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Taken before the Transport Committee
on Tuesday 15 February 2011
Mrs Louise Ellman (Chair)
Mr Tom Harris
Mr John Leech
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: David Quarmby CBE, Chair, and Brian Smith, Panel Member, Independent Review of Winter Resilience, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen, and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. I do apologise for keeping you waiting. Could you please just give your name and organisation? This is for our records.
David Quarmby: David Quarmby, Chairman of the RAC Foundation.
Brian Smith: Brian Smith. I am here as a member of the panel that David chaired earlier in the year. Perhaps just to restate, I am now retired but I was working for Cambridgeshire County Council until March last year as the Executive Director responsible for the technical functions.
Q2 Chair: Thank you very much. Mr Quarmby, you want to make an opening statement to us.
David Quarmby: If I may, Chair, thank you. Chair, members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to attend the first meeting of the Committee’s inquiry into winter resilience. The Committee will know that I led the panel appointed last March by the then Secretary of State Lord Adonis to carry out an independent review into the resilience of England’s transport systems to severe winter weather. On the panel with me were indeed Brian Smith-and I am delighted Brian is with me here today to help answer the Committee’s questions-and also Chris Green, career railwayman, former Chief Executive of Virgin Trains and a former nonexecutive member of Network Rail. He couldn’t be here today.
Our review published its interim report in July, focusing on highways and measures that could be implemented for this winter, and on weather forecasting and climate change, and then the final report, which looked at rail, aviation and longer-term resilience of salt supply. On 1 December last I was asked by the Transport Secretary Philip Hammond to carry out a quick audit into how well the highways community and the transport operators were managing the unusually early and intense winter weather at that time. I need to explain that the period under review was 24 November, which is when the first snowfall hit Scotland and the north of England, through to 9 December, when a thaw set in following intense snow over much more of England as well.
So my audit and its conclusions relate to that first winter period when, for example, Gatwick Airport was closed for 48 hours but other airports were little affected, and the three railway companies south of the river were particularly badly hit. My report was published, however, during the second winter episode in the 10 days or so leading up to Christmas. That was when Heathrow Airport was closed or severely restricted for several days but the train companies seemed to do better than previously. But I did not have evidence about this period and have not commented on it in detail.
Chair, as you know, it did not seem necessary for me to submit further written evidence to the Committee, and instead I have simply referred the Committee to the three reports. They are long documents, so I did suggest that the executive summaries of each would give a good overview of what we had looked at, the conclusions we had reached and the recommendations we had made.
Now, in mid-February, looking back, may I offer the Committee three brief reflections? First, the performance of the railways in the second severe weather episode was better than in the first. This suggests that Network Rail and the train companies were, in some parts of the network, caught short in their preparations for winter, availability of de-icing equipment, readiness of contingency timetables and so on, and in the management of their consequences. Our main review reported that over recent years Network Rail and the train companies have in fact taken a wide range of measures to improve many different aspects of winter operations and resilience, including passenger information. Not all of it was ready or in place by the beginning of December, but I believe lessons were learned quickly to prepare for the second episode and no doubt you will hear about that later this morning.
Secondly, the problems at Heathrow and the evident frustration of Government at the time about the lack of leverage on what is a private regulated industry have made me reflect on whether the CAA’s licensing regime for aerodromes needs to embrace performance in managing winter weather, in addition to the requirement which is largely safety based for a snow plan. The Committee will no doubt be considering this anyway.
Thirdly, for me, the whole question of weather forecasting, weather trends and climate change remains unfinished business. In our windswept island off the north-west coast of Europe, at the mercy of many different weather systems, we do have very unpredictable and volatile weather. Nevertheless, the Met Office reconfirmed to me during the December audit that severe winters still have a probability of 1 in 20 and this is gradually declining due to global warming. Nevertheless, the effect of global warming is to increase the moisture content of the air so that, other things being equal, more snow is possible in the future when severe weather events do occur. They also confirmed that weather in any one winter is virtually independent, statistically speaking, of weather in preceding winters. In other words, there is no evidence of clustering of severe winters. With two severe winters on the trot, and a few weeks of another severe winter, I could be forgiven for asking the question again, but I imagine you will be discussing this with the Met Office during your inquiry.
Chair, that is all I wish to say by way of introduction. Thank you.
Q3 Chair: Thank you very much. That is very helpful. The general view seems to be that the UK copes less well with bad weather than all other countries. Is that right?
David Quarmby: No, I would refute that. In the December audit we had an appendix with some, albeit rather anecdotal, European comparisons. Countries often quoted-Scandinavia, parts of the USA such as the east coast, and Canada-have deep snow for extended periods every winter, and they are fully resourced to deal with that. However, even they get overwhelmed by extreme weather sometimes, as we have seen on the east coast of the States in recent weeks. The most useful comparisons are with other countries who have similar weather to our own, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and much of Germany. Severe winters are not common, and the level of resources they have reflects that, as it does for us too. But there, as well as here, people expect the authorities to cope, and most of them do so pretty well, as indeed do our authorities.
Appendix A in our report describes briefly how the Netherlands and Germany fared during late November and early December. In the Netherlands, the roads were gritted quite well but when the severe snow came there were really big holdups. There was, however, plenty of salt, as indeed there was for us. The railways did not fare well in the Netherlands: points iced up, trains coped badly in the snow, and information for passengers was pretty poor right across the network. Schiphol Airport remained open, though many flights were cancelled, but they do have six runways.
In Germany, the roads were initially okay, but when the snow came there were hundreds of accidents on the Autobahnen, and incidents on the A2, which links the Ruhr with Berlin, led to tailbacks of up to 30 km. There were five hours of delay on the A3 between Cologne and Frankfurt. Many stretches of the rail network were badly affected. Frankfurt and Munich airports were closed on similar days to which Gatwick was closed. Berlin’s two airports ran out of de-icing materials.
Overall, I would say that neither the Netherlands nor Germany fared better than we did, although there were some important differences. I would say that, on the whole, we do as well as, if not in some respects better than, other European countries with similar weather patterns to our own.
Q4 Chair: Do you think we should be prepared to spend more on winter resilience?
David Quarmby: This is one of the things we examined in the final report where we looked at the economics of winter resilience, and there you may recall we estimated, in an average winter, that the cost to England’s economy is about £1 billion. About half of that is hard cost and half is what economists call the welfare cost-that is the inconvenience cost to individuals.
We then did a desk exercise to estimate whether, if you were to add 50% to the cost of local authorities’ winter resilience spending, you would get disproportionate benefits as a result of the better movement and so on that would result. The desk exercise we examined suggested that if local authorities were able to spend up to 50% more on winter resilience-that is, from about £200 million to about £300 million a year-possibly, benefits between £50 million and £400 million might result. In other words, on paper at least, there is a suggestion that at the local authority level you might get significant additional benefits by spending a bit more. This would be on treating a higher proportion of the networks, more treatment of footways, pedestrian areas and cycleways, maybe more attention to snow clearing resources and so on. Of course, in these austere times, we were never going to suggest that any authority should seriously look at that, but nevertheless that is the assessment that we made.
Q5 Paul Maynard: You helpfully gave us an overview of the situation in the Netherlands and Germany, yet there remains a perception in this country that we perform less well than other comparable countries. Why do you think that perception has come about, and how can we ensure better perception amongst the public?
David Quarmby: As I say, we only looked in any depth at the Netherlands and Germany. We did not look at other countries; it was not part of our remit. But I think the simple answer to your question is that, as a nation, we tend to deprecate ourselves, and the media play into that. So, of course, it is a good media story to say, "Oh, everybody else does better than we do." I don’t think the evidence supports that. What you can do about it I wouldn’t know, except one of the things that many local authorities and the transport operators have done is to get the media on their side, to explain to them what they are doing and to make them part of the communications to the public at large-in other words, to make the local media, particularly, part of the solution instead of part of the problem. A number of local authorities have found that this is effective not only in getting a more objective story out about what is going on but also in managing people’s expectations about what is reasonable by way of protection against winter.
