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Welcome to the new normal...

We are probably not yet halfway through the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK but already people are increasingly thinking about the recovery, the relaxing of the lock-down and a return to ‘normal’.

Without being too dramatic, I do not think the new ‘normal’ will be like the old one.

Transport recovery slow

I predict that public transport volumes may only recover to some 80% of what they were before, with the potential for significant regional variations linked to factors like timescales for recovery of ‘networks’ linked to any service provider casualties.

A whole new cohort of people will have learned to work from home and shop on-line.

Fridays were already noticeably quieter on our networks – I predict the trend will increase.

Employers will downsize/relocate their premises, having learned that some activities can be done virtually and bank the saving. Working virtually will become more ‘normal’.

Shopping and discretionary spending

Retail is already in poor health and emerging from the pandemic will be those who have found more confidence in on-line shopping.

As I write this, Amazon has just announced the recruitment of another 75,000 staff. So those high street shopping trips will take a further nosedive.

And lastly individuals will be recharging their financial batteries. So out will be some of those discretionary trips – to theatre, cinema, museums, restaurants and events. For some this will be total; for others they will simply downgrade their destination and duration.

Snapshot from history

A quick snapshot from history is the 1958 London bus strike. Instead of working from home and on-line shopping, the enemy then was the growth of the motor car and those new television sets. When things resumed ridership started a long decline which lasted over 40 years.

There are those who predict a huge surge in travel when it is possible to do so. Of course, there will be some pent-up frustration.

There will also be those people who decide to just be a bit cautious – not socialise as much, not go to crowded places, in fact just slowly return to ‘normal’ again.

The jury is out on the residual popularity of cruises and the industry that feeds them including air and land-based modes. Coaches are an example; with an industry with so many small operators, highly leveraged with idle vehicles on finance, the coaching sector could easily be considerably harmed.

Much will depend on incoming tourism and we may well be in for a long haul to attract visitors. Some markets are distinctly fickle – US citizens traditionally steer well clear of places that have only a hint of risk and a lot will depend on where oil prices and exchange rates settle.

The government’s money - it’s our money

The Government also has to face the huge cost, prioritising spend for a considerable period into the future.

The country’s financial situation has for a long time been – at best – delicately balanced.

Let’s not forget the Government doesn’t have any money of its own – only ours, and what it borrows.

There is a generation-worth of borrowings now to be repaid which will make the Chancellor’s opportunities for tax reductions and spending increases very limited.

Where then is the Heathrow third runway, HS2 beyond Birmingham, and other major projects? Many are based on a desperate need for capacity. Will this demand still be there and what impact will the uncertainty have on decisions/programme funding and delivery?

Aviation will be in poor shape, the demand for national rail and metro projects perhaps softer, and for how long might the Government’s national ‘management fee’ arrangement for Train Operating Companies have to continue.

Subject to the Williams Review (sections of which might well be in redraft as we speak) will the private sector ever again take on the risk and reward of railway business?

Go Green - new affordability factors

Lastly, we cannot fail to notice the amazing improvement in air quality in our cities since road traffic was so considerably reduced. This I think gives the environmental lobby an even stronger hand for more walking and cycling, and for serious constraints on fossil-fuelled vehicles.

Commitment to ‘go-green’ is widespread; but what new factors on ‘affordability’ that will need to be identified/addressed? Already major European countries are adding their names to the list of capitals asking for the European Green Deal to be central to the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan.

This is a unique opportunity, they say, to transform Europe into a sustainable and climate neutral economy.

All this, of course, is conjecture.

Populations have a long record of not behaving as the statisticians, economists and ‘thought-leaders’ predict.

Nevertheless, what is certain, is that the future is uncertain.


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