Commons Gate

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

Transport Committee 2 Apr 2009

Labour Party logo

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

Q154 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You say you did not interview the Mayor.

Ms Shawcross: No, we did not.

Q155 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Why?

Ms Shawcross: We did contact the Mayor's Office and the Mayor was not available. He was launching the East London Line that day. The Mayor's practice is to come to the plenary session of the London Assembly and to limit his attendance at committees. We expect him to attend for the strategic session on the transport strategy this year.

Q156 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You have our sympathy because we have had great difficulty getting the Mayor to come to us.

Ms Shawcross: Yes. He does not do detail, I would think.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): We will find that out later.

Chairman: Could you say that a little louder.

Q157 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Barrett, obviously in a previous life you ran the buses in Cumbria.

Mr Barrett: I did, yes.

Q158 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I travelled down from Cumbria that day and you would have been pleased to see that the buses in Carlisle were left in a good state because they were running. The amount of snow that was in Carlisle was exactly the same as the amount of snow in London and yet there were no buses running in London. We keep on hearing about the issue of the gritters. My understanding is you use gritters if it is going to be icy. There is no mention anywhere in any of these reports, and we heard from a senior engineer at the last session, about snow ploughs. That is normally how you would clear a road, is it not?

Mr Barrett: That is certainly the case. It would be the difference that I would describe between the activities of the local authorities in Cumbria, where I operated bus services, and those down in London. You have to remember that the issue in London is that we do not get as much snow as they do in Cumbria and perhaps they do not have as many snow ploughs - although I do not know the number that there are. On regular occasions when I was in Cumbria they went out with the gritters with the snow ploughs on the front all the time and always cleared the road. I have to say that our biggest problem we faced on Sunday evening and throughout the morning of Monday was that, whilst the gritters had been out -and we had seen them out all night and they were very regular and there were lots of them - the issue was that the snow was compacting. The volume of the snow made it exceptionally difficult to move around, not only the access in and out of our depots but on anything that was not a major trunk route. When you talked to the local authorities, as we did during the course of Monday and said, "Please can you send people down to clear the front of our depots?" they said, "We are concentrating on the trunk roads and we will get to you as a secondary issue when and if we can." That was the biggest problem that we had on Monday.

Q159 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I come back to the issue of the gritters without snow ploughs. You are really saying that in other parts of the country, perhaps where there is more snow, they have the foresight to put snow ploughs on the front of the gritters. Do you think that would have made a difference here in London if the snow ploughs had been there as well?

Mr Barrett: If some of the roads had been cleared, we may have had a better opportunity to get out sooner. When we did examine the routes that we tried to run on - and my staff were out from four o'clock in the morning examining bus routes all around the garages - the problem was the compacted snow. You just could not get a bus further than 100 yards down the road without it going sideways.

Q160 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): On the night when the issue was ordered from control to withdraw the buses, that control is operated by TfL, is it?

Ms Shawcross: It is operated by London Buses, which obviously are part of TfL, and it is called CentreComm. Every emergency radio call from any bus, no matter who the operator is, goes direct to CentreComm in an emergency. At the depots we also have contact with that same radio system to each and every bus that we operate.

Q161 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So there will be an individual controller who would have taken that decision to call all the buses in?

Mr Barrett: There is a controller at CentreComm. I think there is more than one. They will relay information backwards and forwards to the operators, and the operators in turn will give them information back. On that particular night, how that particular supervisor reached that decision, I am afraid you would have to ask somebody from London Buses.

Q162 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You do not know whether he took advice from anyone senior at TfL or even the Mayor? I suspect the Mayor was well asleep by this time.

Mr Barrett: I am not sure, but I can tell you what happened both in my companies and in most other operators. I was aware of the worsening conditions from around about eight o'clock onwards. I had several calls from my general managers around my area to tell me that the conditions were getting worse, and at ten o'clock at night we withdrew our services from the Orpington area and around the southern part of London. As it was progressing further and further to worsening conditions, we were already withdrawing services from sections of the route long before the decision was made at CentreComm at ten past midnight.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Thank you very much.


Q179 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Coming back to whether this was a major incident or not, millions of people in London could not get to work and there is a cost probably of £1 million. It damaged the City's reputation, and it damaged the UK's reputation because the capital of it was paralysed. Why was it not a major incident? Why did the system not kick in with gold command?

Ms Shawcross: That is a good question. The London Resilience Committee is supposed to cover not just issues of terrorism but natural incidents, floods, that kind of thing. I do not know why they did not declare this a major incident. However, whether you define it as a major incident or not, some of the mechanisms they operate could have been useful to us on this occasion, and I do not see why the organisations that have those procedures could not have deployed them. It would have been good.

Q180 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Whose responsibility would it have been to say it is a major incident or it is not a major incident?

Ms Shawcross: The London Resilience Committee has the principal responsibility. It is chaired by the Minister for London and is deputy chaired by the Mayor, but by and large the Metropolitan Police are the lead agency for any major incidents in London, so I am not exactly sure why that decision was taken. I suspect they just did not think about it, and I think there is probably an issue there about who decides and how is it triggered. Usually it is experience on the ground, the bus companies for example, where the information comes from first.

Q181 Chairman: Has that issue been pursued?

Ms Shawcross: We have asked the London Resilience Committee to review this incident in relation to their normal procedures.

Q182 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Barrett, you are saying that your bus company classed it as a major incident and you have a gold command structure and you used that.

Mr Barrett: Yes, I took personal control at four o'clock on Monday morning.

Q183 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So you were not asleep in bed when all this was going on.

Mr Barrett: I was between midnight and four o'clock, but I was on the road at just after five o'clock.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): On a point of order, is the Mayor here to answer questions? He knows the system as well as we do.

Q194 Chairman: Mr Martlew, we will ensure the Mayor does answer the questions.


Q202 Graham Stringer: I would be grateful if you could tell us whether you made any attempts to engage emergency powers, to co-ordinate the action of boroughs, to talk to the bus companies with your strategic role as the leader of transport in Greater London to ensure that we had the best possible outcome from this event?

Mr Johnson: I know what you are trying to do and I understand why you are trying to do it, and I respect the narrow partisan, political reasons why you are trying to do it.

Chairman: Would you answer the question.

Q203 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Answer the question.

Mr Johnson: The answer is that I did repose complete confidence in my officials and in Transport for London to get the job done, and to the best of their ability they did. I really think that in your attempts to criticise what happened you are in danger of criticising hundreds and hundreds of hardworking people.


Q212 Mark Pritchard: Can I just also, for the record, say I was not aware of the introductory remarks the Chairman was going to make and, whilst we clearly need to ensure that lessons are learned from the snow event in London, I do not stand by the Chairman's remarks with regard to your role or your lack of role in the snow event.

Mr Johnson: I am obliged, Mr Pritchard.

Mark Pritchard: And I am not sure about the other Conservative members that are not here today.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Both not here.

Q213 Mark Pritchard: Yes, exactly, therefore they cannot be spoken for in their absence.

Mr Johnson: It is an event that took place some time ago; I would point that out.


Q231 Chairman: I think Mr Martlew wants to come in.

Mr Johnson: I am under the sad obligation that I have to leave.

Q232 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I ask you a partisan question?

Mr Johnson: No, because I am off.

Q233 Chairman: Mayor, that is unacceptable, to walk out in the middle of a question. We agreed 40 minutes. Would you please let Mr Martlew ask you a question?

Mr Johnson: Mr Martlew can ask a partisan question.

Chairman: Mr Martlew is a member of the Committee. Mayor, just a moment. Could I ask you just for one minute --- I do understand that you have a time limit and I have agreed with that. Mr Martlew, could you ask a quick question and the Mayor will be able to respond?

Q234 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I understand that you are going to leave Mr Hendy to answer the hard questions when you go, Mayor. The question is, -----

Mr Johnson: Are you saying none of your colleagues has asked hard questions? I think that is an insult.

Chairman: Mr Martlew, would you ask your question, please?

Q235 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Before you went to bed did you make any inquiries about what was happening that night and at what time did you wake up and were informed that there was a major problem?

Mr Johnson: As Peter has already said, I think he contacted me shortly after six and I replied, I think, before seven o'clock in the morning.

Q236 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So you had not made any inquiries that night to see if there was an issue?

Mr Johnson: I observed that it had started to snow.

Q237 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): But you never made any inquiries?

Mr Johnson: For heaven's sake. Goodbye.

Q238 Chairman: Thank you, Mayor. Does anybody wish to ask Mr Hendy some questions? I thank you for coming, Mayor.

Mr Johnson: I am obliged to you.


Q242 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): There seems to be a contradiction between yourself and Mr Barrett about the use of snow ploughs. He was basically saying, and, as I say, he used to run the buses in my constituency which is an urban area, that you would use snow ploughs, and you are saying that it would create too much damage. Surely the damage would only be created if the snow was left to such an extent that it was very high. The other point is, it is not really expensive, is it? The Mayor was indicating that there would be massive expense to fix snow ploughs to the front of the gritters. That is not the case, is it?

Mr Hendy: On the first issue, I think the difference in London is that there is nowhere to put this stuff. Of course it would be handy, and in fact the ploughs were used to some extent over that night and in the early morning. The people who use snow ploughs effectively for road clearing are the Highways Agency. If you watch them on motorways it is quite an easy thing to do. In urban areas all I can say is that you would have to be quite a brave public official to just run snow ploughs down any road with a significant number of parked cars and expect people not to complain at the consequences, particularly when the whole lot is mixed up with grit. We in the boroughs threw nearly 10,000 tonnes of grit and salt on the roads of London in about 36 hours. We managed to block the drains of most of the highways of London by Wednesday and Thursday, and you have to be quite careful in those circumstances not to pelt people's parked cars with a mixture of snow and grit in some circumstances where that they would object quite violently to the consequences.

Q243 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The Committee will have to come to a decision on whether you are right or Mr Barrett is right. Can I now come back to the 30 accidents? How many people were injured in those accidents?

Mr Hendy: Very few.

Q244 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): We had evidence that nobody was injured before. Is that correct?

Mr Hendy: I believe, from the records that we have, that there was one slight injury. I would not rely on your report about 30 accidents. Thirty bus-related accidents in six hours is a very high number on a Sunday evening, bearing in mind the number of vehicles out on the roads. Another 22 were reported. What I am much more interested in is that 142 emergency calls with another 150 unable to be answered is an astonishingly high number.

Q245 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Sorry, Mr Hendy, but the Mayor was making a great issue of these 30 accidents; that is what he was basing it on. What you are telling me is that there may have been one person slightly injured. Secondly, when did you find out about these 30 accidents? Was it before the Controller called the buses off or was it somebody adding them up later? When did you find out?

Mr Hendy: When I found out was when we asked about the reasons for the withdrawal at 00.10. The people who were collating that information were in the same room as the person who made the decision at 00.10. What he was reflecting was not only the number of accidents, not only the number of non-bus-related accidents, not only the number of emergency calls but the fact that individual operators and drivers had already started to go back to the garages because they felt it was unsafe to run.

Q246 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My final point, which I would like to have asked the Mayor but he has disappeared, is, do you think that what happened that night and the following day was such a major incident that the major incidents procedure should have been in place for London?

Mr Hendy: That is an interesting issue. When you get on to the lessons learned, it is correct what the Committee heard, which is that the normal way the Resilience Structure comes into force in London is that it is called by the police, and generally speaking that is as a result of a catastrophic incident or in the anticipation that there will be enough disruption to have one. I am not and have never been able to instigate the gold control arrangements, neither is the Mayor, though, of course, I expect one could have asked. The co-ordination of local authorities is done by the duty local authority chief executive, and I beg to correct something that you previously heard, because I think I am right in saying that the duty chief executive was the Chief Executive of Bexley, and when that came into effect on Monday morning that was primarily to sort out the supplies of grit and salt which were being used at such a rate that if we had not had some sort of pan-London activity to redistribute it some boroughs would have run out. I think one of the lessons is that it would have been possible to get the Resilience Structure up and running earlier but what I would say is that I do not think anybody should be beguiled into believing that had that happened the result would have been much different, because we and every local authority were using all of the equipment that we had to do the job that needed to be done.