Q6 Paul Maynard: Are you aware of what the Dutch or German Governments may have done in response to their own winter problems?
David Quarmby: I don’t know what they have been doing as a result, no. The only knowledge I have through my connection with Abellio, which is the international subsidiary of the Dutch railways of which I am a director, is that I know the Netherlands railways are going through a very big review of how things went during their winter period. I would like, Chair, just to ask Brian to comment. I think he has more information than I have about America.
Brian Smith: I would like to make a couple of comments and then I will just make a comment on America. Running through all your questions so far is the issue of how quickly you recover from an event. I think that is absolutely crucial here, running through this. That links back then to the question about how much you invest, because in fact you could invest in more pre-treatment and you could cover more of your network, but that doesn’t make a difference, really, until you get a snow event. So the real issue then comes back to whether you have equipment available. I think one of the areas that is worth pursuing-and many authorities have done this-is to look at whether you have arrangements in place, whether it is with the local farmers or other contractors, to bring in additional equipment.
Interestingly, though, just linking it to America, I have been very fortunate in the last couple of weeks to be away in a warm place where many Americans were as well. Strangely, many of them started talking about this very bad winter that they have had over there, with lots of snow, more snow in their winter than ever before. It was just interesting to hear some of their comments almost in the same way of how badly they have been doing. They were not prepared. You tend to find their main roads are cleared quickly, and they do have that equipment, but some of those same perceptions and issues were coming through about their frustrations and needing to do better in the future. I suspect that, probably, wherever you are, you would find some of those same issues coming through.
Q7 Mr Harris: Did you receive any indication from local authorities about what preparations they are making for having significantly less money to spend on winter preparations next year?
David Quarmby: During my December audit, I spoke in depth with 15 county and unitary authorities across England, and I made a point of asking all of them whether they were under pressure with their winter budgets on the inyear cuts that were being imposed on local authorities during the current year, and also whether they were anticipating any budget cuts in what was then the current budget process for the 2011-2012 year. Interestingly, none was under pressure to cut back inyear on the necessary activities to deal with the winter that was going on, and none reported that winter service in the ongoing budget process for 2011-12 looked likely to have to make significant budget cuts for the future. However, that was early December.
Brian Smith: Can I add one thing to that which is very important? It is quite a large spend for a local authority preparing for winter, and I would echo from my knowledge exactly that situation. I think local authorities take the view they just have to be prepared in this, but they are looking at this area for greater efficiency. One of the things in the review which David led on, and we pushed, was the issue of using salt more efficiently. So there are some areas of work going on, and all other things being equal in terms of the amount of snow and treatment, then I think local authorities are certainly doing work to see if they can spend less within the same coverage.
Q8 Chair: So there is ongoing work about salt?
Brian Smith: Yes.
David Quarmby: Indeed, yes.
Q9 Chair: How is that being taken forward?
David Quarmby: Salt is a big subject for our review in any case. You may wish to raise questions about what is going on currently, but jumping to the end of the story, in order to deal with the strategic salt supply situation for this country, we advised in our final report that there were two things that should happen, having looked at a number of alternatives. One is that there should be a systematic approach to making more economical use of salt across all highway authorities. Secondly, the two main UK salt suppliers should be urged, cajoled and encouraged to be able to increase their throughputs at times of high demand.
On the former, the experience of last winter, when there was an emergency cutback in January of last year on the use of salt, was that many authorities found they could manage with rather lower rates of spreading salt than were the norm. During the course of our inquiry we felt that this needed to be looked at more evidentially and should be researched properly in order to give a sound basis on which local authorities could confidently adopt more economical spread rates. This was accelerated by Government during November and December, and Government managed, through the UK Road Liaison Group, to publish a new set of spread rates that local authorities should feel able to use. This was in December, just before Christmas.
So the pattern of using salt more sparingly is now built into the standards that local authorities are advised to use, and this will not only reduce some costs, as Brian was saying, but it will help the overall strategic situation of being able to match demand better to supply in future winters.
Q10 Mr Leech: Is there any evidence in countries like Britain- England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland-because we have so few examples of very adverse weather conditions, that people’s behaviour under these circumstances doesn’t change and therefore helps to create more of a problem, whereas in other countries they are used to the adverse weather conditions and their behaviour alters to deal with the particular climate?
David Quarmby: I think that is a very important point. I have no hard evidence, but certainly we all have anecdotes-and I have plenty-of young people, particularly young drivers, who won’t have had much experience of winter conditions, going out and seeking to drive without understanding quite how dangerous it is going to be, or without having been able to experience that before and therefore have the skills to be able to manage that.
I was aware in February 2009, which is when London had a really serious snowfall and didn’t manage so well as they did the subsequent winter, in my part of London, which is south-east London, that there were a number of hills that were impassable, and it is interesting how many of those were impassable because drivers had tried to drive up them. They were not gritted properly and they just collided, they got across the road and they completely blocked it. So I think there is a problem of lack of experience of drivers, and younger drivers in particular.
Q11 Mr Leech: Is there any statistical evidence to back up that anecdotal evidence that the increase in the number of accidents here is higher than the increase in other countries during adverse weather conditions?
David Quarmby: We didn’t look at that and I don’t know whether that evidence exists. Part of the difficulty about using accident data, as we discovered when doing our economic study, was that the total traffic flows-the total number of journeys-fall quite dramatically, so even if the accident rate goes up, the number of accidents goes down, because there are fewer people on the road. So it is quite difficult to discern that interpretation.
Q12 Mr Leech: I would just like to move on to another area now. Is there any evidence to suggest that certain transport modes were let down by other transport modes-or even within modes? For instance, Manchester Airport Group were quite critical about the reactions of some of the airlines, and some of the airlines were quite critical of some of the actions of some of the airports. Is there any evidence that one transport mode was let down by another and caused more problems in their particular area?
David Quarmby: Given the fact that most people make an integrated multimodal journey, whether you are walking to a station and travelling by train and then going on a bus at the other end, or you are driving somewhere to park and ride, or you are driving to an airport and then you are flying, it would be surprising if that was not the case. We didn’t have any hard evidence of linking in that way, but plenty of anecdote which supported our recommendations. For example, there were a number of places where we felt that roads to railway depots, railway stations and bus garages had not been properly gritted. The buses were not able to get out and staff were sometimes not able to sign on at railway depots, signalling centres, maintenance areas, or wherever. That is one of the reasons why we put such a lot of weight in our recommendations on the fact that local authorities should consult fully in determining what networks they are going to treat, and on what basis, with other transport operators.
Q13 Mr Leech: Doesn’t that mean then that it is more difficult to solve the problem in the future, given that each transport mode is able, effectively, to blame someone else for perhaps some of their own failings?
David Quarmby: I don’t think it is a blame game. The response we had from all the people we spoke to during the course of the review, and in my audit too, was that everybody is trying to solve the problems. Okay, if, under certain circumstances, people start blaming others, maybe that is how some people behave, but on the whole organisations were keen to find solutions that dealt with the integration of the kind of journeys that people need to make.
Q14 Chair: In general did you feel that people were cooperating?
David Quarmby: Yes, absolutely.
Q15 Chair: Did you feel that operators were cooperating?
David Quarmby: Yes.
Brian Smith: If I could add as well, on the basis of the two winters we looked at in the report last year, as David says, the recommendation that there should be better consultation across modes was clearly widely accepted. One of the things that I have certainly picked up in the last few months-and I think some of that experience played into the December events-is that there had been more of that preparation and consultation so at least people aren’t surprised when the bus depot isn’t treated, or whatever the example is. The key issue is people have been talking and they know what to expect. That, indeed, extends to local companies and the like, so that you don’t find out when you are in the event what the problem is, because you can’t plan. This is about good plans to start with that allow you to be effective when you have a snow event.
