The government has bought itself breathing space over the past six months. It’s time for big decisions that will shape the future

The planned National Bus Strategy is also now more relevant than ever

If a week is a long time in politics, then the last six months have been a lifetime. March was when Passenger Transport was last published. It is good to have it back, but it is to a transport world that has changed beyond recognition.

In my column for that last edition, I celebrated the government’s commitment to a National Bus Strategy and the announcement that £5bn had been allocated for buses and cycling. The government press release had gushed, “bus services across the country will be transformed with simpler fares, thousands of new buses, improved routes and higher frequencies.”

On rail, passenger numbers were continuing their upward trend and the Williams review was about to be published, with its widely leaked, and welcomed, proposal for an end to franchising.

In government, Grant Shapps had promised a decarbonisation plan to help meet reasonably ambitious targets to get to net zero. Ministers could even occasionally be heard talking again about modal shift, a concept that had disappeared off the radar with the end of the coalition government in 2015.

At last, transport policy was heading firmly in the right direction, even if we did still have the self-defeating freeze on fuel duty and the jarring intention to spend £27bn on new roads.

And then it was all derailed. Train and Tube travel down to 5% of normal passenger levels, bus patronage not much better, and even now at best around half of pre-March levels. One plus was that cycling more than doubled in the early stages of lockdown, but now that looks like it was a blip. Meanwhile, private car and van usage is now back to, or even above, where it was in early March.

Yet bleak as this picture may seem, there are reasons to be optimistic. The government now finds itself in the position of having much more control over the country’s public transport networks and could use that to shape transport habits in a radical and creative way.

Sensibly, the government has bought itself some breathing space, even if that purchase has been made with wheelbarrows full of taxpayers’ money. For buses, we have the snappily named Covid 19 Bus Service Support Grant Restart, with a parallel scheme for light rail. Nothing bespoke, however, for the beleaguered coach industry.

The bus package, designed to enable a 100% service using up to 45% of capacity, provides £27.3m a week “until a time when the funding is no longer needed”, in the words of the Department for Transport permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly. That could be a long time. But the rub is that the bus funding comes out of funding previously earmarked to upgrade the bus offer.

On rail, there may well have been no alternative, but it was in any case right to bring franchising to an abrupt end and instead roll out the concessionary model where services are delivered to a specification in return for a management fee, with the farebox income returned to the government.

We now have stability of sorts for another 18 months on rail, with the tweaking of March’s hasty arrangements into the grand-sounding Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements and the formal declaration that franchising is dead.

Incidentally, I noticed that Paul Plummer, on behalf of the Rail Delivery Group, told Rail Business Daily that the industry had “long been calling for” an end to franchising. That must have passed me by.

Grant Shapps is right both to tighten the terms of the agreements, and to see them as a bridge to a different future for rail. He has cut the management fee to 1.5% and made these payments dependent on performance measures including punctuality and cleanliness. What does not seem to have been factored in, and should have been, is a requirement upon the companies to use their best endeavours to collect fares. It was noticeable that on my local trains, run by Southern, on-train fare enforcement near enough vanished after a management contract was introduced in July 2015.

The first thing that needs to be done, and urgently, is to use the voice of government to convince people that travelling by public transport is safe

So how should the government use the breathing space it has bought? The first thing that needs to be done, and urgently, is to use the voice of government to convince people that travelling by public transport is safe. The messaging back in March left people with the impression that this activity was uniquely unsafe; and that impression still persists.

The reality is that our public transport vehicles and network have been kept scrupulously clean, the vast majority of passengers are wearing masks, and the risk of catching the virus on the bus or train is close to zero, and a good deal less than in the pubs and restaurants the government has been encouraging us to fill. The government at some point is going to have to bite the bullet and drastically change its advice on social distancing. It is simply not economically tenable in the medium term to run buses and trains with markedly reduced passenger capacity.

In August we saw an ‘Eat out to help out’ promotion to get people back into pubs and restaurants. Can we now have a similar discounted promotion to get people back on buses and trains? And while we are at it, can we please have the projected January fare increases cancelled?

The second priority is to recognise that the days of commuters using trains to get to and from work in the peak, five days a week, are largely over and are not going to return, virus or no virus. There was already a trend in this direction, partly given impetus by the London Olympics in 2012 which encouraged people to work from home. The government recognised that trend even then. I was the first transport minister to have responsibility for people not travelling. The impetus then may have been the desire to cut carbon emissions, and to free up public transport for the duration of the Olympics, but what employers discovered then, and now, is that employees can work just as effectively from home, sometimes more so, while the staff members themselves have found they can build more flexibility into their day and save a good deal of money on travel costs.

The government must urgently bring forward the wholesale recasting of the ticket structure about which much has been said over many years, but very little done. As the government is now running the entire network, this is a perfect time to implement the ideas that nobody seems to oppose, especially part-time season tickets and single leg pricing. Why the delay?

The changing nature of work travel also suggests that the pattern of passenger travel may well change. We are already seeing leisure journeys on rail recover much quicker than commuting, and the industry will need to adjust to this. It will become increasingly untenable to shut lines down on Saturdays and Sundays for engineering works.

Thirdly, we need to have the long-delayed Williams review published. I suggest this should be in two parts: the review as it was prior to lockdown, and a revised document to take account of what has happened since. They need not in fact be very different. If anything, the recommendations, insofar as we know them, would appear to be even more relevant and appropriate than they were in March. We already have the acceptance that franchising is over. Why delay publication any longer?

On the buses, the planned National Bus Strategy is also now more relevant than ever. With passenger numbers down, there is a real danger that a large swathe of commercial services will disappear when the government pulls its lifeline support, as it must do at some point, particularly as the balance sheets of the bus industry are far from healthy, and councils are in no position to fill the financial gap.

This breathing space the government has bought should be used to create new local models, driving locally elected bodies and commercial bus companies together to produce optimum area plans for services. The industry has resisted it for many years, but maybe now is the time to replace the 1986 arrangements with the London concession model. This would give those running services on a management contract basis much more certainty over income for the period of the contract, an outcome that must look increasingly attractive in these uncertain times.

There is also a hard question for the Treasury to face, namely whether it is still the correct policy to load such a very high percentage of public transport costs onto passengers. In London, for example, 72% of TfL income comes from the farebox, or it did do. That is double or treble what is seen in comparable European capitals.

Beyond all this, the government must send out the right signals, which by and large it is doing, to make it clear that this is a hiccup, and that the investment plans for rail and bus are proceeding unabated. We still need a big electrification programme, development of battery and hydrogen technologies to power vehicles, and the removal of diesel vehicles from road and rail. We still need the stations and lines reopened that will put Beeching into reverse. We still need more priority measures for buses in our towns and cities, and the wider use of schemes such as Nottingham’s workplace charging.

Is the government going to use the opportunity it now has to reshape public transport for the future, to embed a new way of working and embrace the concept of modal shift away from the private car?

So we are at a crossroads. Is the government going to use the opportunity it now has to reshape public transport for the future, to embed a new way of working and embrace the concept of modal shift away from the private car? Or is the financial support now in place going to be allowed to taper off, with the public transport network reduced and the car as king again?

PS I notice that Hutchinson Ports is paying the extraordinary sum of £100,000 for some part-time advice from the former transport secretary Chris Grayling. The best advice he can give them is to pay no attention to anything he says. Still, at least these ports are real, unlike his phantom ferries.

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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