Commons Gate

The effects of adverse weather conditions on transport in the United Kingdom (HC 328-i)

Transport Committee 11 Mar 2009

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Evidence given by:
2.45 p.m.: TAG Transportation Committee: Martin Low, Director of Transportation; Local Government Association: Councillor David Sparks, Chair, Transport and Regeneration Board; County Surveyors Association (CSS): Matthew Lugg, Director of Highways Transportation and Waste Management
3.45 p.m.: Department for Transport: Paul Clark MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State; Gary Backler, Director Rail Services Delivery; Highways Agency: Derek Turner, Network Operations Director

Q27 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Lugg, you said earlier that the response was patchy throughout the country; some authorities did it very well and some did not do it so well. We always suffer from this. Because London is the capital and there was a problem in London, did that give a distorted view of what had happened throughout the country?

Mr Lugg: I think you may have misheard me. What I said was that the conditions varied across the country. I did not say that some authorities did it well and some not so well. The conditions in Devon and Dorset were very severe and the fact is that roads were closed because of the volume of snow and therefore the problems were more severe. I do not think was a reflection that Devon or Dorset ---

Q28 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I thought you were saying that Devon and Cornwall were doing it very well and implying that perhaps London had not done it so well. Can I come back to my own experience and the issues? I walked in my constituency that morning and there was probably about four to six inches of snow. The buses were running. I went to the station and caught the heavy rail, and I came down to London. I got off the train with lots of other people and it was chaotic. There was no more snow in London than there had been in Carlisle. There were no buses. The pavements at that point were covered. I accept it may have snowed on top of the grit. I am not saying the roads were not gritted. Let us go back to the decision on the buses. I think you said, Mr Low, that 30% of the roads were fit in the early morning to drive buses on and as the day went on I presume here was more. Are you really saying that the blanket decision not to send any buses out was the wrong decision?

Mr Low: No, I think that that decision rightly should be taken by the bus operator in conjunction with Transport for London. I know from the personal contact that I had with the Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, that his team were very closely focused on whether or not buses should be allowed to be taken out. In the case of the City of Westminster, he was satisfied that we had done all that we reasonably could and we responded to the extra help that he requested.

Q29 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You have just told us that you thought that 30% of the roads were fit for the buses to go on and yet no buses went out?

Mr Low: That is a decision for ---

Q30 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Are you saying that was the right decision?

Mr Low: I am not qualified to comment on that; Peter Hendy is.

Q31 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Perhaps the Mayor would be the best qualified; would you agree with that?

Mr Low: No, I think the operational command rests with Peter Hendy; he is the right person.

Q32 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Why in my constituency that had the same amount of snow were the buses running and here in London they were not? The fact that the buses were not running meant in some cases that the other transport systems were not working and people could not get to work.

Mr Low: There was no commuting heavy rail; South-Eastern operated no services at all from Kent and the south-east.

Q33 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): They were coming in on the main line from the north?

Mr Low: Yes, but they were not coming in from the south and the east.

Q34 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): People do commute from places like Rugby, and some of them were coming in.

Mr Low: I do not disagree with any of that.

Q35 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So heavy rail was not brought to a standstill?

Mr Low: In terms of the comments made about the CBI, for those businesses that were relying on passengers coming in on the heavy rail from south-east London, Kent and south-west London, there were no rail services running on those lines, and most of those people therefore would not even have come in to central London.

Q36 Chairman: Do you think any consideration was given to people coming in from the north where heavy rail was operating?

Mr Low: When it comes down to the bus network and the tube network, you have got to ask Transport for London; you have got to ask Peter Hendy that question. He is the right person to give you the operational advice and guidance. What I do know is that Transport for London in terms of the London Underground network relies upon private hire to bring their drivers in every morning prior to public transport and the tube network starting. There may have been some implications there, but I am not going to second guess it. That is a point for him, not for us.

Q37 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I think the important thing you said, Mr Low, is that at least 30% of the roads were serviceable.

Mr Low: That is my estimate.

Q38 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That was at the very beginning and you presume that it got better as the time went on?

Mr Low: Correct.

Q39 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): And yet there were no buses at all running?

Mr Low: Incorrect: buses were starting to run on the roads during the first day after about ---

Q40 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Let me finish. No buses at all went out because an order went out not to send them out first thing. Is that correct?

Mr Low: In the early stages, it was. By late morning, buses were running on some of Londonís roads.

Q41 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): No buses went out and yet you say that 30% of the roads were fit for buses.

