Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

 
I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and on this occasion will refrain from any grumbling. The situation we face today is too serious and any grumbling from me, no matter how light-hearted, would be in really poor taste. So first, let me start by being uncharacteristically polite and say that I hope all readers and their friends and family are well and keeping safe.

The main question on my mind is whether, now that we have put all train operators onto management contracts, with this department taking all revenue and cost risk, we will now quietly drop the Williams Rail Review. We have effectively implemented the central element of Williams anyway. We’ve said that the arrangements are only for six months, but if we were going to put most franchises onto management contracts anyway I have a hunch that these new arrangements will stay in place for some considerable period of time.

Of course, that leaves the small matter of greater integration of track and train which management contracts in themselves do not deliver. And then there was the idea of taking franchise procurement out of the department and setting up a new agency to manage the procurement process. But it seems to me these issues now go away. Does greater integration of track and train really matter anymore if all that operators have to do is literally run the trains? And if in future all franchise competitions are simply for vanilla management contracts surely the whole bidding process becomes so much simpler that even we can do that.

The world has changed, and changed fundamentally, in the last few weeks and I just have this feeling that going back to the way it was will be very difficult politically

I’m probably over-simplifying things. I’m sure there was more to the Williams review than simply putting franchises onto management contracts. But the world has changed, and changed fundamentally, in the last few weeks and I just have this feeling that going back to the way it was will be very difficult politically.

Of course, the bus and coach industries are suffering badly too. I’ve heard that some bus operators have seen patronage collapse by as much as 90% or more, and coach operators, many of whom are very small family-run businesses, have had bookings cancelled. We’ve offered a number of support measures to help, but whether this is enough remains to be seen. I’ve heard it said that some want a major government cash injection into the bus and coach industry but as I write this does not appear to be happening – although that may change in the blink of an eye, as the situation is evolving fast.

But it’s important to stress that the daily grind of government business goes on. We’ve recently published a Call for Evidence on a transport regulatory review, we’ve published a document on decarbonisation to “start a conversation” to develop policies to decarbonise the transport sector, the National Infrastructure Commission has issued a Call for Evidence on the rail needs of the Midlands and the north, and so on. It’s important that everybody understands that despite the overwhelming impact of the current crisis on our lives, business does carry on.

It’s important too to focus on the fact that this crisis will pass. I hope that doesn’t sound too silly a remark. But it’s actually an important point because when we do get back to normal – whatever “normal” may look like – businesses, local government, trade bodies and all the rest will all need to have ideas and strategies to contribute to policy development. The world hasn’t stopped turning and government has not shut down.

Office-based corporate businesses are probably finding that they can function with almost all of their staff working from home

I wonder if the demand for travel will simply return to normal levels once this has all passed. Office-based corporate businesses are probably finding that they can function with almost all of their staff working from home. Owners and bosses might be asking themselves: “so why have an office?” It would not surprise me in the least if these companies saw an opportunity to materially downsize their office space and save a fortune in the process. Sure, an office will still be required, but perhaps only a third of the workforce needs to actually attend on any one day, with attendance done on a rota basis. Indeed, perhaps people’s desire to go to the office will be driven as much by social and mental health reasons rather than an actual “need” to be in an office. I regularly work from home already but do still have a desire to go to peoples’ offices for meetings and the like. Video conferencing is no permanent substitute.

But going to the office every day? I think this may be one major shake-out from today’s crisis – the conventional office and office culture will finally be a thing of the past, and the demand for travel will be less, quite possibly considerably so. Transport operators should start reflecting on that right now.