Commons Gate

The effects of adverse weather conditions on travel (HC 328-ii)

Transport Committee 2 Apr 2009

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Evidence given by:
11.15 am London Assembly Transport Committee, Valerie Shawcross, Chair; East London Bus Company, Mr Nigel Barrett, Chief Executive Officer
12 Noon Mayor of London, Boris Johnson; Transport for London, Mr Peter Hendy, Transport Commissioner

Q172 Mr. David Clelland: Just listening to the responses, are you satisfied that there is enough clarity between the various parties, the London boroughs, the London Assembly, the Mayor, TfL, as to who is responsibility for what in these circumstances?

Ms Shawcross: When people are doing what they are supposed to do, yes. I think there was a failure at the interface. I think TfL and the boroughs were not co-ordinating soon enough, because there will always be some small, on the ground issues that need resolving.

Q173 Mr. David Clelland: I know we are talking about public transport here but was there any evidence, for instance, that emergency vehicles were disrupted because of the snowfall? Were they able to get to emergencies?

Ms Shawcross: We had some information from the London Ambulance Service. They found it quite difficult. They said they were having to park on main roads and then carry patients to and from. But of course I think all the emergency services had some difficulty with staffing, and individual workers went to extraordinary lengths to get into work. I have heard some extraordinary stories about people walking miles and miles and miles through the snow. That, for us, was why the collapse of the transport system was so significant. It did not matter for many people that they worked at home or they took their kids out, but there was a core of essential need in London that was ill-served that day, and that was our principle concern.


Q184 Mr. David Clelland: I have no doubt that lessons have been learned from this and new and different procedures might be put in place if it happened again, but what research has been done into the likelihood of it happening again? Is this something we should put down as being a one-off, or is this something we should put down to climate change that might become a regular occurrence? What sort of forward research is being done in that particular regard?

Ms Shawcross: As far as I am aware, these are incidents that happen about once every 20 years on average in London. They are less likely, I gather, because of climate change, but we did not take any specific advice from the Committee's point of view. Maybe it is the case in hindsight that most of the people in senior management in the transport system in London were not in those positions 20 years ago, the last time there was this kind of snowfall, so they were not mentally prepared for what it would be like.

Q185 Mr. David Clelland: Future planning will not be based on any necessary major changes because you do not expect that to happen any more regularly than it has in the past, therefore the need for different kinds of equipment and that sort of thing will be based on that sort of judgement.

Ms Shawcross: The London Assembly Transport Committee has asked TfL to look in detail at what they could have done better and we expect them to do that. We will get a report back from them, and if we are not satisfied, we will see them again. We expect them to do some work on how they will handle it better next time. We certainly do.

Mr Barrett: We have this major incident procedure within our company. It does not just deal with adverse weather, but everything from riots, to demonstrations, to pandemic flu. We test it regularly, and we tested it for real on that particular day. We have learned lessons from it and we have added sections to our own plans. I am sure that most of the bus operators in London have done the same. It is a living document that we keep up to date with the changes, to everything and not just that.

Q186 Mr. David Clelland: Although there might be differences in co-ordination and in organisation, in terms of equipment you do not feel there is necessarily the need for investing in new equipment because it is not likely to happen very often anyway.

Ms Shawcross: We would expect more preparation next time, because, to some extent, the co-ordination of the event is extremely important but it is completely lost if you have not done any advance preparation planning. We would expect TfL and the boroughs working jointly to tighten their act in terms of preparation next time there is a weather warning.


Q205 Mr. David Clelland: It was not a question about whether it was safe to run; it was about why it was not safe to run that we are trying to get to the bottom of and why more was not done to ensure that it was safe to run. We understand the exceptional circumstances of the weather at the time but what we are trying to do is establish whether things could have been done better.

Mr Johnson: You are just trying to put the blame on a Tory Mayor; that is what you are trying to do. It is pathetic, is it not?

Q206 Mr. David Clelland: Select committees bring all sorts of people in front of them, from the Prime Minister down to secretaries of state and the Governor of the Bank of England. The Mayor seems particularly irritated that he has had to come along here today. I think he ought to have acted in a more responsible way in the office that he holds. This Committee is trying to get to the bottom of what costs London a lot of money and could have cost lives; there is no doubt about that at all, and therefore we have to try and ensure that we can find some way to correct things that might have gone wrong. Is the Mayor telling us that everything he did was perfectly correct, that he has no lessons to learn and that if this happens again he will act in exactly the same way as he has this time? Is that what he is telling us?

Mr Hendy: It is an operational question.

Mr Johnson: I am delighted to appear before this Committee but I should just say to this Committee, that you have distinguished colleagues in the London Assembly who greatly resent it when I appear before you because they feel it is their job to scrutinise what I do. I am delighted by the fascination these Manchester MPs are all showing in what happened in London, and quite right too, but I put it to you, Mrs Ellman, that there are people in City Hall who feel it is their job to scrutinise what I do, and I think it was the learned and distinguished Assembly member Mr John Biggs who criticised me the day after for going to talk to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Q207 Chairman: Yes, Mayor, I do appreciate that, but could you answer the question?

Mr Johnson: With the greatest possible respect to your august Committee, Mrs Ellman, I am dealing with a London Assembly that is very jealous of its prerogatives, a fledgling body that wants to safeguard its right to be the primary crucible in which the Mayor can be tested, and in my view quite rightly. I do want to answer your question, Mr Clelland - I cannot remember what it was now - about whether I had -----

Q208 Mr. David Clelland: Any lessons to learn.

Mr Johnson: ----- anything to learn.

Q209 Mr. David Clelland: What are they then?

Mr Johnson: The very important lesson to learn is that when you have a severe meteorological event on a scale where you have disruption of this kind you have always got to remember that the public will be getting information about what has happened of a kind that can be distorting and misleading, and it is very important that you get the message out quickly because a lie can go halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. The reality is, as I think you were alluding to yourself, that there were very considerable safety risks involved in getting those buses on the road. It took a great deal of time to extract the fundamental point, which was that there had been 30 accidents in the run-up to that very proper decision by the Controller of CentreComm, and if I have a regret it is that it took, I think, at least 24 hours and a lot of harrumphing from distinguished people perhaps --- I do not know; I cannot remember what you said, but there was a lot of harrumphing about London coming to a standstill before people realised quite what the safety issues were. That data about the danger posed by allowing 12-tonne buses onto the streets and that information about why it was necessary to make the decision, as the Controller of CentreComm did, could have been got out more rapidly.

Q210 Mr. David Clelland: That is what other people were doing. I was asking about your role, whether you feel in your role you did everything necessary in facing this particular emergency and would you do anything different next time?

Mr Johnson: As I have tried to say to you, I think, in the urgency of the day and during the difficulties transport was encountering on Monday morning, in hindsight it would have been a good thing if I had had at my fingertips the kind of information about the reasons why the CentreComm Controller took the decision he did. I think that would have been helpful. I think what it would have done, to be totally clear, is that it would have stopped a story getting legs, because the story immediately became, "London's buses have been paralysed for no reason at all", and that other cities around the world had been able to cope, "Look at New York", and look at everything else. Parenthetically I should say that that is not true. If you look at other cities around the world, when they do have exceptional snowfalls of this kind they are equally paralysed. The lesson I take away from it is the vital importance of communicating fast with the public what has really happened, because it was certainly open to people, who may have been mischievous or who may not have been mischievous, to portray the paralysis of the buses as something that could have been solved with a click of the fingers. That simply was not the case.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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