Mr Low: Yes.

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Q54 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I think there are two issues on salt. One is general and I presume that somewhere the Government has a stockpile of food in case there is an emergency. Are we suggesting, and it seems like a good idea, that the Government should have a stockpile of salt for an emergency situation? I know it is not a cheap option because you cannot just leave it piled up because it needs to be covered. Is there a case for saying there should be a strategic stockpile of salt for the sorts of emergencies that happen once very 20 years?

Mr Lugg: I think there could be. We need to look at those options. Some authorities would welcome regional stockpiles. It may be that the suppliers could produce more and stockpile it; it could be that we need bigger salt barns. All these things need to be looked at quickly as part of an inquiry to come up with some very quick solutions so that we do not find ourselves in this position for the next winter.

Q55 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Low, I think you made a comment earlier that one of the local authorities in London had very adequate supplies?

Mr Low: Two did: Ealing and Wandsworth. They have massive areas of salt storage. We would probably want to build on that from a regional point of view to make sure that if an individual local authority experienced problems, they could call upon that supplier if it were necessary.

Q56 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is it not right that that the gritting of roads should be a London-based issue and not left to the various boroughs? Most people go through one, two or three boroughs if they are travelling, but if one of borough does not have the salt, then it does not matter if the other two do have salt. Is it not really a matter that the London Authority, the Mayorís Office, should have control of the gritting of all the streets in London?

Mr Low: I do not think that would be appropriate. It is important that there is a review of the winter service plans, a review of the prioritisation of those plans if that issue touches upon the bus routes going through several boroughs being adversely affected because three of the four boroughs cover that part of the route and the fourth borough does not. The important point is to look at the stock that is available to be used by that local authority. For example, Westminster had 1,500 tonnes of salt ready to deploy on its streets. It had a further 1,000 tonnes as back-up. It did not have a shortage throughout the whole of the incident. We did make salt available to neighbouring boroughs that did have temporary shortfalls of salt. When the snow first fell, there was no shortage; it was later on in the day that some authorities that perhaps had deployed salt, as Matthew Lugg said, in the earlier parts of the winter, needed extra help and support. Some of that support came from the mutual aid which the Highways Agency offered to London boroughs through Transport for London. To give you some idea of the amount that was needed to be offered as mutual aid, it was 750 tonnes, half of Westminsterís total supply.

Q57 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I think you are making my case for me for local authorities. You say some of them did not have the supplies and others did. Surely if there was overall control, then the issue would be dealt with on a London basis and not by the various boroughs.

Mr Low: I think boroughs know their patches extremely well and because of local variations in climate conditions, you need to fine-tune the winter service plan. You do not do it on a London-wide basis; you customise it to each of the areas. You make sure that there is enough resilience in the system. I think the Mayor of London could play a useful role working in partnership with the London local authorities to make sure that the winter service plans, the salt stocks and the supply chain are adequate to meet Londonís needs as just one example.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): We look forward to asking him that question.

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Q72 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Putting down salt does not do anything for your roads and it does not do anything for the vegetation. Was any consideration given to these matters when you decided to use salt?

Councillor Sparks: I am really pleased that you have raised this question because it has not had anything like the level of attention that it needs to have. The Environment Board at the LGA has long since been concerned about the over-use of salt and the environmental impact. It is particularly important in any inquiry that we emphasise that we should also be looking at other methods of dealing with adverse weather. One of the problems that we have, again in the big cities in particular, is the level of panic that you now get because there is not the confidence in the public transport systems to get people out of cities. It is very important to realise that in dealing with adverse weather conditions in the future we should not just be relying on salt and gritting.

Mr Lugg: I, too, think that is a good point you raise. The industry and local authorities have moved on a lot. Winter maintenance gritting used to be quite an agricultural-type process. There is now a lot more sophistication in the process. Clearly, what we try to do is minimise the amount of salt we use for the best effect. We have new ways of spreading salt, whether it is through pre-wet or a brine solution, that means that we can put less salt on the road than we traditionally used to do. There has been a lot of progress within local authorities to move to these new ways of working. The other aspects are problems about the environmental consequences of how salt is stored. Again, many local authorities now have invested in covered barns, so the salt is properly managed and kept dry to avoid the strong risk of leachates and salt getting into the water courses and polluting our rivers and streams. We have been working on that but clearly we need to continue that progress.

Q73 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): In Greenwich they have been using ground glass. I do not think the operators are too keen on that, to be honest. Are any substitutes being looked at other than salt to carry out this job?

