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

 
First the train operators get bailed out by being put on management contracts – renationalisation in all but name. Then the bus operators get a bailout of some £400m on top of the standard business support schemes available generally – and I hear that a second tranche of bailout money is on the way. And this is on top of transport authorities being instructed to pay operators the same level of concessionary fare reimbursement that was being paid before the lockdown, even though almost no confessionary travel is now being made. If I was a transport authority I might just politely decline to obey that instruction. After all, why should I pay for concessionary travel that isn’t actually happening?

Then, next in line with the begging bowl was the coach operators who are demanding a cool £65m a month in support, to be closely followed by the bus manufacturers who are also demanding special support.

It seems to me that the bus and coach industry is making a rather good case for renationalisation. Of course, the train operators were pretty much renationalised anyway given that the contracts under which they operate were so tightly specified by this department that they can’t blink without our permission.

Then, to cap it all, Martin Griffiths, the CEO of Stagecoach, unilaterally comes out with a six-point policy agenda calling for various actions by the government and identifying some short- and long-term policy measures to help reboot the economy and protect communities. That’s very kind of him, and some of his ideas are certainly worthy of consideration, but I can’t help but feel that it’s not really Stagecoach’s place to start proposing a range of policy agendas which go outside of its immediate remit to run trains and buses. For example, Martin wants us to develop “new place strategies to rethink high streets and promote local spending” along with a complete transformation in how transport journeys are taxed.

Bus and coach companies are developing quite a powerful argument that says that they are so critical to the economy and to the way we live that they should really be state-owned, or at least state-controlled

Bundle all of this together and the train, bus and coach companies are developing quite a powerful argument that says that they are so critical to the economy and to the way we live that they should really be state-owned, or at least state-controlled. Yet in the past I have heard Martin Griffiths and the CEOs of the other bus companies rage against the government when it has sought to interfere in their businesses. How times have changed.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that, certainly when it comes to the bus sector, the commercial market won’t survive. I’ve seen some forecasts which suggest that, in the immediate future post-lockdown, bus patronage may only recover to 50% or 60% of pre-lockdown levels. That may be an extreme forecast, but almost every forecast suggests there will be a major contraction in demand, and while demand may recover over time, driven in part by new decarbonisation policies which encourage greater public transport use, I’m just not sure the private operators can last that long. And even if they do, the size of the commercial market will be much smaller, and nothing like the size or scale that public policy might require.

We are propping up the balance sheets of the private bus companies above and beyond what we are doing for a vast range of other businesses. Why?

So, let’s be honest. Has the time come when we have to acknowledge that the era of a privatised public transport sector is over? Are we now in an era of publicly-owned, or at least publicly-specified, public transport services? If that is the case – and it’s hard to conclude otherwise – then I think it is wrong in public policy terms that we are handing out the additional bailout money direct to the bus operators. It should surely be going direct to the local transport authorities and the Combined Authorities, shouldn’t it? We are propping up the balance sheets of the private bus companies above and beyond what we are doing for a vast range of other businesses. Why? To repeat what I have said recently, if ever you wanted evidence that the bus and train companies aren’t genuine private companies, then the nasty COVID-19 virus has exposed this truth once and for all.

Perhaps now is the time for a radical overhaul of our approach to public transport and, to be fair to him, Martin Griffiths’ six-point plan is certainly an acknowledgement that some pretty fundamental overhauling is required.

So where would I start? Well, I’m sorry to say it but if the private companies that run our train and bus services, and the private companies that run coach services, are so fundamental to our social and economic life, then while, actually, I may not renationalise them, or at least all of them, I certainly would not directly bail them out as we have. I might well keep the train operators under permanent management contracts, but for buses I would pass the bailout cash to the local transport authorities and Combined Authorities and let them decide how local bus services are provided. As for coach? Outside of the school services and the occasional commuter service, I simply don’t see where the public interest arises. I would let them go, and allow new companies rise, Phoenix-like, from the COVID-19 ashes.

 
MORE GREAT MINISTER GRUMBLES:

Will we retain some of our new greener habits?

Bus industry bailout raises questions

Will office culture be a thing of the past?

 
FURTHER CORONAVIRUS COMMENT:

Anthony Smith: Re-assurance crucial as lockdown loosens

Jonathan Bray: Beyond the lockdown – steering the right course

Nick Richardson: The new world facing transport

Sharon Hedges: Looking out from the lockdown

Claire Haigh: Decarbonising transport after Covid-19

Giles Bailey: Transport world faces ‘critical disruption’

 
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