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

 
Surely we aren’t really going to take over control of Transport for London? Sure, TfL is technically insolvent and had we not given that second tranche of money a couple for weeks ago the organisation would have had to shut down. I’m told TfL was within hours of initiating formal procedures to start shutting down and stopping services before the funds were agreed – but these funds only keep the organisation afloat until the end of this month.

The war of words between our secretary of state and the mayor of London was, perhaps, inevitable in such a highly charged atmosphere. The leaked letter from the secretary of state to the mayor, which set out a range of potential conditions which might be attached to any longer term bailout, certainly didn’t go down well with Conservative London MPs, and I’m told that a call between the secretary of state and these MPs was, well, frosty. I’ve even heard it said that the letter to the mayor was not meant to contain that list of conditions, but somehow it stayed in the final draft which got signed off. And it certainly wouldn’t have helped matters that Andrew Gilligan, one of our observers on the TfL Board, failed to turn up at the TfL Board meeting that took place the day after the media reported the details of this letter. I gather that the mayor was not best pleased at his non-attendance and who can, in the circumstances, blame him.

This government seems to have created a rod for its own back

It’s not entirely clear to me what advantage this government gains by taking over control of TfL. Yet I’m told that a two clause Bill has been prepared which does just that. And some of the conditions we have apparently suggested should be attached to any bailout, such as an extension of the congestion charge zone and increases in council tax, can now all too easily be blamed on the government, not on the mayor. Surely it would be better to let the mayor develop his own plans to sort out TfL’s financial mess and let him take the rap for the measures that would have to be introduced? This government seems to have created a rod for its own back.

Still, by the time you read this a long-term bailout will have had to have been agreed as otherwise, at the end of the month, TfL runs out of money again. If we do end up taking control of the organisation then life in Great Minster House will be a far cry from where we might have expected it to be when the Conservatives won the election back in December 2019. Since then, we have taken back control of the railways (although to be honest, we already had pretty much total control over the railways) and are poised to take over control of TfL. Life was not meant to be like this.

Perhaps inevitably I hear talk of a cabinet reshuffle, to take place after the Comprehensive Spending Review. I’m not sure whether this will happen after the one-year spending review in November, or after the longer-term spending review that will now, presumably, be announced in the Spring at the same time as the budget. Either way, it certainly seems to me that this government is in some need of a re-boot as it’s having a pretty torrid time right now, what with rows with the mayor of Greater Manchester, rows with the mayor of London, a Covid-19 strategy that can at best be described as shambolic, and a high risk of a no-deal Brexit. Conservative MPs are said to be restless, even disenchanted by Boris Johnson’s leadership, and the business community seems less than impressed by the prospect of a no-deal departure from the EU on December 31. It’s all going horribly wrong.

I can’t see much good news on the horizon

What happens next is anybody’s guess. I can’t see much good news on the horizon. We still have to decide on the fate of the easterly leg of HS2 which, if it does get dropped, will need careful management; the Williams Rail Review is simply withering on the vine with each passing day, and there is still a National Bus Strategy to publish whose purpose is becoming increasingly unclear (at least to my mind). And of course, there is so much uncertainty over the long term impact of the pandemic on demand for public transport. Life is just, well, full of uncertainties for all concerned.

Mind you, all the talk of a collapse in demand for rail travel needs to be put into context. Peak demand has certainly collapsed but I hadn’t fully appreciated that over the course of a full day demand for rail travel before lockdown was only at 43% of seat capacity. Just shows how much of the rail capacity that is available is actually not used even in normal times. Food for thought, I suggest.

 

 
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This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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