Q16 Kelvin Hopkins : Lincolnshire Council has pointed out that the switch from directly employed labour to contracted staff has reduced their capacity to deal with bad weather and their resilience. How can councils mitigate this risk?
David Quarmby: That is a phenomenon we were aware of, and again that I was aware of in the December audit. Councils told me two things. First, if you set up your service contracts correctly in the first place, then you make sure that there is flexibility of labour in your contractors who are unable to do the things they would normally do because of snow and ice and can turn their labour towards clearing pavements and side roads and so on. There were a number of authorities we spoke to who had contracts that enabled them to do that.
The second thing, of course, is to provide the kind of leadership that enables the community at large and town and parish councils, as well as districts, to mobilise volunteer labour. We found that there were some really striking examples of where that had been done particularly well. I think it is an area of best practice for local authorities to engage their local communities as well as their lower-tier authorities in what are the practical ways they can all help out at times of severe winter periods.
Q17 Kelvin Hopkins: Contracting out works better where there is an expected programme of work to do, it is routine and so on, but if it is a once in 20 years or once in five years major event, maybe contractors are not best placed to do that, and perhaps emergency procedures are best dealt with by direct employment.
David Quarmby: Interestingly, we found cases where the contractors were able to draw on their own supply chains to bring in additional resource, for example for snow clearance, which the local authority itself might not have been able to do. There are factors and there are advantages and disadvantages, but a well-drawn contract is one that will allow for the flexible use of labour when circumstances require and will also enable the contractor to draw on their own supply chain to help out.
Gavin Shuker: I would like to turn to rail. If anyone else wants to come in on local authorities before I do that, then I am happy to defer.
Q18 Julie Hilling: One of my concerns is about the side roads and the pavements. Main thoroughfares seem to be cleared relatively quickly in most circumstances, but part of my constituency is quite high, where, certainly last year, people were trapped in their homes for a couple of weeks. You said that additional investment from local authorities would bring results. What sort of scale are we talking about in terms of being able to deal effectively with those side roads and pavements?
David Quarmby: I will ask Brian to comment in a minute, but there are two points I would make, one on side roads particularly in the more remote rural areas. The key there, I believe, is to have good arrangements with contractors and farm contract too, which are often on a retainer which is not very expensive, that will enable plant to be brought into use to deal with clearing snow and ice on local roads. This happens in Staffordshire and Derbyshire particularly. Both of those were counties I spoke to at some length during my December audit. Both of those counties are well organised for that, and so is North Yorkshire. There are other counties that are less well organised in having available on-the-shelf contracts and contractors who will come out and do that. It does not cost a lot but it needs a bit of management effort to put that in place. That, again, is another piece of best practice for local authorities.
Q19 Julie Hilling: Mine is an urban constituency, but quite high.
David Quarmby: Yes. That, again, can be done. The council itself should not feel that it has to invest in a lot of equipment that it only uses once every few years. It is possible to put in place these latent contracts which will bring resources into play when they are needed. That, I think, would work for the outer fringes of an urban area just as well as it would in the deeper rural areas.
On footways, that was an area that we found in our main review had been neglected. Many local authorities didn’t bother to treat footways at all, but there clearly was a demand, from a lot of the evidence that we received, so we made quite a clear recommendation in our main review that authorities should consider carefully how and to what extent they should treat the more important and more frequently used footways in their areas. Some authorities already contract with their district councils to do this in two-tier areas. That is something that you can get parish and town councils to do. Some, in fact, were starting to introduce specialised equipment to enable them to treat footways efficiently. I think all those things are welcome, but they are needed.
Q20 Julie Hilling: Can I also ask then about voluntary activity? My mum still thinks that she has a legal duty to clear her path outside her house. Is that something that we should be looking at?
David Quarmby: You may remember that about this time last year there were some questions raised, I think in the upper House, about whether or not people were liable if they started to clear the area in front of their own house. This came to our notice during our review and we took a leaf out of Westminster City Council’s book, who had, the previous winter, prepared a simple leaflet for their householders. We decided that the Government should take the initiative to produce a similar set of advice, which we called the Snow Code. We recommended that in July, and it is a very good thing that, by the time we published our final report on 22 October, on the same day the Government published the Snow Code and made it available to all local authorities to distribute. That is only saying you should feel confident to clear your frontage if you just follow these few basic things of best practice, like "Don’t pour boiling water on it" and so on.
We are a long way, culturally, from other countries like Germany and Switzerland, who place a legal requirement on their householders to do that. I don’t think that would go down very well in this country.
Q21 Chair: The issue last year was about liability, wasn’t it?
David Quarmby: It was.
Q22 Chair: If people did clear the path outside their own home, they could be liable.
Brian Smith: That was exactly the issue-just to build on that-in so far as particularly there was media reporting of it and there were one or two legal people in local authorities who said, "You could be liable." Hence the Snow Code, which gives an underpinning there and gives basic advice saying, "You will not be prosecuted if you have adopted a sensible approach to clearance." Certainly, following on from your mother’s example, we would want to encourage people.
Just building on your question, it is always going to be difficult, particularly in urban areas and the pavements, to clear those. There are a whole range of issues from parked cars and the like to which you can point. Therefore, we will have to rely a lot on the frontages clearing, and that is the best answer, but to do it in a responsible way.
Q23 Steve Baker: Should we adjust our expectations for the effectiveness of road salt in heavy snow?
David Quarmby: Yes. Brian knows more about this than I do, although I have become a bit of an expert on salt. Salt is good as a precautionary treatment to prevent ice forming on roads, and it is good to clear small amounts of ice and snow. Salt will not clear 3 inches of ice and snow. Indeed, one of the problems during the December period was that the minor roads that were not treated built up, because of the succession of freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing, compacted ice and snow to 2, 3 or 4 inches on many minor roads.
Nearly all the authorities to whom I spoke with large rural areas have a policy of at least making sure that there is one access road cleared to every single rural community. That still leaves all the other roads. Yes, there is a need to manage people’s expectations that salt will not clear compacted ice and snow. Once it gets past the first centimetre or so and builds up beyond that, the best you can do is, for example, to spread a mixture of sand and salt or even just sand on it in order to give traction to vehicles, but you have really got to wait for it to thaw.
Brian Smith: There is one other thing I would like to say, if I may. The other misunderstanding or the lack of understanding of the public is that, once the temperature goes down to about minus 8°C, the salt will actually not work. So, again, I think there are some issues here about public understanding about what salt will and will not do. The way I have often described it is that salt is not a magic dust that you can put down and the snow disappears. But there are a number of the public and, dare I say, the media who do seem to have that view of salt.
Q24 Gavin Shuker: Just turning to rail, to what extent does the current setup, with train operating companies and Network Rail, lend itself well to handling the kind of problems we are talking about today?
David Quarmby: The architects of the privatised railway, back in the early 1990s, didn’t build a system that was ideal for managing winter conditions. That said, I believe that the industry has evolved some very effective mechanisms, mostly through the means of what is called the National Task Force. I am sure you will hear more of that from Robin Gisby and Chris Burchell who are following us. The evidence we have had from the National Task Force, and indeed, my own experience, having spent some time in the rail sector earlier in the decade, is that it is an effective mechanism for bringing together the infrastructure operator Network Rail, the train companies and others who have a part to play in this, forging strategies and programmes of action that will integrate and deliver policies that require both parties to cooperate and work together. You have only to look at what has been achieved under the NTF’s winter programme to believe that it is pretty effective.
Q25 Gavin Shuker: To what extent, though, can we hold accountable Network Rail and train operating companies under the current set-up?
David Quarmby: I think you can very, very clearly because each has very clear responsibilities. Network Rail, as the infrastructure manager, has a duty to make the network available for service. The train operators’ task is to so configure their trains, timetables and supervisory, operational and management arrangements in order to make the best use of the railway network under severe conditions.
Q26 Gavin Shuker: Can you give me an example where a train operating company or Network Rail has had punitive effects placed on them as a result of bad performance during cold weather?
