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Uganda Railway Bill

Volume 84: debated on Thursday 21 June 1900

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Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

My Lords, this is a Bill to increase the sum provided for the construction of the Uganda railway, the expense of the work having exceeded the estimates which we made for it. But this is so common a failure with respect to the prophecies of surveyors, architects, and engineers that it has almost come to be regarded as a matter of right that their estimates should in some degree fall short of their ultimate expenditure. I am not, however, going to plead any right of that kind in the present instance, though I hold that the universal practice for many generations has established the fact that surveyors and engineers may exceed the estimates they have laid down. There is no need for me to appeal to that unhappy experience. The first Bill was passed under very peculiar circumstances. It was deliberately passed by Parliament without there being that survey which is invariably undertaken before any railway is begun. There was a survey executed under circumstances of great difficulty, and with great ability, by Major Macdonald, but it was not a survey such as is generally made in such a case. Most of the ground was not even travelled over, and some of the circumstances necessary to be known in carrying through the work were not even ascertained. But Parliament were perfectly well aware of what it was doing. They perfectly well know that it was a railway undertaken without such a survey as is usually carried through before a work of such magnitude, or, indeed, any railway work at all, is undertaken. For instance, the character of the labour market, the opportunities that there were for obtaining the requisite number of workmen, the cost at which they could be obtained, the nature of the soil with reference both to its operation upon steel sleepers and its action under the pressure of tropical rains and hurricanes, and many other matters, which a more elaborate survey would have cleared up, were left without being fully or even considerably investigated. Anyone who reads the report of Sir Guilford Molesworth will see that this statement is fully borne out by him. Then it may be asked why we undertook a railway without a preliminary survey. My answer is that we did so with a perfect consciousness of what we were doing, and for the sake of speed. There is no doubt that if we had gone through the usual process many more years would have passed before there was any chance of completing the work; and anybody who remembers the political condition of the country at that time will not find it difficult to realise that there were considerations of a very cogent character which induced us to desire to finish, at the earliest period possible, what was practically our only access to these regions. At that time the battle of Omdurman had not been fought, the occupation of Fashoda had not taken place, the very wide-reaching agreements which we have since made with the French Government had not then been discussed, and our position was one which I will not say was critical, but our position was one of very considerable difficulty if any serious embarrassments with any European Power had arisen before we had done anything to make our military access to the place easier than it naturally was. I doubt whether anyone will challenge the soundness of that reasoning, and I will not pursue it, because it leads into many matters which are not precisely suitable for discussion. If the railway was to be made, one of the great objects why it should be made was to give us military access to the country; and therefore it was important that it should be made with as much speed as possible. On these grounds we undoubtedly entered on the railway without that complete and exhaustive survey which under other circumstances would have been proper and suitable; but I do not think that any great harm was done. There is no doubt that the sanguine views which were entertained have not been carried out, but many things have happened which we had no reason to anticipate. The native labour market to a very great extent proved useless, and we were compelled to go to the Indian labour market, which was itself enormously embarrassed by the famine and pestilence with which that country has been visited. The use of cattle in the country was very seriously impeded by the outbreak of rinderpest, which raged with such fury over all those territories. One of the first necessities in constructing a railway is to have an adequate supply of machinery, and when that necessity was pressing upon us the most strongly there come the engineers' strike in England, which arrested the supply of machinery for a considerable time. There were many other difficulties which it may be said we might have foreseen, but which we could not have altogether foreseen, and which had the effect of considerably raising the price. I observe that in another place a railway was cited for our example—namely, the Beira Railway—which had been completed at a somewhat cheaper rate; but the citation was an unfortunate one, for the Beira Railway has turned out so supremely ill-made that it has had to be almost entirely recast, and I doubt very much whether in the end it will be found to have been constructed at a cheaper rate than we propose to assign to the Uganda Railway. Although there is good ground for the speed at which we constructed the railway and the comparative absence of precaution, there has been no financial disaster. The railway is now advancing rapidly, and as soon as the great work of the Man escarpment has been overcome—it requires engineering arrangements of a peculiar character, but the difficulties, I believe, are now very nearly overcome—the line will reach the lake with great rapidity; whether in the course of next year or not I do not know. The expert evidence seems to show that that will probably be the case; but, at all events, we are very near the end, and I am sure that when the railway is completed it will be an enormous engine for the civilisation of the country. On these grounds, my Lords, I hope there will be no objection on the part of this House to give its assent to the measure which the House of Commons has passed, by which the amount assigned shall be raised from three millions to nearly five millions.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—( The Marquess of Salisbury.)

My Lords, no doubt at first sight the amount demanded by this Bill appears extremely startling. It is very rare that an estimate is exceeded to so large an extent, and, on the face of it, it appears to be a very serious matter. I agree, however, with the noble Marquess that it was highly desirable, as we were in possession of Uganda—a question which is now beyond discussion altogether—that without loss of time railway communication with the coast should be established, and that there were many reasons—some of which it is not desirable to enter into—which made it extremely unsafe that we should have no means of communicating with that distant possession. I think that it was not without justification that this project was set on foot without that detailed survey which undoubtedly would have been made under other circumstances. What I would like to know is whether the Government are of opinion that they are now in possession of such complete information that they can with confidence say that the present estimate is not likely to be exceeded. I gathered, from reading some time ago that very able Report to which the noble Marquess referred, that there had been a very large change in the whole direction of the railway towards the Lake, and that that had involved a great increase in the cost. I suppose those who projected the railway and framed the estimates hardly took into consideration the presence of a considerable number of lions, who ate up a number of the coolies employed. Looking at the cost of the railways in India during the time I was connected with the administration of that country, and considering the difficulties of the country through which this line had to pass, I do not think that the amount is very excessive. In ordinary circumstances I would be inclined to say that it was, of course, a scandalous thing to ask Parliament for a sum of three millions and then to add two millions, or nearly two millions, to that figure. But, as I have already remarked, this case must be judged in a different way, and only those who are well aware of the very peculiar conditions under which we held the country can rightly estimate the matter, and I will not say the excuses but the reasons why it cannot be regarded as a subject for censure. All I wish to do, therefore, is to ask whether the Government are now in possession of satisfactory information enabling them to say that the sum at present fixed will be sufficient.

I am afraid I can only tell the noble Earl that I am told so. I cannot pledge my own knowledge of engineering as a ground for believing that it will be so, but those with whom I have been in communication are quite of opinion that the sum named will cover the expense. Of course, the unknown plays a considerable part in this matter. It is the part of the railway which is furthest from the coast that is less known, and there may be embarrassments and difficulties which we cannot foresee. But, speaking my own conviction, I have little doubt that what we are now asking for will be enough. With respect to the lions, I feel bound to say something in their behalf. They are not so aristocratic that they will only feed on coolies; they took a medical man the other day, and I expect it will be found that they have taken many other people. The noble Earl indicated that in consequence of our not having had a survey we were compelled to take a longer route than we otherwise would have done. That is not so.

I did not mean to imply that. I do not know that the answer of the noble Marquess exactly gives me the information for which I asked. What I wished to know was not so much whether the noble-Marquess himself was of opinion that the estimate was sufficient, as whether there had been such an examination of the country, especially the difficult new country which has to be passed through, as would make the estimate formed probably a correct one.

I do not think I would be doing right if I pledged myself. Undoubtedly, the part of the country referred to has been very little investigated yet; but, according to the opinion of competent persons, the estimate ought to be sufficient.

On Question agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House to-morrow, and Standing Order No. XXXIX. to be considered in order to its being dispensed with.