Mr Low: One important point is that we do not add aggregate or grit to the salt unless the temperature goes below 8o; it is not necessary to do so. We use just pure salt until the weather conditions change. Once they change and the salt has less of an effect in terms of its intended action to break down and melt the snow and ice, then you get into the need to have some traction and you start to add aggregate to the mix. In terms of the comment about glass, yes, we do use a lot of recycled glass as a substitute for sand under footway paving material quite safely. It is not sharp; you will not cut your hands on it. We have not looked at the type. I think it is very unlikely we would want to spread glass on our streets as an alternative to salt.

Q74 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): In fact you have just said that ground glass is used?

Mr Low: It used as a footway paving material; it is not used ---

Q75 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is used in adverse weather conditions?

Mr Low: No, ground glass is not used.

Mr Lugg: Another issue about the environmental consequences is corrosion to vehicles and our structures. Clearly, salt is a very corrosive product, so again we have been investing in new types of salt. One of them is where it is mixed with molasses and that neutralises some of the corrosive impact of salt and helps to deal with some of the problems that we are seeing in terms of corrosion. Again, this is another area of development where local authorities are looking at products that are less environmental harmful, but also still give the right impact in terms of the way that they deal with the ice. The other benefit about mixing salt in solution is that it is a more efficient way of managing the service. There are efficiencies in using more environmentally beneficial products.

Mr Low: Another thing we are doing is with the gully cleansing machines that are used to clean the gullies for probably two months in the year. They are not used when there are adverse weather conditions. We are working with the manufacturer of that equipment so that it can be used with a brine solution for salting purposes. That is another good way of using equipment that is needed for other highway purposes when we have extreme weather conditions.

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Q98 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I just go back to the buses and perhaps we can move on. There is a variety of bus companies in the capital and yet not one of those buses went out that morning. Who took the decision to say no buses should go out?

Paul Clark: My understanding is that there was no general instruction given that buses should not run. That is what I am informed was the case, that there was no general instruction. It was because of reports that were clearly circulating during that night of Sunday 1 February with accidents being reported that decisions were taken to remove bus services. I understand that was the position in terms of there was no general requirement.

Q99 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You seem as though you do not really believe that yourself, Minister, because I certainly do not believe that all these bus companies individually came to a decision not to send any buses out even though they had been told 30% of the roads at that time were fit for purpose. There must have been some co-ordination on that.

Paul Clark: I can well imagine, and obviously if you are running depots across the country, these are people at the sharp end day in, day out, who had to make decisions and I would say to them as individuals they are doing sterling jobs, and the bus drivers who were trying to get through and not get stuck with passengers in areas that were clearly clogging up with snow. These were difficult decisions but I have no doubt there were communications that would have gone on between depots as to, "What is happening with you in your patch?" and decisions were taken.

Q100 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Do you think TfL would have had any input into that?

Paul Clark: My understanding is that TfL did not give any direction to stop all the buses. I have to say I do think that is a matter that needs to be raised directly with them.

Q101 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can we now come to the salt situation? I think you are very fortunate to be sitting here today and we did not run out of salt, although we nearly did. What responsibility does the Government have to ensure that there is enough salt to keep this country going?

Paul Clark: There are a number of requirements and I may ask Derek particularly on the side of the Highways Agency. There are two parts to this. There is the Highways Agency that is responsible for the strategic road network and there are requirements in terms of the volumes that they need to maintain at any given time, which is six daysí capability supply on the basis that they need to grit the whole area. I will leave Derek to expand on that. There are requirements that are laid down. Local Authorities equally, as I have already indicated, need to have plans in terms of dealing with winter weather and those plans need to be in place, which include having salt supplies as well. No local authority ran out of salt supplies and, indeed, as a response to the situation and dealing with it we used the Regional Resilience Teams but then developed that further in terms of setting up a Salt Cell which deliberately monitored and brought information in from across the country as to supplies of salt that were out there, how long that was going to last, what mutual aid was required and, indeed, the Highways Agency helped in that way as well, and what was at the pithead, I was going to say, in terms of the supplies that were there at the two suppliers, where did that need to go. Because of that work that was undertaken, and I visited the Salt Union a few weeks after the event, (a) partly to say thank you to them, and to Cleveland Potash who were the other main suppliers, for the sterling work that they did around the clock to keep things going, but (b) to say there are lessons to be learned for all of us, suppliers and those who have to maintain our roads.

