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

When I commented, in not very favourable terms, on Grant Shapps’ decision to set up and chair a new Northern Transport Acceleration Council I suggested that it would need a team of officials to support him in that role. And so it has come to pass! We’ve set up a new Acceleration Unit! Now, this won’t actually be staffed by officials as such but will engage “experts” with “significant experience in delivering infrastructure projects.”

As we all now know, this new Acceleration Unit will be led by Darren Shirley, currently the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport. I must confess that I scratched my head somewhat when I heard that Darren had been appointed for this role. That’s no disrespect to Darren at all. Far from it. He is a very experienced and effective campaigner. But that’s the point. He’s a campaigner and I am far from clear what expertise he will bring to the Acceleration Unit which is tasked to deliver infrastructure projects more quickly. As far as I know Darren has never worked on an infrastructure project!

Still, I mustn’t jump the gun and I may well have to eat my words, and of course, Darren will be able to draw on the experience of others who do have direct expertise in the delivery of major infrastructure projects. I will follow the work of the Acceleration Unit closely, as I’m sure will the Transport Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Trouble is, I’m currently not sure how we will ever be able to assess whether or not the Acceleration Unit has actually accelerated the delivery of infrastructure projects since, as I understand it, the Unit will only be delivering new projects which don’t yet have a defined completion date. Still, I’ll be interested to hear what measures the Unit intends to introduce that will enable it to say that the projects it delivers have actually been delivered faster than they otherwise would have been. Could be interesting!

Anyway, good luck Darren! I hope you haven’t picked up a poisoned chalice!

It’s no secret that in recent years the Campaign for Better Transport has had difficulty securing adequate funding, and I wonder if Darren has seen the writing on the wall?

Of course, Darren leaves the Campaign for Better Transport after just two years as its chief executive, replacing Stephen Joseph who ran the organisation for, well, almost ever. It’s no secret that in recent years the Campaign for Better Transport has had difficulty securing adequate funding, and I wonder if Darren has seen the writing on the wall? I recall speculating at the time that Stephen announced that he was standing down as its chief executive whether that might be the beginning of the end for the organisation, regardless of who replaced him because, in truth, Stephen was the Campaign for Better Transport.

It would be ironic if, just at the time when decarbonising transport has become a top priority for this department, the one organisation that has for decades been at the forefront of the debate about the need to reduce our dependence on the car and switch to more environmentally friendly forms of transport, was to fold. I hope I’m wrong as there is still a need for organisations such the Campaign for Better Transport.

My suspicion is that the grind of the daily commute is consigned to history

With the holiday season now drawing to a close and schools – hopefully – returning in early September, we will be watching very closely to see if people start to return to their offices. Train operators are again increasing service levels in an expectation that patronage will start to bounce back, but I have a hunch they may be disappointed. With a number of major central London employers announcing that their staff can alternate between home and office working, or in one or two cases work from home permanently, my suspicion is that the grind of the daily commute is consigned to history.

This spells real problems for public transport which I suspect will now be dependent on public subsidy for some years, potentially permanently. It also begs the question whether we need a railway on the size and scale we currently have. I can’t see all those plans, proudly announced before lockdown, to reopen lines closed by Beeching ever seeing the light of day.

The reality is that in the long term it’s unlikely that the Treasury will be willing to bail out the railways on the scale it is today. Of course, patronage will recover to a degree and that will reduce the requirement for subsidy, but I suspect it won’t take it away altogether, and at some point somebody in the Treasury will surely be asking why we need a railway of the size we have if fewer people are using it. I wouldn’t like to be the secretary of state for transport fielding that particular question.

The times, as Bob Dylan once told us, are a-changin’.

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