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

 
As we slowly ease out of lockdown, I wonder what the most significant issue has been for the transport sector, and what the long-term impact on the sector will be. At one level that’s a pretty silly question because the standout issue has been the near total collapse in travel, and if you are in the transport sector that’s, well, a pretty dramatic thing wouldn’t you say? Some say that demand, whether that be for air travel, train or bus, won’t return to pre-lockdown levels for possibly two or three years.

And the controls on us when we do travel, for example the mandatory wearing of face coverings, will give travel a completely different feel, with the airline industry perhaps having to suffer the most in how people travel through airports and the what the actual experience is like on board a plane – and in the short term where we can actually fly to. It’s all going to feel quite different, at least for a while.

I suspect that e-scooters will become an all too familiar form of socially distanced sustainable transport in the years ahead, along with other forms of shared personal transport such as mopeds

But I suspect we will see some long-term changes too, and perhaps the odd policy shift as we deal with the fallout from all of this. The obvious examples are the expected increase in walking and cycling, and the purchase of bicycles has apparently gone through the roof (although it wouldn’t surprise me if, once this virus is well and truly defeated and vaccines are available, people’s new love affair with the bike wears off and they slowly get left in the garage or garden shed). Of course, this department has also brought forward plans to legalise the use of e-scooters on the highway with trials to begin in a few short weeks rather than next year, and I suspect that e-scooters will become an all too familiar form of socially distanced sustainable transport in the years ahead, along with other forms of shared personal transport such as mopeds.

And we can all see that the current Emergency Measures Agreements that have been put in place for the train operators, who now enjoy a comfortable risk-free life, might morph into permanent management contracts. But I can also see there may be other longer-term structural shifts waiting in the wings, although I can equally see Conservative ministers resisting this, or at least trying to.

I think it was striking how quickly ministers moved to support the train operators, and shortly thereafter, the bus operators. Transport authority demands, led by the mayors of the combined authorities, that emergency financial support for the bus industry should have been channelled via the authorities not the bus companies were ignored, and I think it’s striking that those forms of transport that transport authorities do control, got the least funding and were last in the queue. Private transport companies seemed to get more favourable treatment over public authorities. Authorities’ ability to manage the bus market at a time when, arguably, there was a crying need for them to do so as the commercial market collapsed, was denied them – despite the prime minister and our secretary of state using language ever since last July that suggested they actually supported the franchise model for buses.

What I find odd about ministers’ decision to give the financial support for the bus industry direct to the operators is that it flies in the face of previously stated support for franchising

In evidence before the Transport Select Committee the other day, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham and Tim Bowles, the elected mayors for Manchester, Liverpool and the West Country respectively, all said that there was now a unique opportunity to reform public transport outside London with funding instead channelled through transport authorities. Something tells me they aren’t going to let up in calling for such reform, and as Andy Street, the influential Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, is equally passionate on this issue I can see ministers coming under increasing pressure on this. What I find odd about ministers’ decision to give the financial support for the bus industry direct to the operators is that it flies in the face of previously stated support for franchising. Perhaps the forthcoming National Bus Strategy will provide the peg for reform in this area without ministers obviously making a policy U-Turn (and there have been a fair few of those during this crisis!).

But there is a counter view that I have heard some put forward: that with so much central government support being thrown at the public transport sector, central government has to take on a more hands-on role in how that money is spent – and note that as a condition of the financial support for Transport for London there is to be a review of TfL’s finances and structures. Will the vast sums of money pumped into the public transport system mean that this departments needs to take on a more centralising role? Have the days of devolution reached their own COVID-19 peak?

I can’t see much logic in this. This department already micro-manages the railways and one of the objectives of the Williams Review was to bring this to an end; and when it comes to local public transport we have neither the knowledge nor the expertise to take on any kind of centralised role. It would be utter madness and it would end in disaster. No, the right thing to do would be to channel all financial support for bus and local rail services through the transport authorities and combined authorities and lead the devolution agenda to its logical end point. As I have said before, this would not stop entrepreneurial companies providing commercial services free of taxpayers’ largess, but at least it would stop taxpayers’ money being channelled directly to prop up the balance sheets of so-called private companies.

 
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