David Quarmby: The arrangement that exists between Network Rail and the train companies does involve-I think I am right on this-penalties being placed on Network Rail if the infrastructure is not available for service. Interestingly, that does not apply to airports, which is something we discussed in our inquiry. So there is a financial incentive on Network Rail to make the network as available as they possibly can for safe and efficient operation.
Q27 Gavin Shuker: Just to clarify, were those penalties triggered during one or more of the last cold weather periods?
David Quarmby: I believe so, yes.
Q28 Gavin Shuker: I do not want to take up too much of the Committee’s time, but I would like to raise the particular issue of the area south of London and the third rail system. I think other Committee members will want to come in. What is the fundamental problem there? Why did the network south of London perform so badly?
David Quarmby: The fundamental problem is a very wellknown one. It is the vulnerability of the third rail system of bringing traction current to the trains. It is particularly vulnerable because of the top contacts that is the characteristic of that system. Interestingly, there are a number of other equivalent third and fourth rail systems across Europe which do not pick up the traction current from the top of the rail but from the side or even from underneath the rail, and they are not vulnerable at all in the same way. In fact, the Docklands Light Railway is an example of traction current that is picked up from underneath the rail, not on top, and the DLR was pretty well unaffected by the winter weather.
What makes it worse for the rail companies south of the Thames, compared with Mersey Rail, for example, or London Underground, is the amount of the network that runs through deep rural areas, particularly in Kent and Sussex, and to an extent in Hampshire, which we know are very vulnerable to severe weather conditions-Kent particularly. It is the combination of the weather conditions in those counties and the vulnerability of the third rail that at least creates the starting problem. Now you have to say, "What do Network Rail and the train companies do to mitigate the impacts of those?" That is covered in our report, and I am sure it is covered in the evidence you have had from the rail sector.
Q29 Paul Maynard: You mentioned the Snow Code earlier. Do you think there is a role for Government to take on, rather like we had in the 1970s with the Central Office of Information public safety films, a much more aggressive role in imparting to the public what they should expect in terms of service provision levels on transport, how they should behave in adverse weather conditions when considering their travel options, and how they should adapt their driving needs? Does the Government need to play a much more proactive role in shaping public perception and expectation?
David Quarmby: It is a fair question, and many people will have different views about that. My own view is that expectations are best managed and information is best given close to people’s own transport and highways experience. For example, a local authority that communicates well through its websites and so on is best placed to advise people on what use they can make of their local highways, what treatment they can expect of their roads, what journeys they can reckon to make and what their expectations can be. In the same way, the transport operators, the railway companies and the airlines are best placed to explain to people what is going on, what they can expect, and where and when they can get information about the services available.
In terms of people’s behaviour, the only thing that probably is worth doing is some kind of campaign to encourage people to drive more sensitively and with greater care when they are driving on wintry roads. That would be a matter for the Department for Transport. In more general terms it is really best done by organisations and authorities that are closest to the individual.
Q30 Paul Maynard: You identify airlines and train operating companies as being best placed to provide that information. One perception, for want of a better word, is that during the last two major snowfalls this winter train operating companies, airlines and other transport organisations did not perform well at informing passengers as to what was happening. Were there any examples of good practice you could point to of companies that did do a good job of keeping passengers informed, and how did they do it?
David Quarmby: Yes. I would not agree with the assertion that people were badly served by information. There were some real pockets of problems, and the railway companies south of the Thames in the first winter period were an example of that. There were some highway authorities that did not give very thorough information to their residents and businesses, but my judgment would be that most train operating companies and most airlines did a pretty good job of keeping their passengers and prospective passengers in the picture. The problem comes, of course, if the airlines and the train operators can’t provide certainty themselves about what is going to happen.
The contrast between Gatwick and Heathrow in the two winter periods is an interesting one. Gatwick made a decision to close and then they closed for two days, and they made a judgment that they would be able to open on the morning of the third day, which they did. They informed all the airlines, and the airlines informed their passengers. I know it wasn’t brilliant, but on the whole that was a well-managed incident. The problem with Heathrow later in December was the lack of certainty about the airport’s own plans about reopening. There was a sense among the airlines that the closure on the Saturday morning, 18 December, was only going to be a short closure. Then it looked as if it was going to last until the Sunday, then the Monday, and then it did not resume full service until the Thursday.
You have to have certainty in the operation before you can begin to give good information to the passengers. But my belief is that the task of giving the information is something that the airlines do, I think, well. There was a further point that has just slipped me.
Q31 Mr Harris: I was intrigued by your comment that the privatisation of the railway industry left us without the proper preparations to deal with this sort of weather. Could you expand on that?
David Quarmby: I simply said that a unified railway is intrinsically, I think, better able to plan and manage circumstances under which the railway has to cope with severe winter conditions, because it involves rolling stock, operations and infrastructure, which, in our privatised railway, are split between Network Rail on the one hand and train operators on the other. But, having said that, I believe that the mechanisms that have been put in place over the last decade are a very good and effective response to what for the last nearly 20 years now has been a split regime between the infrastructure operator and the train operator on the other hand.
Q32 Mr Harris: In your opinion, having looked at this for some period, whether the rail industry is privately owned or nationalised, did that have any effect on the ability of the industry to cope with this severe weather?
David Quarmby: I don’t think whether it is owned by the public or privatised has any impact on it at all. It is about the effectiveness of the institutions working together, the mechanisms they have and the commitment and enthusiasm of the people involved.
Q33 Mr Harris: It is the structure. I was actually going to ask about something else but I just wanted to pick up on that earlier comment. I am hearing from you on railways and other areas that the problem is not so much the severe weather as members of the public: that expectations are too high, and members of the public perhaps expect too much from the infrastructure when this kind of weather happens. Are you taking the view that the response by the railway industry and other areas was adequate or as good as could be given the circumstances, and the public and the media should perhaps take a fairer approach and shut up?
David Quarmby: I was not saying that, no. In my audit report I was saying that I felt there were problems which should not have arisen in terms of the railway operation, particularly south of the river. I have explained in the audit, and I amplified in my opening remarks, that a huge amount of work has been done over recent years under the aegis of the National Task Force to make the railway, in the round, more able to manage winter conditions. It is an ongoing programme of work that is being done and to some extent the rail sector was caught out by the early onset of the first severe winter period in late November, early December. There was a particular problem, which I noted in my report, of the lack of good information for passengers, particularly on Southeastern and Southern, not quite so bad on South West Trains. There were some issues about the availability of antiicing equipment and materials and the mobilisation of resources.
I did also say in my opening remarks that I felt the railways managed the second winter episode rather better. I believe that the arrangements that are in place, the infrastructure that is there, the operating procedures and the systems that have been put in should enable a good response to be made to winter conditions.
I think there is still more work to do, particularly on the passenger information side, where I expressed the view in my audit report-and I still stay with this view-that there is too much reliance on systems for delivering information to passengers. There is not enough resilience in the information systems that will give people the information they need to know. When they are standing on the platform of Orpington station for half an hour with a foot of snow, not knowing what is happening, for one reason or another the customer information systems are not giving them the information. So there is work to do in that area, and I think my friends in the rail industry would agree with that, but no doubt you will ask them that.
So far as the roads go, we expressed the view in our main review, and I repeated that in the audit, that there are a number of local authorities who do their winter resilience very well on highways, but not all of them do it as well as the best do it, and I identified probably four things that local authorities should attend to and for which there are very good examples of best practice. It is about planning, communications, mobilisation of resources, and engaging lower-tier authorities. If a local authority does all those things well, then they will generally have a satisfied residents and business community.
I am not saying that the country does all this brilliantly. What I am saying is that most people do a pretty good job. In the period I covered in my December audit there were a number of places where we were caught short, but everybody knows what they need to do.
