Weather again

I’ve done a couple of interviews on transport chaos caused by the freezing conditions and taken the line that as a country we have chosen not to invest massively in the equipment needed to deal with such events.

However, it may well be that climate change means we will have more of them than in the past and that we will have to make those investments. I know it is not a long enough sample, but two bouts of exceptional weather within a calendar year may suggest that things are changing, though as I said on the radio, we may now well get five years of mild winters.

A couple of listeners, though, have made good points about the information given out in these circumstances. There really does seem to be a reluctance to use those very same PA systems that blurt out all the ‘take all your personal belongings’ and ‘if tell us if you see Mr Bin Laden’ nonsense when it comes to providing information about what is happening in the event of a delay or breakdown. I was stuck at Stansted airport last week because of a track circuit failure in the tunnel and it was a good half hour before the driver came on the blower and even then the announcements were intermittent and given reluctantly. 

So while I am reluctant to suggest that billions needs to be spent to deal with exceptional weather, there is no doubt that information could be better. I get plenty of rather smug press releases from dear old ATOC about how they are running extra trains, but it seems people on the ground are not keeping the dear old public informed.  I’d be interested in people’s experiences.

  • Have you noticed the lack of flexibility within the visual PIS for the visually impaired? Let alone for the abled bodied…

  • RapidAssistant

    I always laugh at the line from police “don’t drive unless your journey is absolutely necessary” – some of us have martyrs for bosses who are totally unsympathetic to people’s travel woes and force their employees to take silly chances to get into work….and only end up contributing to road blockages and closures.

    Rant aside, I live in the heart of the storm in Tayside, and even major arterial routes such as the A90 and A9 have had perfunctory attention from snowploughs and grit lorries – it seems the lessons from last year still haven’t been been learnt.

  • Dan

    Nice to see South Eastern unable to offer services on many routes but if HS1 was an alternative:
    “Southeastern High Speed services – a normal service is planned to run. Passengers not holding tickets valid for High Speed services are not permitted to travel on them”

    So is that another ‘FU’ to our paying passengers then? How much effort would it have been to open up these services to nay ticket holders in the current weather conditions. – staggering!


    Meanwhile in my part of the world and across the north they seem to have thrown in the towel on many routes:

    “Poor weather conditions are causing problems on all East Midlands Trains routes.
    In addition, to the problems at Nottingham (vandalism to signalling), trains are being affected by heavy snowfalls and also by staff shortages as some members of train crew are unable to get to work due to poor road conditions.

    No trains are able to run between Sheffield and Liverpool Lime Street because of poor weather conditions at Dore.

    Newark – Lincoln – Grimsby
    No trains will run. No replacement bus services will run”.

    Obviously the adverse weather conditons are no barriers to vandals, just some rail staff, teachers etc!

  • John G

    To be fair, the railway network is fairly robust and will keep operating when other transport options have been severely disrupted / halted by snow, floods, fog, high winds, etc. – I would prefer to travel at speed on a train than any other mode of transport when the going gets rough.

    Yes, I appreciate there will be failures due to frozen points, track circuit failures, OLE damage, third rail ice, etc. – these tend to get fixed fairly rapidly as Network Rail will want to avoid paying penalties for delaying the train operating companys’ services.

    Under extreme weather everything will grind to a halt eventually but the railway is generally one of the last to stop.

  • JG

    I don’t know what planet you live on John G but it ain’t the same one as me! Went out at 1100 today to Irvine station on the Ayr line, no snow lying yes very cold but not extreme and of course the service in chaos, so much so have put off my journey till tomorrow (hopefully!)
    Continual announcement to just basically go away find alternative arrangements (ie the “real” transport system – roads), total a*** covering negativity.
    The real message is “look the main purpose of the rail system as presently set up is to transfer large amounts of cash from taxpayers to low grade low quality bus companies whose grasping managers were in the right place at right time when state assets were given away, not to operate rail services!”

  • Richard

    Firms have contingency plans for all sorts of things these days, so perhaps it’s time that many of them considered how staff can work from home in extreme circumstances. These circumstances need not be weather, but possibly events such as Olympics or even terrorism. Certainly there are certain industries and sectors where it is completely impractical for people to work from home, but many firms could consider how staff need not clog the roads by still working and staying at home to do so. This is likely to only become easier through the large numbers of people with broadband and the growth of cloud computing.

    On the announcement front, perhaps ATOC could consider a general standard among its members for making announcements when a train is stopped – maybe along the lines of a non-automated announcement should be made if a train hasn’t moved for ten minutes, giving details of the cause of delay and likely delay time, plus any upcoming connections that may be missed as a result.

