Highways authorities “may find it challenging” to meet a large demand for road salt for the rest of the winter, a report into the England’s early winter resilience has found.
The audit, published yesterday, into the winter weather response of the country’s transport network by transport expert David Quarmby was commissioned by transport secretary Philip Hammond following the first episode of severe weather, from 24 November to 9 December.
It found that the Highways Agency and local highway authorities performed well, but Quarmby said that despite record amounts of salt being held by local authorities at the start of the winter gritting period in November, the levels used had been high so far.
He said that two thirds of the national strategic reserve of 250,000t of salt was in place, and stated that the government could order another 250,000t if the severity of the winter continued. The creation of a national reserve was one recommendation from his review of the impact of the cold weather in the last two years on transport, which reported in October.
Despite saying that “all the things I would have expected to have happened to ensure salt supply against this very intense winter has been done”, Quarmby said the high use of road salt could still present a challenge to meet demands in the remaining winter months. He called for guidance on possible lower levels of salt spread rates to be made available to all authorities as a priority, and confirmed this would be produced by the Department for Transport on Thursday. Such advice would be “very useful”, UK Roads Liaison Group chairman Matthew Lugg told NCE.
Quarmby’s warning about salt stocks follows comments from Tony Ciaburro, the transport spokesman for the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, that if there is not a thaw before the New Year “then we can have a problem”.
Quarmby, who is RAC Foundation chairman and a former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, said that this would be the coldest December for over 100 years. He added: “After two exceptional winters, the country has just experienced one of the earliest spells of severe weather for many years – with a further spell right now. All this has placed great pressure on the transport system and the people who work at the sharp end of keeping things going - from local authorities, train and air operators, to contractors and the salt suppliers.
“Across the sector many have coped admirably, keeping roads open and public transport running. But there are still lessons to be learned: all local authorities need to ensure that their winter plans follow good practice where ever possible.”
Responding to the audit, the Association of Train Operating Companies chief executive Michael Roberts said: “David Quarmby’s audit acknowledges that the railways provided a generally good service across much of the country during the severe weather in early December.
“However, we recognise that on some parts of the network, services were considerably disrupted and we accept that the whole industry has to continue to get better at ensuring passengers are given accurate information about delays and cancellations during disruption.
“We will work with others to follow up the audit recommendations and find ways of ensuring the railways are better able to deal with such circumstances in the future.”
Quarmby undertook a similar review earlier this year when - with Brian Smith and Chris Green - he was asked by the then transport secretary Lord Adonis to review the winter resilience of England’s roads and transport systems. The review panel published two reports, an interim one in July, and a final report in October. The audit stated that the recommendations that could have been implemented by now have been, while recommendations with longer timescales are being progressed.