Q34 Kelvin Hopkins : Pursuing the problem of information on the rail networks further, I am a daily commuter from Luton on Thameslink, and I have done that for 42 years. My impression is that there are inherent problems. We have several different systems. The main signal boxes, which is essentially Network Rail, are the only people who really know where the trains are. The computerised electronic indicators indicate phantom trains or trains that have disappeared. It gets to the point where it is completely useless looking at them. Then you have an automated voice system, but it seems to bear little relation to the indicator or where the trains are, and then, just occasionally, on rare occasions, you get a live voice correcting things. In the past we would have had a live voice knowing what was happening, one system, BR, and we would know where the train is going. Day after day after day we found problems and a great deal of frustration. But are the problems not inherent in the systems you have and this division between track and train?
David Quarmby: I think you can rely on those who are following me in this session to give you a fuller answer to those points, because they have the detail at their fingertips. But I would agree with your overall judgment that the experience we had in the two winter periods we have just had in December illustrate many, many different examples of exactly what you have described, where, for various reasons, the systems were unable to keep up with what was happening, they were not linked together, and there was no live voice that was able to give people an uptodate picture, which perhaps was something that could not be formatted or was not within the protocols of the electronic systems.
I did quote in my report, and I will do so again here, that London Underground have made huge strides in the way in which they give information to their passengers. Their drivers are instructed, if a train is delayed for, I think, 30 seconds, that the procedure is to speak to the passengers, to explain that they are delayed, give a reason if they can, and assure them that somebody knows they are delayed.
Q35 Kelvin Hopkins : I have to say that London Underground is one system in the public sector.
David Quarmby: I don’t think that makes any difference. I think it is perfectly possible to have systems and procedures, to train staff and to have a culture that says keeping people fully informed on the live position is top of the agenda for us. It doesn’t matter that it is fragmented ownership or that it is public or private. It is a clear organisational and cultural commitment to do that. London Underground have that. I believe in the bones of many railwaymen they have that too, but the business of delivering it over a much bigger network, and a more complex and fragmented network, is more challenging. But I think it is a challenge that has to be met, and I made that very clear in my audit.
Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming and answering our questions. We will pursue most of the issues you have raised in further sessions. Thank you very much.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Robin Gisby, Director of Operations and Customer Services, and David Ward, Route Director, Kent, Network Rail, Chris Burchell, Chairman, National Task Force, and Chris Scoggins, Chief Executive, National Rail Enquiries, Association of Train Operating Companies, gave evidence.
Q36 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Could you identify yourselves with your name and organisation for our records? I will start at the end.
David Ward: David Ward, Route Director for Kent, Network Rail.
Robin Gisby: I am Robin Gisby. I am the Director of Operations and Customer Services for Network Rail.
Chris Burchell: I am Chris Burchell. I am here in the capacity as the Chairman of the National Task Force. I am also the Managing Director of Southern, the railway company.
Chris Scoggins: I am Chris Scoggins. I am the Chief Executive of National Rail Enquiries.
Q37 Chair: Thank you very much. What would you say were the main challenges facing Network Rail and the train operating companies this winter?
Robin Gisby: If I may start on that, perhaps my colleagues would join me. The first bout of cold weather came very suddenly and a little earlier than we would normally expect. As Mr Quarmby said earlier, we were not quite ready for it. We made a number of mistakes during that first week, some of which I believe we have highlighted in our evidence to you. We learned from that quite rapidly. In the second bout of cold weather, which was longer, colder and there was more snow, we responded much better and delivered a slightly better service for what still must have been very difficult for passengers.
Chris Burchell: If I may, I would add a couple of points. At the outset, on behalf of all the train operators I would like to apologise to all the passengers who were disrupted or faced disruption during the snow events last December, and in particular to customers who suffered severe disruption because there were areas of the network that really did struggle in the worst and extreme cases. But in the same breath it is also worth pointing out that during that entire period much or most of the network remained open most of the time and in that period most of the scheduled services operated and most of those services actually ran to time.
There is a variety of performance over the network. There are certainly some areas where we need to do better next time. We recognise that and we are sorry for that. But, if I may, if the Committee will indulge me, I would pay tribute to the thousands of rail staff who worked incredibly hard to keep lines open and also to enable services to continue to operate in some pretty tough conditions. It is thanks to them that we managed to provide a reasonable service most of the time. I would like to have that on record, if I may.
Q38 Chair: Do you get enough notice about the severity of the weather?
Robin Gisby: Yes, I think we do. We lead on that, as Network Rail. We have a fairly well-established process that we have developed over the last couple of years for all aspects of seasonal weather and other incidents that affect the network, such as the ash cloud and so on. I would agree with previous evidence that we were caught out a little in the first week. We moved to the full level of national conferences on the Wednesday. I think that is covered in our evidence. That was on 1 December. If you look at the temperature and snowfall graphs in appendix 1 you will see that the weather came in a couple of days before. We were dealing with that at a local level between every one of my routes and the local train operators, but I think we probably could have moved to a national footing a couple of days earlier.
If I can go back to the previous couple of years, we would normally still have been dealing with the effects of autumn through to the first week or two of December. We responded a little slowly in that first 48 hours and, once the snow has come in, it is that much more difficult to shift it. Working with the weather forecasting authorities and running a process with many people engaged in that within the rail companies-we have the Highways Agency, the DfT, Transport for London and so on, and we have the weather forecasting people leading that-I think we do get good quality and pretty accurate information.
Q39 Chair: So it wasn’t a problem about forecasting?
Robin Gisby: No, I don’t believe it was. We have used the Met Office and the MeteoGroup. We use them pretty effectively. They are part of our response to this. They are part of the conferences that we hold during the year in how we are going to improve our delivery each time. So, no, I don’t think it was.
Q40 Mr Leech: Mr Burchell, you rightly commended the work of railway staff in keeping the railways moving. How badly were you hampered by staff not being able physically to get to work?
Chris Burchell: Around the network there were certainly cases of that. Train operators and Network Rail will assess, on an ongoing basis, where their staff live and where their workplaces are to see whether they can operate the network or trains or not. Certainly from the point of view of train crew, signallers or maintenance staff, that can happen and can affect the service provision that you can make. But, by and large, our staff performed magnificently. I know of anecdotal stories of one of my members of staff, a cleaner, who walked for three hours in order to get into work. People go well above and beyond in general, but there are instances where it does hamper you.
Q41 Mr Leech: Do you have any contingency plans in place in order to assist people getting into work in key jobs that effectively shut down the system if they are not able to get there?
Chris Burchell: Yes, absolutely we do, particularly around control offices. We will open up or block-book hotel rooms and so on, so that if people are unable or unlikely to be able to get home or get back again, we can put them up locally so that we can keep our central control rooms operating. The same will apply for drivers. We have supervisors who will be ringing round and making sure that we can get them to work. I know my colleagues here will have some four-wheel drive vehicles that enable us to get key staff to key locations to try and keep key parts of the network open.
Q42 Mr Leech: What coordination is there with local authorities and the Highways Agency about key access routes to train stations and making sure that they are open?
Robin Gisby: There is quite a lot of that. Listening to and reflecting on some of the conversation earlier, we obviously work closely with all such agencies to make sure we can get staff to work and that we have access to depots and signal boxes. We do put people up locally. Some people sleep locally, particularly in some of our more remote locations. We have several hundred signal boxes in quite remote locations. So that element of working together between modes works pretty well. There is some quite good cooperation. We also did some other things. For example, we worked to keep Boulby salt mine open in the north-east because we knew that was important to get extra salt through to the Highways Agency. So we were working in both directions.
It was not the effect of one mode helping or hindering another. I did not really go through this period with any great sense that we were held back by other issues. Around stations and access to stations, there is a little bit of an issue about walking, safety, routes and slipping and sliding. We do try ourselves with the train operators to do the extra bit to make sure the final walking to the station, the platforms and so on are as safe as they can be. But, generally, I felt the cooperation between the different agencies and organisations was pretty good.
