Alan Hyde: Getting to grips with Arctic weather to keep UK moving

WHENEVER there's severe weather, "travel chaos" news headlines invariably follow.

For a weather-obsessed nation, we Brits can get very hot under the collar about meteorological interruptions to our routine.

A frosty blast of indignation blows away our usual stoicism when we compare the serious effect that a light dusting of snow has on our transport system with the apparent ease of movement in other countries gripped by more severe and treacherous conditions.

We struggle to understand why we seem to get it so wrong so often, when other countries find keeping people moving a relative breeze.

But such an impression often belies the reality. Other countries with similarly temperate climates to ours also struggle to cope in a big freeze, but naturally we are less concerned, so hear little about it.

Canadian or Scandinavian visitors to Britain might raise a frosted eyebrow or two at the fuss we make. But because they experience worse weather, more often and for longer, they have the resources to deal with it more effectively. Supply follows demand.

Prolonged Arctic weather can extract a heavy toll, so it's vital that the transport sector does all it can to keep Britain moving.

Otherwise people are put at risk; the vulnerable and infirm become trapped in their homes; businesses suffer (the Federation of Small Businesses estimated that more than one in 10 firms had to close during last winter, with 40 per cent suffering transport disruption); and there's a cost burden to the nation at a time when it can afford it least.

An independent winter resilience review, commissioned by Government last spring and published in October, assessed that recent winters cost the economy 1bn, mainly in lost time and journeys. Against this, the cost to English highway authorities of providing a winter service is only 160m a year.

The report reviewed how our transport system coped with the last two winters – the worst for almost 30 years, following a decade of relatively mild weather. It found that the rail, air and road networks generally rose well to the challenge. And although there were disruptions, recovery was fairly swift, particularly on main routes.

The chief problem related to the lack of sufficient salt supply for the road network.

The report made a number of pragmatic recommendations, including:

Import more road salt, boost output from British salt suppliers and get councils to make more economical use of salt, as experience showed that lower spread rates did not appear to reduce effectiveness in making roads safe.

Councils should be more targeted in modest re-allocations of winter expenditure to meet local demands, while recognising the challenge of budgetary cuts. For example, it can cost less than 100 in road salt to keep a major facility, such as a port, open.

More attention should be paid to clearing footpaths and cycleways.

Greater use of de-icing trains on the railways.

Extra de-icing supplies for aircraft and runways and improved availability of airline punctuality information for customers.

Given that most journeys involve several stages and types of transport – such as walking or driving to the railway station and then making connecting rail trips, or taking the park and ride into town – two key challenges are co-ordination and communication.

Inevitably, several organisations will be involved across each journey experience, so joining the operational dots and providing "whole journey" information becomes more problematic.

Nonetheless, there has been significant progress in providing more accurate and timely information, using all available communication channels, including Twitter and other new media. But more can be done and people need to know where to get the information, and it needs to be better targeted.

Communication between transport firms is also crucial. Local highway authorities, for example, need to consult earlier and more widely on which roads they plan to treat and when, so that taxi firms, coach and bus operators, and the public can be advised.

It's also important to ensure that responsibility for gritting "boundary areas", such as station forecourts, is agreed in advance to avoid potential stand-offs in the snow.

Overall, most transport companies work hard to keep their core service open in challenging conditions. The guiding principle for rail and air travel, which is not always followed, is that it is better to take early, decisive action in implementing emergency schedules, rather than soldiering on with steadily deteriorating reliability.

This ensures a better recovery and gives certainty to travellers (if unwelcome at times) to make more informed travel choices. It also helps train operators and airlines to get their trains and planes in the right place for the benefit of most customers.

The new Government has recently commissioned another review into how the transport system performs this winter and any lessons to be learned. Let's hope that the findings don't get the cold shoulder.

Alan Hyde is managing director at O'Malley Hyde Communications, former head of communications on the East Coast railway and ex-head of public affairs at National Express UK.