts public attention to the earnest consideration of this whole subject, great good will come out of this sore evil. With the readers of this journal, with the elite of our working men, the decision of the great problems of the future must rest. In the counties we shall immediately have what will practically be household suffrage, and it is well that the minds of the thoughtful should be directed to an important matter like this, upon which a decision will be taken before long.

A Christian Democrat.


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