Tuesday, 21 December 2010

It's snow joke: Winter worries and festive fury, why does the snow always take us by surprise?

The past few days have seen hundreds of flights cancelled, many roads either closed, clogged, or impassable, and the travel plans of millions left in tatters. Suffice to say the conditions have been challenging, extremely so in many cases, with temperatures of -19 degrees a reality for a number of areas across the country. However the frustration of those who, since the beginning of the weekend, have been stranded at Heathrow, an airport accustomed to managing tens of millions of passengers per year, is perfectly understandable. I raise the following question: why does the snow always catch us out, and when will this country finally take the necessary precautions to avoid any repeat of the present disaster. Prime Minister David Cameron today expressed his "frustration" at the current travel problems, but in reality his words will be of little consolation to those who have been trapped, in a manner one particular news programme referred to as akin to 'refugees', in the various terminals of London's airports, particularly Heathrow. The so-called 'weather excuse' is often wheeled out by the transport, particularly the aviation, authorities during such times of travel chaos. But how long will this continue to provide an adequate explanation for such an unprecedented level of disruption?

One could plausibly argue that given the events of recent years, Britain's airport and railway operators, particularly the much maligned British Airports Authority (BAA), should have put in place an appropriate structure to deal with circumstances that were in fact easily anticipated and warned of for a number of weeks by those with the ability of foresight. Yet the failures of the past few days have been a most unimpressive cocktail of short and long-term factors. On the longer term side of the debate, for an airport known to have flown 66 million passengers during the previous year, to not have the necessary snow-clearing facilities to ensure that the runway can be kept as clear as possible during times of intense snowfall, and quickly and effectively cleared following such downpours in order to continue an 'adequate', not even full, level of operations, is outrageous. It seems to me that complacency has long been the order of the day at the busiest airport in the United Kingdom and the European Community. Corners appear to have been cut, and necessary checks and balances to guard against total collapse of flight output seem to be non-existent. The fact that, as revealed earlier today on ITV News, there are no processes in place to rate airports on the manner in which they deal with snow and ice, shows the extent to which the problem has been swept under the carpet and quietly ignored until, of course, the recent debacle.

Yet the worst part of all, for my mind, has been the short-term events which have characterised the passenger misery of the past few days. Passengers and prospective fliers have been provided with almost no information as to whether or not their flights will be going ahead; for those stranded in the terminals one would imagine that such information, however seemingly minor and insignificant, would have been akin to manna from heaven. Yet sadly the response of the authorities and those 'managing' the crisis has simply been to disregard the needs, and concerns, of the troubled and concerned passengers confined to the terminal walls in West London. Furthermore, when one takes into account that it has taken four days, three since the snowfall ended on Saturday, to bring the airport back to even limited capacity - estimated to be around 1/3 - BAA, its requisite staff members and relevant associates should be highly embarrassed. Lessons may have been learnt, but I highly doubt that an aggrieved British public will permit such a frivolous 'learning curve' to repeat itself, or that those who have seen 2010 end on a sour note will pay any regard to pleas for leniency and calm from those who may not have caused this crisis, but have undeniably exaggerated it.

The British transport network has long been a thorn in the side of the plans of millions of Britons throughout the festive period, with extortionate fares, inadequate timetabling, frequent delays and sometimes cancellations anathema to many sick of paying for such an unreliable system. Add snow to this mixture and it becomes positively toxic. One would expect, whether rightly or wrongly and I suggest that it may be a mixture of the two, that should Britain's airports fail to cope with the seasonal weather, the trains and motorways should be able to step into the breach. Alas, for this Christmas at least, it's a case of no such luck. The suspension of the East Coast Main line is by no means the end of the misery. Dozens of train companies across the country have cancelled train services at a time when those attempting to undergo domestic flights are turning to rail travel as an answer to their prayers. Eurostar passengers have been equally affected, being informed that they could experience anything up to an astonishing six-hour wait upon arrival at the St. Pancras Terminal. Southwestern Trains, Arriva Trains Wales, and many services in the North and South-East of England have been severely affected, and are not yet back to capacity.

When you consider the possibility of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail network being factored into this debate, and the potential for greater disruption becomes monumental unless a frank and full change of attitude takes place amongst those responsible for our transport infrastructure. Roads are always a problem in snow and ice, and few can really complain about constant snowfall stretching grit supplies to breaking point; it is simply the combination of road, rail and air that has so devastated Britons heading home or to visit relatives over a festive period which, let us not forgot, comes just once a year. We can only hope that the authorities get the message, and take on board the message of this simple adage: 'fail to plan and plan to fail'. Whilst nobody is suggesting that the hold-ups, cancellations, and transport collapse have been planned; they certainly appear to have been exaggerated by the inadequate preparations, shortage of necessary equipment, incompetent and unsympathetic 'crisis management’ and failure to take into account the needs of passengers.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Frui, Tree Badger, Reuters, The Telegraph

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