Snow story no story

It was predictable that the transport industry would be the Aunt Sally for the media during the recent ridiculously-termed ‘snow events’. And it was equally predictable that the industry has for the most part been very poor at defending itself.

That is not to say that the industry responded magnificently. Quite the opposite. There were real failings that exposed a lack of foresight and contingency planning but there was also some real successes and much of the criticism was not justified and uninformed. For example, it would be ridiculous for Britain to invest the same level of resources as, say, Zurich or Moscow to deal with snowfall, but that was clearly the implication in some of the TV reporting. Investing to cope with an event that occurs once in every twenty years is not justifiable.

And there was some daft reporting with the media quick to declare this a national crisis. Top prize goes to the BBC’s fireman Robert Hall flying round Britain in a helicopter while various amounts of money, supposedly the cost to the economy of the episode, flashed up on snow fields below. These figures are just plain nonsense, based on upscaling guesstimates from organisations like the British Chambers of Commerce or the CBI.

However, there were some real own goals. The worst was the cancellation of London’s entire bus schedule on the Monday morning with the Mayor, Boris Johnson, blustering about ‘this being too much of the right kind of snow’.

There seemed to be two main excuses (which is always a cause for suspicion since one reason should be enough): that the roads leading to the bus depots had not been treated and that ‘a 15 tonne bus sliding around on the roads is too dangerous’. Neither of these ‘reasons’ is good enough. Many depots are on main roads and therefore buses could have got out; and buses have been running on skiddy roads since they were invented. They are more likely to skid when it rains, so will buses be banned every time there is a shower? The dead hand of ‘health and safety’ seems have played a part. As an aside, people trying to ring London Travelwatch to complain on the day will have been greeted by an answerphone saying the office could not be staffed due to the bad weather.

The biggest failing was undoubtedly contingency planning which should have ensured that roads between bus depots and main roads were cleared as a matter of priority. As Val Shawcross, the chair of the transport committee of the London Assembly, which is carrying out an enquiry into the debacle suggests, there should be a set of priority bus routes on which resources are targeted in an emergency.

On the railways, too, it was noticeable how easily services were abandoned. Shortage of staff was given as the main reason but again there was a total absence of any concerted attempt to ensure that services kept running. A contingency plan on the railways would take account of where drivers and signallers live, so that in an emergency key workers could be given priority and brought to work. But somehow it seems that the operating companies feel it is all too much of a hassle and that since the railways are a marginal form of transport these days, it does not matter. In fact, it is precisely that sort of attitude which will ensure the role of the railways remains marginal.

However, there was also a lot to commend the performance of the industry. Some train companies like Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales were able to keep functioning or, if they were not, they provided good information to their passengers. On the roads, by and large the local authorities did well. Again, the story focussed on an issue where the industry simply could not win, the amount of grit available to use on the roads. If the councils stored enough to grit every road continuously for a month, there would be an outcry at the waste and the vast dumps littering the countryside. The media was, at times, almost trying to manufacture a crisis out of this, and the AA and RAC made all the predictable noises with little concern for the realities facing cash-stricken local authorities.

On the Underground, quietly, the management seems to have done exactly the right thing: concentrate on services that they could run with the available drivers, even if that meant curtailing routes. Having a unified management running the whole system must have helped in that regard, compared with the separation that has been imposed on the railways. But I only found this out when a senior manager from the Underground rang me in response to an article I wrote in the Evening Standard. LU should have been better at getting its message across.

Ultimately, the transport spokespeople should have tried harder to get a sense of perspective over the media. Tough, I know, but not enough was done in that regard. More information, a more proactive approach backed by better contingency planning and more coordination would all have reaped benefits. At Inverness station, there is a small plaque dating back to the 1980s thanking the staff of British Rail for their efforts in keeping the railway going at a time of very harsh weather. I suspect that no such plaques will be erected this time even though some people may deserve them.

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