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Hoon orders review of February snow chaos - and promotes case for third runway at Heathrow

Transport secretary Geoff Hoon has ordered a review of the lessons that can be learnt from February’s gritting crisis in order to prevent the widespread chaos happening again - and used the weather as further justification for a third runway at Heathrow.

Hoon has instructed the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) – a partnership of Central Government, devolved administrations, trunk road authorities and local authorities – “to review the lessons that can be learnt from recent events and to recommend what steps could be adopted by local highway authorities, trunk road authorities, producers of salt and other stakeholders to ensure the effective treatment of England’s road networks in order that we are even better prepared should similar events occur in future years”.

Roads across the country went untreated during the coldest winter the UK has faced for almost 20 years..

The heavy snowfall had an impact on all parts of the transport system. The Severn crossing and sections of road such as the A38 near Exeter were particularly affected. The Highways Agency kept the strategic road network in England operational over the whole period, although there were some closures due to road traffic accidents. But in cities, very heavy snowfalls created conditions which made driving very hazardous and – at their worst – led to the suspension of public transport.

On the main rail network services were disrupted, in particular services from the south of London into London were particularly disrupted from 2 February by the snow because of the use of the third rail to power the trains.  Further snow later that week caused more problems for routes into London from the North and services across the South West.  In the following week, further snowfalls across the Midlands, the East and the North caused further disruption.

The weather also posed operational challenges to UK airports, and Hoon said it further illustrates the need for more runway capacity. Operations were on occasions suspended, with problems on public transport and local roads making it more difficult for travellers to get to and from the airports. 

“The impact of the snow was particularly significant at Heathrow, [where runways had to be closed when operator BAA ran out of space to store the snow] and the fact that the airport is currently running at 99% capacity, has shown both the creativity and resilience of the airport operator, and the need for further runway capacity,” said Hoon.

But it is the approach of highways authorities to salt supplies that will form the focus of the review.

“The cold spell presented challenges to both the Highways Agency and transport authorities around the country who needed reliable supplies of salt to keep roads flowing smoothly. Stocks of salt were heavily called upon. Salt stocks around the country varied significantly as local highway authorities had made different decisions about the levels of reserve required,” said Hoon. 

“Some local authorities chose to keep very high level of stocks, running as high as 25 days in some case; whereas others chose to operate with leaner reserves. While the latter approach is of course appropriate in a normal year, it does leave the relevant authorities exposed to abnormal weather events.  As a result, in some cases stocks of salt became very low.

The Government and in particular the Highway Agency took a lead role in helping those Local Highway Authorities who experienced difficulties with shortfalls in their salt levels. Mutual aid between authorities and with the Highways Agency helped to make sure that traffic kept flowing smoothly. For example, the Highways Agency stepped in to ensure salt deliveries over the weekend of 7 and 8 February at a time when salt suppliers would not normally have made deliveries. The Highways Agency were also flexible in running down its stocks to help prioritise supplies to local authorities with very low reserves.

“The UK has, of course, not seen snow falls like early February for at least eighteen years. The good news is that no highway authorities ran out of salt. The fall-back measures on the whole worked, and worked well. But we need to make sure we address those aspects that did not go well. 

“The House of Commons Transport Select Committee is undertaking a short review of the effects of the recent adverse weather. The Greater London Assembly is looking at how London’s transport system responded. Individual local authorities will be undertaking their own lesson identified exercises. 

“But I am keen that all the agencies involved in winter servicing take the opportunity to identify and address the lessons. I have therefore invited the UK Roads Liaison Group (UKRLG) – a partnership of Central Government, devolved administrations, trunk road authorities and local authorities – to review the lessons that can be learnt from recent events and to recommend what steps could be adopted by local highway authorities, trunk road authorities, producers of salt and other stakeholders to ensure the effective treatment of England’s road networks in order that we are even better prepared should similar events occur in future years.  I would expect that this advice of UKRLG will also be of benefit to the devolved administrations.”

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