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Snow: how can other countries manage?

In the aftermath of the UK’s third consecutive year of inclement winter weather chaos, the inevitable question arises: what could have been done better?

What went wrong in London’s pre-Christmas crisis at Heathrow airport will now be unravelled by a group of seasoned aviation experts - who are all current or former CEOs of airports that would experience snow and ice on a yearly basis.

Also lending support to the review, due to delivered in March, is RAC chairman and Winter Resilience Review co-author David Quarmby who, only weeks earlier, delivered a host of recommendations for winter precautions to the government.

“The fact is that the wheels fell off at Heathrow. We weren’t expecting Heathrow to fall over like it did,” says Quarmby.

“I did look at the snow plans earlier on but I’m not an aviation person and I wasn’t able to judge if it was adequate. I believe they didn’t manage it terribly well. One of the issues is whether the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] licence to airports contains a requirement to have a snow plan and whether they need to have a much tighter system of accountability,” he says.

“We weren’t expecting Heathrow to fall over like it did. I believe they didn’t manage it terribly well.”

David Quarmby, RAC

“The question of whether the CAA will gain more teeth to require airports to be accountable, that’s a matter for government and the CAA. I would be surprised if [the government] wasn’t looking very hard at whether it can tighten the CAA’s role - but I don’t know.”

Internationally, examples are rife of those who are more used to dealing better and maintaining transport services well.


The US eastern seaboard is not entirely unused to blizzards and storms throughout the winter months.

WSP Sells executive vice president Michael Mangione says all the preparation in the world does not rival public awareness and attitudes to coping with snow.

“There is a psychological preparation that people go through,” he says. “Clearing the roads and salting them is a primary thing once the weather sets in. But in the planning stage, people understand that if they don’t need to make non-essential travel, they don’t.There are early dismissals from schools and many employers have work from home strategies so that allows the removal of snow and prepare for de-icing and salt. It makes a big difference with the 10% to 20% of traffic off the roads.”

However, Mangione says he believes that investment in the proper winter equipment to ensure people keep moving is vital.

“In New York City the figure that is most commonly used is that it costs $1M (£640,000) per inch of snow per event so that’s a combination of the cost of labour and capital. If you’re even going to have one or two of these events, I guess it’s going to be a good investment.”

In contrast to the UK, Mangione says ridership on public transport increases on days of harsh weather.


Last winter saw the southern part of Sweden battle with the extent of snow and below freezing temperatures.

In a report commissioned by the government on transport failings, particularly in rail, it was found that better co-operation was needed so that snow clearing and de-icing equipment more regularly used in the north, could be mobilised to the south.

This year with the return of bad weather in the south, co-operation on this front led to a smoother running of trains says WSP analyst Håkan Berell.

He adds that the cost benefit of investment in proper equipment would be worthwhile in the south, even though snow is not guaranteed every year.

“If that requires government to have a pool of trains and wagons and give contracts for example on the pool as they are needed, that could be a good idea,” he says.


Three large airports inevitably exposed to harsh winters, Helskini, Domodedevo airport in Moscow and Stockholm-Arlanda, the biggest airport in Sweden all claim to have never or nearly never closed because of snow.

The formula for them is simple - Helsinki has three runways as does Stockholm while Moscow’s twin parallel runways are cleared of snow for 20 minutes every hour in peak times.

All the airports have large fleets of de-icing machines along with dedicated snow staff.

As Heathrow has twice the number of flights of these three airports, analysis on the investment in these types of strategies for next winter would be beneficial.

Given British Airways’ reported loss of £50M and Virgin’s current plan to withhold its fees to BAA of £10M, it would seem rational - though only time, and the March report, will tell.


Readers' comments (1)

  • What concerns me is that some authorities appear to have abandoned the practice of precautionary pre-salting of their minor roads when snowfall is forecast.

    Salt spread before snowfall is highly effective in preventing snow freezing to the road surface and turning to ice. Typically the priority routes are about 40-50% of the network. To salt all the minor roads only requires about as much salt as one single treatment of the priority routes, taking into account their generally lesser width.

    Failure to undertake this pre-salting of the minor roads when the opportunity presents itself has a huge effect on essential services as well as people's ability to get to and from their homes and work. Snow clearance from all footways is unrealistic but the treatment of minor road carriageways can provide a safer route for pedestrians in terms of slipping accidents.

    I'm pleased to see that a recommendation that consideration be given for such pre-salting of minor roads for snow has now been included in further guidance issued by the UKRLG just before Christmas, ‘Recommended Precautionary Treatments and Post Treatments Including Revised Salt Spread Rates’, available on the UKRLG website. Let us hope that this recommendation is followed.

    Frank Bedford MBE Retired County Divisional Surveyor

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