  • Matt

    Information during disruption is poor. This has been recognised by the ORR, and was one the reasons cited by them when asking Network Rail’s renumeration committee to reduce the Network Rail bonuses this year.

    There is an industry project to respond to this problem, although the fruits of it won’t be seen in time for this cold snap.

  • RapidAssistant

    Well if past experiences are anything to go by, if Scotland is managing to muddle through, it usually means that the South has gone into total meltdown……which appears to be the case.

    An acquaintance just managed by a whisker to make it by train to Edinburgh to Dundee and back yesterday, but very touch and go……

  • Jim

    We were left in the biting wind recently waiting for a train that arrived 18 minutes late with no platfom announcement. I wrote to NXEA (for the second time on this matter) and got the usual “sorry but we realise how important it is to you” reply.

    When are we going to be treated like clients rather than cattle. It’s an arrogant industrial culture that pervades the industry.

  • RapidAssistant

    Know how you feel Jim – similar thing happened to me on ScotRail a year ago……I didn’t even bother complaining…because as you say I knew I would get the generic patronising sentence starting:

    “we strive to deliver the very highest levels of customer service, and we realise how important the punctuality of our service is to you, however due to circumstances beyond our control….. etc etc”

    It really does make you want to strangle the people in PR departments that write this drivel….

  • Philip Wylie

    From my recent experience with Southeastern, what the passenger wants is information and civility at the point of use. During the past few days, Southeastern actually sounded angry with its passengers. That, coupled with virtually no audible information, makes travelling in bad weather a little stressful. Southeastern needs to learn again the art of customer care – I know all the difficulties involved at these times and can take almost anything, but please do it with a sense of ‘do as you would be done by’ – many passengers understand the workings of railways and won’t be fobbed off. With some of the highest fare hikes imminent in SE territory, they will have to do a better job. Oh, and if you haven’t heard Nick Ferrari’s interview with a SE Trains spokesperson about stuck trains and stranded passengers, do listen to the podcast (

  • Greg Tingey

    Yesterday, it was incredibly variable, even in London.
    Liverpool Street services were virtually normal, ditto at Waterloo, whereas at London Bridge, they hadn’t a clue.
    Then there was this disgraceful incident overnight:
    This was actually criminal: Unlawful Imprisonment – apparently within sight of Orpington Station. Someone, probably from SouthEaster needs to be jailed for this, if only “Pour encourager les Autres” …

    Why are they so utterly clueless, hopelss and uncaring? And hasn’t anyone got any gumption at all?

  • Derek L

    I am told that the South Eastern problems are associated with the Networkers ability to cope with snow and ice – like they sit down.

    Similarly the Southern services are affected because the newer trains do not like the third rail arcing as a result of ice: the computers detect it as a problem and shut down.

    Waterloo may have been OK Wednesday, but it looks pretty disastrous this evening (Thursday) judging by the live timetable on the NRES site. Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street are also bright pink, but far fewer cancellations and the late running is in the 10 to 30 minutes range.

    It looks like OHLE lines fare better than third rail in ice and snow (although the East Coast performance suggests otherwise).

    Another suggestion I heard was that it might be an idea to put de-icing fluid on the conductor rail before forecast snow, rather than after it has started falling. It seems incredible that that is the case (if it is) and I would welcome comment from anybody who knows whether preventative measures were taken.

    I agree with the overall comment on PIS: generally used to irritate, rather than inform, but when it is required, forget it.

    That said, I have been on First TransPennine, Cross Country and East Coast trains (I live in York) where “ordinary” out of order running has resulted in delays and passengers have been kept fully informed by the guards. It is a pity if that falls down as soon as there is widespread disruption.

  • Allan Hedley

    Just watched an interview with a spokesman from Southern on BBC London News. Just laughable!! He mentioned that the Network Rail de-ice trains were running all night, then the reporter mentioned that Network Rail had problems with the sub-contractor and the de-icer did’nt operate on most routes. Did’nt anyone learn from the February 2009 fiasco?

    Let me ask this question would Chris Green have let the shambolic situation arise again?

    This is what we get from privatisation…. poor communications and profit first.

  • Matt

    The root cause of the problem is the unpredictability of the weather.

    If we experienced this kind of weather year in year out for several months, then a business case would exist for the investment in some of the measures necessary. But we haven’t had a lot of this weather up until the last 3 years. It hadn’t snowed in Surrey for 15 years before 2007.

    If for example this weather clears up and there is a mild winter from mid December onwards, will it be worth spending tens of millions of pounds on some of the measures needed?

    On the information front, please don’t blame the staff you encounter – they will be as much in the dark as you are, and just as frustrated. The problem is to do with the poor information systems, which the industry is addressing.

    With regard to the de-icing fluid, Network Rail can’t use the most effective, oil based substances as they are pollutants (oil would get into the water table). However, if you look at the pictures from the South Eastern and Southern areas, no de-icing fluid would have shifted that sort of snow

  • Keith

    Weren’t some lines saved from closure in the 60s due to being able to keep towns from being cutting off in bad weather? That argument seems to be totally lost, with the irony of replacement bus services.

    Also, are the Southern region units that keep getting stuck, the kind that can only be coupled to by a similar unit, with no chance of a diesel rescue? If so, it’s quite laughable – I’m surprised the tabloids haven’t picked up on that one.

  • Dan

    Matt – there is much in what you say – but I wonder if at the root of the problem it’s not just abscence of equipment, it’s also absence of staff?

    Whilst it is indeed the case that equipment would lie idle if it was snow specific, but some equipment just needs to run through to keep the lines open – there’s loads of idle equipment near me – go past Toton sidings and most of the Class 60 fleet is stood there parked up, and large numbers of other more modern locos too. Back as recently as the 1980s BR would have had these running around light engine – which must help. Now they’d have to be hired in from the owner, which costs – so it does not happen – that’s not about buying specialist equipment – it’s about privatiastion – or its structure (I realise this is not so easy for third rail, but it helps stop point failures etc).

    On the topic of staff – more staff on duty could solve many of these issues and help sort the customer care side – and these same staff would not lie idle the rest of the year would they – no they could be doing other customer focussed tasks.

    As to Chris Green – point well made. As I think I mentioned on a thread here last year I recall a plaque at Inverness Station, in the name of Mr Green, thanking staff for keeping the services running during a bad winter. I see it is designated by the Railway Heritage Ctte (RIP) so – here from their minutes – is the inscription:


    It was agreed to add a second blizzard plaque to the 1997 list of designated signs at Inverness station (ref 1997/08). This read –



    I hope it is still there!

    Check the minute of the next designated plaque for an amusing comment:

  • Gordon

    Christian – there are, to mind, two broad issues sitting behind the ability to deliver a consistent rail service across most of the South Eastern and Southern networks; technological and human. It is evident that both lie at the heart of our current problems.
    For those of us who have been commuting for the past 30 years, the performance of the current 37x/319/460 is woeful compared with the 4CEPs/4CIGs/4VEPs that preceded them. Ice on the conductor rail was just as disruptive then as it is now but with a skilled driver most trains kept running – ok the journey could be a bit jerky as the train went in and out of notch 1 or 2 but we usually got there! In past times, to help keep the network open ‘Snow Trains’ ‘Ghost Trains or ‘Ice Maidens’ (depending on local terminology) were run through the night to help keep the network open. Now, just a thin layer of snow over the conductor rail brings the network to a virtual standstill.
    In the past, when performance details where passed from signal box to signal box or via control have been replaced with systems which enable a degree of interrogation of every planned service. Unfortunately, staff are now routinely absolutely swamped by data. Using “Live Departure Boards” on Wednesday, it was possible to see the progress of all trains running on our local line. Unfortunately trains were frequently shown to be running 60 or 70 minutes late. Why didn’t someone just take the decision to cancel a few trains and have trains running to time or only 10 minutes late? I had planned a journey up to Victoria and was able to spot a service departing Victoria on the down journey 70 minutes late. It was relatively easy to extrapolate the 1 hour journey time and predict when I would get an up service. Meeting some colleagues at the station, they were amazed at what I had worked out – the southern staff hadn’t and were basically saying “Sorry services are being disrupted please listen for announcements”. When the service arrived because it was 70 minutes late it had missed its return slot. So rather than keep it an extra 5 minutes and have it depart on time, yes you’ve guessed, it departed 55 minutes late, just so that the handful of passenger who’d cut it a bit fine were left for another hour.

  • Chris

    I had mixed experiences on Thursday travelling from Godalming to Guildford. (Yes, I could have cycled, or even walked, but I was recovering – still am – from the ‘flu)

    On the up journey the guard actually held the (already very late and practically empty) train for a few extra seconds on the platform to let me get on board and the driver patiently explained that everything was very late but ‘we’ll get you to Waterloo’. Great service!

    On the down: chaos. I had to wait for an hour at Guildford station beside a 12 coach train going nowhere because of a lack of train crews. Two fast trains passed through going down the line but not stopping at intermediate stations – yet at the same time they cancelled the stopping service!