Q102 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Are you indicating that we nearly ran out of salt or are you saying there was never going to be a problem even if it had gone on for another week?

Paul Clark: We would always manage. There were situations whereby some local authorities had substantial amounts, thousands of tonnes of salt, which they did not need because, fortunate for them, the weather did not hit them in that way, yet there were other parts of the country which clearly were struggling and, indeed, needed our help and support to make sure the supplies that were available from the pithead were getting to the right places. Obviously there were some local authorities that were down to their last salt supplies in terms of days of capability, and that was where it was so important to be able to do the salt audit that happened with literally twice a day reports coming in, being monitored with the Highways Agency, CLG, DfT and the Cabinet Contingency Secretariat working together to take that through with daily teleconferences to work through the logistics of making sure that the salt was at the right place at the right time.

Q103 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That is very reassuring, Minister, but why are you having an inquiry?

Paul Clark: Because there are lessons to be learned. For example, there are issues about having resilience in terms of delivery of salt supplies from the pithead. There were some issues in terms of being able to have drivers available for a weekend, which was critical. Indeed, the Highways Agency got involved in that way. There are other issues about the amount of stock that is held at any of those given areas and should we increase the stocks that are held, what would that mean and how could we deal with that, how do we logistically move it across the country in a far better and efficient way. There are a number of issues to be raised and looked at in detail.

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Q121 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): On the point about the 30 accidents, or incidents perhaps would be a better word ---

Paul Clark: Incidents, yes.

Q122 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): --- was anybody hurt in any of these incidents?

Paul Clark: I do not believe anyone was hurt. There was certainly a passenger standing at a bus stop who was not hurt to a degree that it was a serious injury problem.

Q123 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So we cancelled all the buses in London as a result of the fact that we had had 30 incidents in which there were no injuries to anybody. Is that what you are saying to us, Minister?

Paul Clark: I am saying that decisions were taken that led to all the buses stopping virtually as from midnight on 1/2 February. That was the outcome of, I suspect, collective decisions that were taken by individuals across the network in a number of different companies.

Q124 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am a cynic, Minister, as you are well aware. I think perhaps the situation was the decision was taken to stop the buses and then they went back to find these 30 incidents. I suspect it might have been that way around and, therefore, they had an excuse for not putting the buses out the next morning.

Paul Clark: What we should recognise is that there is an issue that if you get buses out on routes and they end up getting stuck with people on them, is that a bigger issue and bigger problem for the travelling public than not starting that journey at all, and that was a fine line decision that had to be taken. That is why I am saying the operational decisions that were being taken by individuals, no doubt in those depots and so on, were one of those decisions that had to be taken. If a political decision was taken without any proper consideration of whether that was necessary that would be another matter which would be unacceptable, as I say.

Q125 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The reason I am going on about this quite a lot is that in my constituency, and I travelled down that day on the West Coast Main Line and it worked, there was a similar amount of snow there to what I found when I got into London, yet the buses in the urban areas ran, nobody took the decision not to run them, and it worked. I am saying there was either panic or an exaggeration of the dangers that stopped the buses in London.

Paul Clark: I can certainly understand exactly what the Hon Member is saying in terms of Carlisle. I do not know how much snow was there but I can give you examples of systems operating, for example in Bristol, and allowing drop-off points and so on, not running into housing estates or rural areas, yet when you look into the topography of Bath being more hilly buses did not run there. No doubt a lot of factors go into the decision-making process as to whether you run those services in difficult weather. Much happened in Oxford with Stage Coach and so on running on main routes but not going in. I do understand exactly the issues you are raising and the decision-making process that happened. Clearly what I am saying to you is that it is an issue that has to be raised with the Mayor and TfL specifically about whether there was a political decision not to run buses. In terms of operationally, and this is the information in terms of the 30 incidents, as I have indicated I will write to the Chairman to let you know where that arose from.

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Q143 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just to follow up on that, and it is a comment on society probably, which I accept I am a part of, is it not a fact that you think people in this country today are not prepared to make the efforts that they would have done in the 1960s or whenever, and if there is an option to take the day off they will?

Paul Clark: No, I do not believe that to be the case at all. I know many people, indeed even within the transport sector, who made sterling efforts to get to work on that day to be able to run many of the services that were out there and running. There were very well publicised areas where they were not running, which we have looked at, but many people actually travelled to work and got to work to keep businesses and some of the transport sector running on that day. I would not want to say that people take that easy option because I do not believe that they do.

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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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB