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Insight | How well did infrastructure cope with the Beast from the East?

class 465 in snow at dartford

The arrival of the so-called Beast from the East – freezing weather sweeping in from Russia - followed by Storm Emma saw the UK blanketed in snow as severe weather warnings were issued across the country.

A new March record for the lowest maximum temperature was set in Tredegar, Wales, where the temperature did not rise above -4.7°C all day on 1 March. Rail passengers in Bournemouth were left stranded overnight, and thousands of homes in the South East were left without water for days raising questions about how well Britain’s infrastructure can cope when cold weather hits.

Water regulator Ofwat has slammed providers after thousands of homes were left without water in south-east England due to pipes bursting under the pressure of the freezing temperatures and subsequent thaw. Ofwat chief executive Rachel Fletcher said: “Water companies have been warned time and time again that they need to be better at planning ahead to deal with these sorts of situations, including proactively communicating with customers when they anticipate issues.

“A number of water companies appear to have fallen well short on their forward planning and the quality of support and communication they’ve been providing, leaving some customers high and dry,” Fletcher added, “When the taps are back on, we will take a long, hard look at what has happened here and we won’t hesitate to intervene if we find that companies have not had the right structures and mechanisms in place to be resilient enough.”

If water gets to 5°C or below the iron pipes will pull apart slightly at the joints, Thames Water explained. “Often the water doesn’t get down to 5°C but when it does there is a marked impact”, it said in a statement to customers.

Thames Water reported receiving 7,500 calls – five times higher than average – on Thursday and said it was pumping an extra 500M.L of water through the network a day. But by Sunday there were around 20,000 customers without water because of burst pipes. Customers with water were asked to use as little as possible and to check their pipes for leaks. Water industry representative body Water UK issued an apology on behalf of its members on Monday morning and said all companies have “robust contingency plans” in place to deal with the situations.

Rail infrastructure was impacted by the cold blast and passengers on a South Western Railway service between London Waterloo and Bournemouth were stranded overnight last Thursday due to a frozen third rail.

Trains were also brought to a standstill outside Lewisham, south-east London, after failing to draw power from a frozen conductor rail, Southeastern Railway confirmed. Commuters evacuated on to the rails on Friday evening after trains were trapped for around three hours. Southeastern and Network Rail will appoint an independent investigator to review the events, they said. 

Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) general secretary Mick Cash said the incidents “once again raised some serious issues about the capacity of Britain’s railways to cope with added pressures from adverse weather.” 

A Network Rail spokesperson said: “Key sections of track are fitted with heaters and insulation to help stop them freezing, and empty trains can be run through the night to help keep tracks clear. Our thermal-imaging helicopter carries out aerial inspections and can guide our engineers to equipment that’s not working as it should, before it fails.

“Our cold-weather vehicles and machines are in position at depots across Britain, including 10 Snow and Ice Treatment Trains fitted with snow ploughs, hot-air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers and heated track de-icer.

“In the event of snow, our teams will clear the tracks at key junctions and if required, use snow ploughs to clear lines.

“When conditions are very serious, trains might have to slow down – just as a car would on a road – which can cause delays. This is so everyone can get where they need to go, safely.”

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