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

A quick read of the recent letter from the chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Meg Hillier MP, to our permanent secretary will confirm to you, just in case you are in any doubt, just how much work this department has to do and how the pandemic has, if you will forgive the pun, driven a coach and horses through our policy agendas.

Wherever we look there are uncertainties, the most fundamental of which is that we don’t in all honestly really have a clue what future passenger numbers and behaviours will be once the pandemic has passed. Still, at least we are in good company with the forecast numbers of deaths and hospital admissions which were presented to the country by the prime minister and the chief scientific adviser, Chris Whitty, to justify a second national lockdown being widely ridiculed almost as soon as they were published, and proved to be inaccurate and out of date.

The PAC has asked for our assessment of future bus and rail numbers and behaviours, but I just don’t know how we can do this with any confidence that our assessments will be accurate. We are venturing into the unknown, and while we obviously have to make some kind of assessment as to what future demand for public transport might be, I do hope nobody blames us when this proves to be inaccurate.

Have we actually got more on our plate than we can deal with?

Still, you can’t argue with the PAC’s recognition that this department has a large and challenging portfolio with major pieces of work to be concluded and taken forward – from the Aviation Recovery Strategy, the Decarbonisation Plan, a National Bus Strategy, working out what on earth to do with the Williams Rail Review, dealing with the National Infrastructure Commission’s review of Phase 2b and its related Integrated Rail Plan, developing a long term funding plan for Transport for London, the Union Connectivity Review, the implications of Brexit for the transport sector, and much else beside. Have we actually got more on our plate than we can deal with? A silly question perhaps, because we have no choice but to deal with all of these issues as best we can.

One of the issues that I find most intriguing is what the future will be for the likes of FirstGroup, Stagecoach and the other private operators of public transport services. One thing is for sure – the golden era of privatisation and the opportunity for private companies to make decent profits out of public transport services is well and truly over. For buses, some companies are perfectly happy with, indeed prefer, the franchise model but in large part these are state-owed (Abellio for example) or part state-owned so I’m sure they see life through a rather different prism compared to a genuine private company with shareholders such as FirstGroup.

FirstGroup, Stagecoach and others have seen their share prices collapse as a result of the pandemic and it would not surprise me in the least if they were being eyed up by equity investors as ripe for takeover. If you can snap up one of these companies when their share price is at rock bottom, then even if the future market is predominantly based on franchises or management contracts with modest management fees, then the returns may still be quite attractive.

I think it’s going to be quite a while before we can make any sensible predictions as to what this level of demand will actually be

Perhaps this time next year when, God willing, the pandemic is over we will have a much clearer idea of the level of demand for public transport. But I think it’s going to be quite a while before we can make any sensible predictions as to what this level of demand will actually be, so while I understand why the PAC may be asking us to provide some assessment of this demand today, I question how sensible it is to actually do so. Because I fear that we may make an assessment today which proves widely inaccurate and then is used at a later date by the PAC, and doubtless others, to berate us for not being on top of our job.

You might think I am therefore sympathetic towards Chris Whitty for the criticism he is coming in for over those forecasts which were seemingly used to justify a second lockdown. I most certainly am not because he was using figures and forecasts which at the time were already out of date and historic and were immediately questioned by those in the know. Was the decision to impose a second lockdown based on a false assumption? It certainly seems that way. In making our own forecasts of future demand for public transport I trust we won’t be turning to Professor Whitty for any guidance!


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This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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