    Finally they worked out that an angry crowd was forming that wanted to get off at the next four stops and they hastily formed a train to carry people on that route. Once on the train information was fine, however. There was even a message that the train was delayed waiting for a snowplough to clear the points just down the line.

    I agree that better information could have been provided, but I think that SW trains did a reasonable job, all things considered. Where they really dropped the ball was pretending on Thursday morning that everything would be fine – then everything fell apart. I only tried to get to work because I checked the website and it seemed to suggest everything would be fine. On Thursday afternoon they finally realised that the thing to do would be to run a special timetable with fewer trains taking longer.

  • Stuart Shurlock

    Here we are on Saturday 4 December and SW Trains is still running a reduced service, with great chunks of the London outer suburban network closed down entirely. Here in Basingstoke, about 100 mm of snow fell at about 5am on Thursday. Virtually no more has fallen since dawn that day. By about midday, all local main roads seemed to be functioning well, with town buses running a near normal service. I took a trip to Winchester (by train) on Friday, and the situation looked about the same there. Strangely enough, the Cross-Country Service seemed to be running perfectly normally, despite transitting several climate zones!

    Why on earth is SW Trains still in a mess 48 hours after the snow stopped falling (it’s now thawing)? The staff must have been able to get to work by midday Thursday at the latest. If the trains have been damaged, then someone needs to look very hard at them. Even if they have trouble with icy conductor rails, it should not put them out of action for days on end.

  • Stuart Shurlock

    Just to add a little to my previous post: I looked into the booking office at Basingstoke station this morning (Monday 6 Dec). A prominent board directly facing the main entrance told us all that ‘Restricted Services’ were running. However, the screen high up on the wall stated “All SW Trains Services are running normally”. I suppose it’s worth putting out both messages, on the grounds that at least one will be correct.

  • RapidAssistant

    Chris/Stuart – obviously the one constant is the line itself – if a number of trains from different operators and origins are getting caught up in the same area, then its the infrastructure to blame.

    The problems being experienced by SWT (as compared to other TOCs) may boil down to a number of factors;

    – is it differing policies between TOCs on dealing with staff shortages or a less robust contingency plan for ‘extreme weather events’ – purely that’s down to fragmentation (again…)

    – comparing commuter with long distance operators is a tricky one since a long distance train (and its crew) may originate from an area of the country totally unaffected by the weather, hence the reason why it may be more ‘reliable’.

    – or has the old railwaymens’ spirit vanished from the industry….? I’m too young, but evidently in ye olden days there was a feeling that the railway was a way of life – like the army, or indeed farming or fishing where you were providing a vital service for the nation to function. Today’s attitude seems to be ‘sod it, the weather is too bad, lets stay at home…’, people will take the car instead.

  • Derek L

    Harking back to Christian’s original post, I have today (6/12) completed a return journey to Birmingham from York, using 3 Cross Country trains in the process.

    Information on the trains was good: the standard PIS was off, and announcements made by the guard/conductor/train manager (whichever you want to call him/her).

    The 45 minute late York – Birmingham (intended to go to Plymouth, but terminated at New Street) had consistent announcements following each station stop of how late we were running, likely arrival time at New Street, and on approach to New Street, a comprehensive announcement of connections, actual times and platforms (virtually everything was running late). The guard had presumably spent a good few minutes on a mobile looking at the live timetable at New Street.

    Travelling back, I caught a late-running Edinburgh via Leeds, where again announcements were manual, including how late we were running and alternatives. The latter included at Derby, the useful information that a Newcastle via Doncaster was right behind us, so I reluctantly de-trained from the HST and hopped on the following Voyager, and for once, was correct – it arrived in York a good few minutes ahead of the Edinburgh.

    Information on that train was also manual and useful – it was fairly lightly loaded (I guess most were on the Edinburgh) and the guard came through to talk to passengers individually about their connection options.

    On station information was a little less useful – I found out that the problem at York on the way down was that a down 91 had failed north of York and that most of the station was full of down services (well, I could see that), so up ECML and southbound Cross Country services could not get in. They kept platforms 3 and 4 clear and used them for the TransPennine Scarborough line services.

    There was no mention on the station PA of the causes of the problems, but I had a chat with platform staff who were happy to provide the information (which included you’ll just have to watch the indicators).

    Overall, I was quite impressed. On the other hand, they have had about a week to start sorting out the problems, and today was by no means the worst day that we have had here.