Chris Burchell: David Quarmby picked up on this particular point in his first report about liaison with local authorities and highways agencies. It was a recommendation for the railways to look at that interface between stations and highways, and I know that train operators picked up on that recommendation as part of our winter weather activity for last year, in preparation for this season. In addition to that, the industry reviewed its guidance on how to deal with station platforms and how to treat platforms so that we could present a safer and better station environment for passengers. That was all reviewed last year and implemented in time for this winter.
Q43 Mr Leech: Finally, very briefly, on platforms, there is also an issue with disabled ramps, because there are a lot of station improvements that are going on, including proper disabled ramps being put in. Is there a proper programme in place to make sure that those ramps are safe, because, certainly anecdotally, I have heard evidence where people have said that those ramps were completely treacherous during the problems?
Chris Burchell: Those ramps are a key feature of the modern station so they will be included in the guidance, and if there are issues from this winter we will review that and learn from it.
Q44 Mr Harris: Can I ask about compensation for season ticket holders? As a direct consequence of the severe weather, has there been any kind of increase in the amount of compensation that you might pay to someone because their service has been delayed on more than one occasion?
Chris Burchell: Compensation regimes vary between train operators, and they vary depending on largely when that franchise was let and the conditions included within that contract. Certainly the most recent contracts include a system called Delay Repay, which is a very direct and dynamic compensation regime. If your train is not available to you, if your line is blocked or if you are delayed by more than 30 minutes, you are eligible for compensation. Train operators with that regime will have been paying out significant sums as a consequence.
Q45 Mr Harris: Is that compensation paid out on the basis of the standard published timetable or on the basis of an emergency timetable that might be introduced in severe weather? In other words, if an emergency service has to be introduced, does that mean that someone is paid compensation for the fact that the regular service is not there?
Chris Burchell: I think operators will use their discretion here, because the general principle of Delay Repay is that you will get compensation if you are delayed by more than 30 minutes on your normal journey. Depending on the nature of the emergency timetable or contingency timetable and the effect that that will have on your journey, I think operators would be sympathetic. But, generally speaking, the compensation is measured against the timetable of the day.
Q46 Mr Harris: What is Southern’s policy?
Chris Burchell: We have shown quite a bit of discretion to our passengers in terms of the services that we provided in terms of compensating them.
Q47 Mr Harris: Is it down to discretion or is there something in black and white, in either the franchise agreement or in the way you work yourselves, that people can go to which says, "According to this particular rule, I am entitled to X amount of compensation," that does not depend on a manager’s discretion? They can go to the black and white rules.
Chris Burchell: All of the rules on compensation are contained within the passenger charters, and they vary between each operator. Passengers can refer to those for very clear guidance on what is eligible.
Q48 Mr Harris: Are you aware of any unhappiness among some of your season ticket holders in general-not necessarily Southern-that they feel they have not been given enough compensation and have not been treated fairly, because compensation payments have been decided on the basis of the emergency timetable rather than the standard timetable?
Chris Burchell: That has not been brought to my attention particularly.
Q49 Mr Harris: I have just one more question. How many people have referenced the wrong kind of snow to you in the past six months?
Chris Burchell: Quite a few.
Q50 Mr Harris: Have you ever got to the bottom of what the wrong kind of snow might actually be?
Chris Burchell: I hesitate on this. From our own experience, and my own experience in Southern, if I look at the reliability of my train fleet and the way my train fleet has performed in the recent winter extreme events, if you like, some of our trains have performed differently in different snow periods. When we look at why that is, certainly in the most recent case, what we were finding with the sustained very low temperatures and the continuous snowfall over a concentrated period was that there was more opportunity for snow to get into the technical areas of the train and to cause the train reliability problems. That was not a feature particularly in January last year or in February the year before. Whether that is the right or wrong kind of snow, I wouldn’t want to put my name to that quote, but there are certainly differences and we have experienced differences depending on each event.
Q51 Mr Harris: Based on your experience of the past few weeks or months, if we experience the same severity of winter at the end of this year, do you think the industry is better positioned to deal with that?
Robin Gisby: Yes, I think so. If you go back to what we learned from January 2010, there were a range of extremes with which we were dealing in the National Task Force and which we picked up in David Quarmby’s original report. We have put some of that in place. We had our difficulties, as I have said, in that first cold spell. But from what we have learned and what we have coming through, we will continue to do better. We must take the view that this kind of extreme weather is not going to go away, it is going to come rapidly, and vary quite a lot across the country and during 24 hours.
With regard to our responsiveness to issues south of the river with the conductor rail, we are doing a number of things there. We are looking at more heating of it. That worked in Kent very well. We are looking at improved de-icing of it and one or two other things that can happen on the train. Elsewhere, with the provision of snow ploughs and other things, particularly feeding contingency timetables into passenger information, again, there are some good things happening there. For a repeat of similar conditions-and it is only reasonable to assume that it will happen-we will continue to improve the level of service we can offer.
Q52 Chair: Mr Scoggins, did you have access to accurate, uptodate timetables so that passengers could get information before they travel?
Chris Scoggins: Yes, generally speaking, Chairman, we did indeed have access to uptodate timetables. There were instances where the brand new timetabling system, which delivered a lot of improvements to us compared to its predecessor, due to its newness, had some difficulties on certain days in certain areas. On those we had to do workarounds on the day, with the resources available.
Q53 Chair: But Passenger Focus say that people bought tickets for nonexistent journeys. How could that have happened?
Chris Scoggins: Indeed. Where those timetables were not correct we did have messages displayed on our website, which I believe is the focus of Passenger Focus’s attention here, clearly warning people that the timetables were incorrect. However, it was still possible to buy tickets for trains that were not going to run. We have identified work that we currently have under way which will deliver for October this year, by which we will take the corrections to the timetable that are put in during the night or early in the morning into our journey planning systems. That is a programme that is already under way. We are also looking at how we can pass those corrections, in instances where there have been difficulties with the timetable, out to other journey planning and retail systems. The industry is investing millions in this at the moment and we need to carry on working closely with Network Rail also to make sure that the changes to contingency timetables can be passed through to passengers more quickly.
Q54 Gavin Shuker: I just want to reflect on how train operating companies work under these conditions. As I understand it, there are certain financial penalties that are associated with poor performance. If I were looking to minimise those as a train operating company, what kind of mechanisms could I employ during cold weather?
Chris Burchell: To minimise the penalties?
Gavin Shuker: That’s right.
Chris Burchell: I think to deliver the best service for passengers that you can is the best way to minimise the penalties. The relationship that train operators have with Network Rail is one of contract in this area, but I can quite honestly say to you that in these circumstances train operators and Network Rail will work hand in hand to deliver the absolute best service they possibly can for passengers. That is the primary concern we have and that is what we aim to do. In most cases and in most places we sit next to each other in our control rooms, and when we are planning the next day’s service we do it together, with the sole focus of providing the best capacity and the best and the most reliable service that we can for our passengers.
Q55 Gavin Shuker: Is it better to cancel a service or run it late?
Robin Gisby: It depends, I think. Those are judgments that are best made locally between one of my route directors and a train operator. I would not like the Committee to get the impression that these are two remote organisations that don’t talk to each other. Most people at the sharp end are colocated, working together and, as Chris says, fundamentally driven by trying to operate the best service.
The compensation mechanisms happen later. It is not the thing that you would think about the day before and on the day at all. You are trying to run the best service. It is a balance. On some routes and with some types of passengers, what do you do? We quoted in our evidence Virgin, who quite consciously chose to run a full service because they had sold a lot of tickets previously, Christmas was coming, people wanted to get home, and it is quite difficult if you change that service. They were also taking a considerable amount of passengers who were diverted because the airports were closed, from the Irish ports and so on. They chose to run slowly because of the impact of ice and snow in damaging their rolling stock. That meant punctuality was very much in second place to capacity.
