The second lockdown has just started and I see little way out of this crisis for the transport industry. As I write, there are hopes of a vaccine but I remain rather sceptical about this for two reasons. First, I suspect delivering the millions of required new doses will take far longer than suggested and there will be remaining doubts about its safety.
Secondly, will even widespread vaccination give confidence back to people? The messaging about public transport has been so negative and all-pervasive that it will take a long time for many people to overcome their fears. And even when they do, the huge numbers working from home will be reluctant to return to the office full time. The Times on November 9 reported that only 7 per cent of those who had been working at home wanted to return full time. It is clear that the rush hour as we knew it is dead. In some respects this is a good thing as few people enjoy straphanging in overcrowded trains and for the rail companies, investing in providing extra capacity just to use at rush hour is expensive and unprofitable.
However, it seems we have gone from one extreme to another. Rail use is so low that there are threats of major cuts to the network – see my Rail column and news story here – and despite recovering a bit between the lockdowns, patronage never reached more than 40 per cent of pre-Covid levels.
The key will be to revitalise and somewhat repurpose the railways. My initial thought would be for a national railcard available to all offering at least a third discount, together with the abolition of the whole concept of peak fares. The save return should be the basic long distance fare and the cost of a return should be set at twice the single fare, not this ridiculous notion of charging high amounts for the outward leg and £1 for the return.
Without such measures, it is unclear to see how the railways will ever become viable again. Depressingly, not only has car usage gone back up to pre-Covid levels, but even the small number of attempts to mitigate this with low traffic neighbourhoods and cycle lanes have met with fierce resistance – see my article in LabourList here – and, as I write this, the inevitable motion in Parliament calling it a war on motorists has been put forward by, fortunately, just 14 MPs. Those ‘motorists’ are the same group of people benefitting from the £27bn in road schemes promised by our petrolhead chancellor.
In these trying times, at least I have my new book and two editions of older ones to cheer about. My new book, Cathedrals of Steam, the story of London’s terminus stations, has pleasingly already been reprinted because of high advance orders, despite the fact that bookshopsare only partially open at best. You can get a discounted signed copy – £18 plus £3 – from me just email – Christian.firstname.lastname@example.org and send £21 to my bank account, 16 00 48 – 14370777 – RBS via BACS or just pay via Paypal. And if you are feeling lucky, you can enter this little competition which involves recognising six features at London stations, to see if you can win a free book.
I also have copies of the new and expanded edition of Driverless cars: on a road to nowhere? and of The Subterranean Railway, which has an extra chapter on Crossrail and a fab new cover – a tenner each for those including P & P.