  • Dave H

    JG – such spot on comments. and why oh why have we persisted over the past 40 years to allow trains to be built which cannot work as a coherent railway – it might even be considered as going back to the decision to standardise on vacuum brakes when the US and most of Europe was using air! Agree with Gordon about the way that old and crude trains could be ‘driven’ having seen a superb recovery of trains stuck climbing to Haslemere on wet rails (one got an electrodiesel shove, and the other used the brute force of a 10 coach Wessex backing an 8-coach slammer but actually isolating the motors on some units to get even traction through the train.

    Only Virgin has maintained the common sense of the old TC/Crompton (blue square) compatibility and NXEA still benefits from the 2-wire TDM which cleverly used the LMS designed lighting control wiring fitted to every passenger coach at that time. Result instant train diesel or electric the choice is yours – no fuss or great technical hiatus of bi-mode etc. One clear detail is that all new trains should be interoperable and all refurbishments should deliver a standard coupling system with if necessary a plug-in translator module that enables at least basic rescue if not full functional train operation.

    I’ve punted the idea that we should have a Deliner compatible diesel loco for the EMU fleet – it would not be solely for Thunderbirds duty. The wasted capacity of running a 2-4 coach DMU between Oxted and London or Hastings and Brighton could be resolved and a diesel hauled EMU could be taken over the non-electrified portion of the route. The North Downs Line could be operated by units that are under-utilised shuttling or laying over between Redhill/Reigate, Guildford./Ascot etc releasing the DMU’s AND having the line operated by EMU’s ready for a longer term electrification. The plug and play option would allow trains to operate instead of buses where engineering work takes out the power but leaves track available.

    South West Trains action to immediately put a Snow Timetable in operation, and switch their website to show this, dealt with a failing of the bean counted railway in having no contingency reserves of staff or stock, and in doing this attempting (but still its seems failing) to reduce that “waiting for an incoming service” excuse.

    What seems inexcusable is the tale that some operators could find resources to hound passengers for their tickets whilst platforms remained coated in snow and ice for an apparent lack of staff to clear this. Some might warrant a reminder of HSAW Section 3 and their duty of care to non-employees on their premises, and the failure to clear this obvious hazard within a reasonable period of time and sense of urgency. I would urge everyone who has slipped to make sure this is reported through the RIDDOR process, to ensure we get true picture of the lack of importance afforded to the issue by some operators. Others with greater expertise might even be able to confirm the appropriate conditions for waiting passengers that would align with the similar conditions expected to apply to the welfare of employees during cold weather. There must surely be a trigger point for providing shelter and warmth for those waiting in sub-zero conditions.

    Finally the performance of TOC’s on SMS and Twitter shows a vast gulf between the exemplars – Like Chiltern and LondonMidland and those whose failings left a vacuum which was rapidly filled by @_southeastern and the less PC (and sweary) @Southern_Trains, with some insider feeds being even more couthy and informative “The trains are fecked – stay at home” Almost time to have a top 10 ranking I think

  • Dan

    Heres’ someone who may need a reality check – are we saying what the Se faced was “very, very heavy snow” – I’d say that was suggesting 1947 or 1963 levels – is that the case? And yet they more or less threw in the towel way before that sort of level. Why not simply be honest – “if we get snow, we’ll give up running services and hope you can use the roads”.

    What a long way from the point mentioned above by Keith that certain routes were retained precisely because rail could keep them served, when roads would close (Keith – I think this argument was used re Highland routes in particular, from what I have read).

    “Thursday’s snow is expected to cause renewed travel disruption and today the head of Southeastern trains warned that the old Scouts motto of “be prepared” was not enough. Charles Horton, whose company brings in an above-average 7% fare rise next month, said: “If there is very, very heavy snow, we are always going to find it a struggle to provide a good service.” “

  • Gordon

    Dan – NO!

    The SE faced only moderate falls of snow – unfortunately technology couldn’t cope

  • Dan

    Gordon – thanks – I suspected that was the case!

  • Stuart Shurlock

    Further to my earlier post, South West Trains have instituted a ‘Restricted Timetable’ again today (Monday). I don’t have any beef with running fewer trains when things get iffy, but this SW Trains thing deliberately leaves loads of outer suburban stations without any trains at all. Eg Hampton Court, Shepperton, Chessington. Those are all served by older BR clanky trains which I thought were the sort that could bash their way through minor problems like ice on the conductor rail. Anyway, it’s now two days on since it snowed hard (100mm !) in this part of the world. Why haven’t they got the whole thing going again by now? They need to be asked to justify this wholesale station closure malarkey. It’s grossly unfair on those who rely on those particular stations, when there’s probably no specific reasons why they should be picked on.