Who would have expected that we would live in a time when it was illegal to play cricket in the park or even sunbathe? That we would all be queuing with masks on outside shops? That millions would be out of work and a magic money tree would have sprouted up?
In transport terms, it is very difficult to predict how this will pan out. In the short term the railways have been nationalised, hundreds of millions have been provided to retain bus services and virtually the whole airline fleet in the UK has been grounded. The interesting question is what happens when the lockdown starts to be relaxed.. My view is that this will happen in stages and is likely to be partial – both geographically and over time, and possibly demographically. Will the vulnerable and the people with underlying health conditions have to stay in longer? Will some shops and catering establishments be allowed to open before others? Will some regions be freed first? And so on.
Then, most important, will any lessons have been learnt from the biggest change in the way we live our lives since the Second World War. Clearly the amazing improvement in air quality, the readiness of people to forego travel, the readiness to adapt to major changes and the restructuring of the rail industry will have lasting impacts. A return to the normal of congested roads, unbreathable air and a transport policy that takes no account of the needs of pedestrians and cyclists cannot be the height of our politicians’ ambitions. Surely even the Tories will have realised that the lockdown has highlighted some of the maddest aspects of the society that we allowed neo-liberal economics to have created?
Maybe not. There is a real possibility that not only will things will quickly return to the way they were, but actually the future will be worse than the past. Say, for example, that people will decide that public transport is too risky and they will prefer resorting to using their car through fear of catching disease from fellow passengers? Or that the economic damage to many public transport organisations, both public and private, has been so profound that they cannot recover? Or that the government will prioritise boosting the car industry over supporting public transport and possibly even cut taxes on car use?
We will need the right levers to be applied through the nudges that seem to be the favoured way to bring about change among the No 10 advisers. Increasing fuel duty, especially given the low oil price that will last for years to come, introducing road pricing, supporting public transport especially urban buses, having a crash programme of cycle lanes and speeding up electrification of both road and rail transport – all these would lead to sensible outcomes whereby some of the gains made during this terrible crisis will be retained. Remember it took an IRA bombing campaign for the City of London to restrict car use, a policy which has continued to such an extent it is now the most environmentally conscious transport authority in the country. This crisis too could result in the introduction of a completely different transport strategy.
I so want to be an optimist in this respect, but somehow I can’t see a Tory government with such an uninspiring set of ministers able to grasp this. There are only two or three ministers on the Tory frontbench who are not swivel –eyed ideologues and our only hope is that some of their colleagues will have learnt lessons about the failings of our system from this crisis. But unfortunately I am not holding my breath.
The Labour front bench needs to be setting out plans and ideas for the post lockdown period. And they need to be articulating them now. Going back to the bad old days must not be the default option, the easy route out of this monumental crisis.
Books Books Books
I dug up a whole batch of my book Fire & Steam in my attic during lockdown and flogged off a bunch via Twitter. If you want one, send me a fiver plus £3 p and p via Christian.firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also found stocks of other books there – Great Railway Revolution and Blood Iron and Gold but these are a bit pricier because I paid more for them – a tenner each plus p and p, while my new books Railways and the Raj, The Crossrail Story and Railways are all £15 each but I will let you off the P & P