Q247 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): But do you believe in hindsight - and hindsight is a wonderful thing - that a major incident should have been called? Is that what you are saying?

Mr Hendy: No. What I am saying is that it could have been that the Resilience arrangements could have been put in earlier. More information about what was going on might have been shared. I do not think it would have made much difference to the results on the streets.


Q252 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Sorry to ask you - the Mayor has left, of course. The Mayor in his opening statement said that London was no worse affected than other cities. We have no evidence of that. Which other cities were as badly affected as London?

Mr Hendy: I normally concentrate on south east England. On Monday, 2 February, let me quote for you, "In Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire a few Arriva and Centrebus vehicles ventured out in Hertfordshire but soon were marooned on snowbound roads. South of London very little ran in Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire or west Kent on the Monday. There were no country services at all in Surrey and Sussex, and later in the week on Thursday there were virtually no buses in Bedfordshire or Buckinghamshire and most buses were withdrawn or curtailed again on Friday". I live (sometimes anyway when I am not up here) in Bath. We had no buses in Bath for 48 hours. There was virtually no service in Bristol for the same period of time. When local authorities are faced with snowfalls of this magnitude in southern England they do not have the equipment to take this stuff off the streets, and their experiences as highway authorities were mirrored by the experiences of the London highway authorities on Sunday and Monday, 1 and 2 February.

Q253 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My understanding is that Bristol was not as badly affected as London, perhaps Bath was, so there were not major cities up and down the country that were as badly affected as London. The bus system was paralysed, is that not correct?

Mr Hendy: All I am quoting you is the information I had about what happened in parts of the rest of the country. I do not spend all my time trying to find out what happens in other major cities. I think the evidence that I have brought is sufficient at least to persuade me that other highway authorities in the south of England have the same sort of equipment and their responses have produced the same sort of result in running bus services.

Q254 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am sorry; I was just asking you to defend what the Mayor had said.

Mr Hendy: I have given you the information that I have got.

Q255 Graham Stringer: In answer to a previous question you said, "We should not put too much emphasis on the 30 accidents that happened before midnight on the Sunday". Is that because you think they were trivial or they were not properly recorded, because when we have asked previous witnesses we have not been able to find direct evidence of where those 30 accidents were?

Mr Hendy: The reason I did not give you the evidence is that the evidence comes from London Buses CentreComm. I will produce you the evidence in case there is some reason why you think I as a public official should be lying or not telling the truth.

Q256 Graham Stringer: No, no, I am just trying to get the evidence.

Mr Hendy: If you ask the right people they will provide it and I run London's transport network. We are responsible for CentreComm. We can provide you with that. You must be careful not to put words in my mouth as a public official, but what I was actually asking you to do was consider all the circumstances. None of the 30 bus accidents is trivial. Whether or not they injure anybody they are all potentially serious and I think to suggest that in some way any of them might not be is grossly deprecatory of the skill of public service vehicle drivers and the people who hold operators' licences to run the services. What I am suggesting is that that is not the only reason that the service was withdrawn, and in circumstances where my control staff are faced with 150 unanswered emergency calls from bus drivers, are faced with circumstances of a significantly larger number of accidents that they would expect to take place on a quiet Sunday evening, are faced with bus operators and drivers who no longer feel able to run the services themselves, then that one statistic is only part of an answer about the management decision to call the night bus service in.

Q257 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just on that, I think we have received some evidence that some of these incidents were to do with people throwing snow at the buses. Is that the case?

Mr Hendy: I have not quoted any of those incidents.

Q258 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): But there were a lot of those, were there?

Mr Hendy: There were quite a few, yes. For the sender of the snowball it is a joke. For the recipient, particularly if it has got grit in it, as it probably has if it is off the street, it could be a tragedy. We were not happy about that. That again is not the primary reason why the service was withdrawn. The service was withdrawn because it could not operate. That is the reason.

Chairman: Thank you very much, Mr Hendy, for coming and answering all our questions.

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.

Legislative Work page | Return to Homepage

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