Again, if you have a lot of people in London, the weather changes suddenly in the afternoon and you’ve got to get them home, you will try and run a full service to get everybody home as opposed to necessarily cancelling trains. On the other hand, at times, we ourselves will take a view that we cannot reliably keep this bit of the network, this branch line or something, open, and we would agree with a train operator that we won’t run that service that day. Those are decisions that flow on a 24-hour cycle, from the morning national conference call that we organise, through to decisions made within the route jointly between ourselves and the train operators so that we can plan what happens tomorrow.
On the whole-and you will see the numbers in appendix 3 of our submission-we were running 17,000, 18,000, 19,000 trains a day, even on some quite difficult days. But we must not get confused by averages of averages here, because on some routes, on some locations, it was very difficult for passengers. There were some very low numbers in there where we hit particular issues and did not respond well. Elsewhere we ran a pretty good service.
Q56 Gavin Shuker: I appreciate that statement. In terms of avoiding financial penalties as a train operating company, however, is it better to cancel a service or is it better to run it late?
Chair: Mr Burchell?
Gavin Shuker: As I understand it, it is a factual issue.
Chris Burchell: I will be honest with you. In terms of the specific financial penalty, I don’t know. I don’t know-I can find out for you and I can let you know.
Q57 Chair: But surely it must be that that is a major consideration of the people taking the decisions?
Robin Gisby: The financial penalty? Not at all.
Chris Burchell: Let me explain. When we put our contingency timetables together there are a number of things that we must take into account. The primary objective of the timetable that we wish to operate is to deliver the best service we can to passengers. Within that we have to take into account how much of the network is available, and it may not all be available, depending on the weather conditions. We have to take into account the forecasts. What is the current state of the network and what is likely to happen to it, given the next 24 hours’ forecast? We have to take into account what resources we have available and the likelihood that they can get to work and deliver it. That is trains, staff, and so on.
We also have to take into account the passenger needs and demands, and that is obviously key. That is why you will see some variation between operators. The longer distance intercity operators, as Robin correctly says, will have sold many advance tickets for specific trains. If you cancel those trains, that becomes a real problem, but also, because rail is often the only mode that is operating if airports have shut, they will be shouldering a larger burden for other modes, so they will tend to try and run every train but maybe run it late.
However, in complex, very high volume, high intensity services, such as my own, where, for example, we do a lot of splitting and joining, in the cold winter weather the reliability of the coupling operation becomes quite difficult. We make a decision to reduce or eliminate the amount of splitting and joining that we do of our services. That results in some cancelled services, but it does also result in a plan that delivers a much more reliable proposition to customers. That is what we focus on, and not the commercial implications.
Q58 Gavin Shuker: In terms of the commercial implications, is it better to introduce an emergency timetable rather than running services late?
David Ward: Are you asking from a commercial perspective or an operational perspective?
Chair: We are asking about what you do.
David Ward: I make those decisions with Chris. Particularly in Kent this year, there have been some difficult decisions to make. I can assure the Committee I do not ask for any commercial modelling of those. The criteria are: what is the forecast, what is the likely demand going to be, what is the infrastructure availability likely to be, and how can we deliver something that is safe and robust?
Some of the problems we faced were challenging. On the first day, 30 November, which is when the real snow came in, we had a forecast that said there would be little or no snow in south-east England until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. That meant the normal London peak demand in the morning was there, but it meant we would be extremely challenged to get that amount of people home during the evening peak. We didn’t introduce an emergency timetable. We went for the full timetable because we knew that was what the underlying demand would be. We managed it and we got everybody home except for a few isolated incidents. We don’t make those decisions based on commercial criteria, I can assure you of that.
Q59 Chair: So you are looking entirely at demand, at what passengers want.
David Ward: We look at demand, what infrastructure is going to be available and what we can deliver robustly and safely. We do not-
Chris Burchell: The commercial regimes themselves are pretty complicated between us. The amount of money that flows does depend on what runs, how late it is, who causes the delay, what the impact of that delay is on other train services, and so on. To be able to make a simple judgment on the day that says, "This will be better and that’s better commercially" is not something we would be applying.
Q60 Chair: There is nobody giving you advice or guidance on what should be done.
Robin Gisby: No, not at all. I now know what the cost of all of this has been in terms of compensation payments, overtime and everything else, but I have only really finally known that in the last few weeks, well after the actual event, because the decision is not just made in any way on commercial grounds. It is entirely as David describes.
There is one overlay to it, which again we tried to refer to in our evidence. You could have several operators on a particular route and they could all choose quite reasonably to do something slightly different. We had the issue north of York where the East Coast operator wanted to go slower because of the impact of damage on its rolling stock and the CrossCountry operator wanted to go at its normal speed. We had to try to knit those together. Similarly, on Chris’s route, with regard to the operator FCC-First Capital Connect-if it is sunny in Bedford and it is snowing in Brighton, it is quite difficult to explain to two different groups of passengers whether or not you should run a contingency timetable in those circumstances. But these are decisions that are made largely day A for day B entirely on the basis of what is the best possible service we can operate.
We will at times put a little bit of caution ahead of ambition. If you go back to the previous year and the decisions we took, we shut down Charing Cross at about 8 o’clock at night because we didn’t want to get people stranded. In these difficulties, when the emergency services are dealing with a lot of other stuff apart from the railways, the last thing we want to do is to send people off through several hundred miles of the south-east, get them stuck and have to rescue them.
This time we made a couple of decisions that we would make slightly differently. There was a Thursday, I think, on South West Trains in the first week, it must have been about 2 December, when, between us, we opted to run the full timetable and we got in a pickle on the day because the weather was a little difficult and we ran a less good service than if we had cut it back and put what in we call a contingency timetable and had tried to plan to do 90% instead of the full thing. So around the margins we made one or two decisions that I think, looking back, we would have done slightly differently, but fundamentally we run this to try and deliver as good a service as we can for passengers and for freight companies.
Q61 Gavin Shuker: Thank you. That is very clear and very consistent across all the different witnesses that there are no financial considerations that come to mind when it comes to deciding how best to respond to cold weather.
Robin Gisby: It is a consequence of what we do operationally and to try and deliver a service.
Q62 Gavin Shuker: Great, which leads to the obvious question: what on earth are we doing placing financial penalties on the network and train operating companies if it has no effect at all on the way in which they make their decisions?
Robin Gisby: I can answer in two ways. One is, irrespective of how we are structured, how we run and all the rest of it, we will still attribute delays because we have to learn. If the service between Victoria and Brighton doesn’t work very well, we need to know if it is the points, the signalling system, the power system, the train or whatever. So we will always attribute delays. Other people might call that apportioning blame. We just call it good management practice to know how our operation is going. Linked to that is what I consider to be a compensation regime rather than a fining system, which I think was referred to earlier, because if I don’t deliver as good an infrastructure as I should do my train operating customers have some fixed costs that they are stuck with, and those are big costs. There is a regime that, if I don’t deliver, then I should pay this gentleman some money for that.
Also, because we like to try and run a better system, there is a huge driver for my customers that, if we improve performance, we will get more passengers and we will drive up the revenue within the industry. So having an incentive regime, let’s call it, rather than a fining regime, that encourages us all to work better, ultimately will deliver a better service for passengers and freight and will drive up the usage of the railway. I am sure we all agree that is a good thing.
Chris Burchell: I would add that the incentives regime applies throughout the year and across all the delay issues with which we deal. As Robin said, it is there to drive us to improve our standard of performance delivery to passengers. That is what we focus on and use that regime for. Incentive regimes do drive behaviour, and if the incentive regime was causing us not to put the passenger first in the way that we have just described to you, then I think you would be highlighting it as an issue. The fact that it does not drive that kind of behaviour shows that we are doing the right thing.
Q63 Kelvin Hopkins : Everything you have said seems to argue that you put passengers first, but Passenger Focus’s view is at odds with what you say. They say: "A culture of looking after passengers when things go wrong is not yet second nature in the rail industry." They also quote examples of where people have bought tickets for nonexistent trains.
