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

So lockdown is gradually coming to an end. But the transport industry is struggling to get patronage back to anywhere near pre-lockdown levels, not least because we have the rather curious spectacle of our transport ministers still encouraging people to avoid using public transport if they can. What I don’t understand is that if the government is willing to see pubs and restaurants open up, albeit with a “one metre plus” rule in place, why we are asking people to avoid public transport? If people wear face coverings, is using public transport really that dangerous? And with the evidence emerging that many people who normally commute to work intend to carry on working from home for a good part of the week, is public transport ever really going to go back to the days of the rammed, full to bursting, rush hour train journeys?

Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to use public transport so long as they use face coverings and a goodly dose of common sense

Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to use public transport so long as they use face coverings and a goodly dose of common sense – by, for example, not getting on a train that is clearly already quite full and simply waiting for the next one. It seems to me our messaging lacks any kind of logic. Most commuters are not in the age range when you become most at risk to the virus so I really can’t see why we are going to such lengths to discourage the use of public transport.

And since it is now looking increasingly likely that the current Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs) with the train operators are likely to be extended by up to two years, shouldn’t we be trying to coax passengers back onto the railways in order to reduce the huge cost of the EMAs to the taxpayer? It seems to me that we really don’t have much idea quite what to do, although in reality our room for manoeuvre is pretty limited as I have little doubt that many of the train operators would be happy to walk away from the industry altogether unless the government agrees to carry on taking the financial risk at least for the next year or so. There is little discernible evidence that we have a strategy to deal with all of this.

I think we have a problem with the coach industry too. The reality is that many coach companies are going to go bust. The problem here is that it is the quality operators that, I’m told, are most at risk. This is because – how shall I put this politely? – it is the poorer quality coach companies that are being kept afloat by virtue of the fact that they are still being paid by local authorities for their school coach contracts – even though these services aren’t actually being operated. And it’s the poorer quality operators that tend to pick up these local authority school contracts because they bid low for them.

Sad, is it not, that the quality operators are likely to go to the wall while poor quality operators are being kept afloat on the back of taxpayer support? That’s about as back to front as you can get.

The reality is that our public transport policies are in tatters, courtesy of COVID-19

The reality is that our public transport policies are in tatters, courtesy of COVID-19. I’m not suggesting this is anybody’s fault – the pandemic has simply driven a coach and horses through any policies we might have been developing because the number of people actually travelling has collapsed. What I don’t understand is that, now the virus is dying out, we are still telling people to avoid using public transport while at the same time asking train companies to get back to as close to the pre-lockdown timetables and frequencies as they can. Train companies are being asked to put on all the services they can while we are busy telling people to avoid using them! If we are telling people not to use public transport, shouldn’t train services be reduced to reflect reduced demand? OK, the social distancing rules make this more complicated than that simple logic suggests, I grant you that, but it’s quite hard to see much logic here. Why don’t we just let people use their common sense?

And our announcement on air bridges to allow people to decide where to go on holiday abroad was confusing to say the least. We happily announced that there are 75 countries where you don’t have to go into 14-day quarantine on your return to the UK. Hurrah! Happy Days! Where’s my passport? Except that we failed to tell people at the same time that only 25 of these countries will actually allow you into their country without having to go into quarantine, and some of them won’t even allow UK residents in at all. Boo!! Put passport away!

You really could not have had a more shambolic announcement if you had tried.


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