I mentioned in an earlier session this morning about the poor information systems. Even outside bad weather times, one can find utter confusion for the electronic computerised indicator systems. Indeed, not two or three weeks ago, I waited for over an hour on a cold night at West Hampstead station, with a constant changing and flickering system which bore no relation to what was actually happening. There are problems.
Robin Gisby: There are problems. Much of it is the inheritance that we got from BR where we had a massively complex, fragmented and underinvested set of information systems. We have now focused on that a lot. It has taken some time, because a lot of what we did in the first years was about improving reliability and performance and driving up train performance and, through that, customer satisfaction and revenue.
We have invested within Network Rail, because most of the money in this area flows through us through the settlements that we get with the regulator. It was a big feature of this control period. The new timetable planning system that we have put in has taken the whole game a long way further forward. But you will see again in our evidence that that system still interfaces with 170 separate information systems and other operational systems, some of which are 40 or 50 years old still. So we have now got to progressively invest in a number of those to tighten them up.
There is a programme in that area, particularly between our core systems and the train companies, feeding through into passenger information, which is around an area called Darwin-I think we refer to it in our evidence-which is to eliminate exactly the problem that you experience at places like West Hampstead, where there appears to be a dislocation between the operational systems and what is appearing on the platform. That new investment is being piloted right now with another train operating company and will be rolled out via the train operators quite quickly.
Chris Burchell: I agree with Passenger Focus. I think there is significant room for improvement in this area. As Robin highlights, the legacy or our inheritance is not particularly easy, particularly good or particularly flexible. But, certainly, through all the industry as a whole, through the National Task Force, we have identified that this is a very important priority for us to improve.
We have set up a number of work streams already to look at the systems side of things and also, picking up David Quarmby’s point in his report about culture, how we disseminate information to our staff and then what our staff do with it once they have it, as well as other network and internet type based solutions that we need to find as well. There is a lot of activity in this area. I think Passenger Focus are right to be telling us that we can improve and we are determined to do so.
Q64 Kelvin Hopkins : Isn’t there a contrast, which has been drawn earlier, between what happens on surface rail and London Underground? London Underground has technical problems arising largely, it seems, from the disastrous PPP-and there are still technical problems-but we are constantly informed where the problems are. We are told positive information: there are no problems on the network at any time. I travel regularly from West Hampstead to Westminster, as you can understand, and there are problems, but we are told constantly by a live voice.
Robin Gisby: I think without doubt they do a very, very good job. We are in discussion with them because we do want to emulate some of the success they have had. It has taken them five or six years to get to where they are and it is a mix of cultural change as well as systems change, and we have to go down that same journey. It is arguably a little bit more complicated for us with 20,000 miles of track and all the disbursed-out things that we deal with, compared with a relatively tight system like LUL have. But I do think the role they have of communicating almost in real time about what is going on is excellent and it is one of several role models that we are striving to emulate.
Chris Burchell: We have already started to make some changes in this area. I talked about some activity that we have planned from this point going forward to do better here, but we have already started to make changes. The industry has introduced a code of practice for information during disruption and there are a number of things that each operator and Network Rail are working together on to deliver quickly. We are already starting, I hope, to see some improvement there. The latest National Passenger Survey does start to show some improvement in the satisfaction of passengers with the way that train operators deal with delays. But there is a lot of room for improvement still. So, as I say, we are determined to do better here.
Q65 Julie Hilling: I would like to raise a couple of areas. Are we currently wasting an awful lot of money now on accountants who are running around working out who owes what money for the delays in terms of, "It’s Network Rail’s fault" or someone else’s?
Robin Gisby: No, we are not, I don’t think. We are very keen to continue to be very accurate about what causes delays. If you have a set of points that have been at subzero temperatures for three days and they now have 2 feet of snow on them, it is quite difficult at times to attribute that accurately. But this is much more an engineering and operational thing as opposed to an accounting thing. We are still very keen to understand delays and deal with them and continue to run a better service. There is not a significant overhead or cost at all in the actual linking of that through to a compensation regime.
Q66 Julie Hilling: There is an issue about peak trains or at least peak trains which are running in off-peak periods and passengers who are turning up for their off-peak trains being told, "You can’t travel on this because it’s a peak train," even though it is in the off-peak period. Do you think that is appropriate? Did that question make sense?
Chris Burchell: I am not sure I understood it, sorry.
Julie Hilling: Certainly with Virgin, where they would have peak trains, the peak train then would be running with a couple of hours’ delay on it, but people were being told they could not travel on that train because it was still a peak train without paying the additional money. Is that appropriate?
Chris Burchell: I am not aware of that particular situation, but I am sure we could follow it up separately. I know from Virgin’s own experience that they were extremely full because they took an awful lot of airline business because the airports were shut as well. Although they did move people, the trains ran a little bit late and it would have been quite uncomfortable on them, but at least people got home for Christmas, which was the big objective in that December. Whether that led to a train that had started on time in a peak hour and by the time it reached Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow it was outside is something maybe we could take separately and come back to the Committee on.
Q67 Julie Hilling: It was the time it was leaving London or started in London . Then I have a question about the mechanics of all of this. Do we have systems that fundamentally won’t work when we get temperatures of the level that we had? Last year we had the problems with the overhead lines. This time we had a problem with third rail and we are having problems with unit failure. Actually, is there a point when fundamentally things won’t work?
Robin Gisby: I will say something and then Mr Ward can fill in for south of the river. Salt works down to minus 9°C but not below that. Some of our points heaters and our other equipment have been built around a design spec that is not like what we are seeing or we are going to see. We did send people to Switzerland, Sweden and elsewhere to look at what they do. I think we can take the game a bit further forward on a number of things to deal with very cold weather and, at times, very hot weather and floods as well, because all extremes are here. David, you probably want to say some more about south of the river.
David Ward: Yes. The third rail system that Mr Quarmby mentioned earlier was introduced in 1910 and has been the backbone of the traction south of the river. It is very accurate to say it is probably the most extensively used. We have approaching 3,000 miles of railways south of the river that are powered by the third rail system-the top contact system. The analogies with the Docklands Light Railway are interesting. Yes, it is a side contact, but it is a light railway, it is a metro; it travels at 40 km per hour. Our trains travel at 100 miles an hour. They are quite sophisticated trains that have to deal with longdistance operation as well as commuter operation.
In terms of de-icing that we have heard about, we do not de-ice. I think that is really important to understand. What we do is we antiice. The reason we antiice-and there is a difference in that antiice coats a barrier on the third rail that stops ice sticking to the rail-is the quantities we use. In our plan, which starts every year at December timetable change, we plan to deliver 300,000 miles of antiicing by train. That is 12 times around the globe, to put it in context. It is approaching 2 million litres of fluid that we apply to the rail. Therefore, for environmental reasons, we don’t use a glycol de-icer, which is what you and I would use on our car or driveway.
The issue with an antiicer is that it is extremely effective for 90% to 95% of the conditions that we face through every winter: frost, ice, whatever. It is when we get into the realms of the extreme weather that it starts to diminish. It also diminishes with the number of trains that pass over it. The shoe wears its resilience down. We started our antiicing programme on 23 November. We brought it forward 19 days because of the weather forecast. We used 15 specialist vehicles to do that, which we call multipurpose vehicles. They delivered about 50,000 litres of fluid before the planned start of 12 December. We planned that start. Because of the sheer quantity of it, we have to timetable it. It makes sense that you start it at the December timetable change so that it is absolutely coordinated with the logistics of the train operator and the core timetable.
There are three vehicles that were missing, and this is important because we did make an error. We have three specialist vehicles which we call the GLVs. I am sorry to use acronyms but it is the Gatwick Luggage Van. They were built in 1957 and they are coaches or just a single railway coach that Network Rail converted in 2002-03. We don’t plan to operate them on any daily basis. We keep them in the sidings and they deliver exactly the same fluid, which they deliver at a temperature. Therefore, it does have an element of de-icing by temperature. Its range in any given day is about 200 miles. So, on 3,000 miles, it is around about 10% of the network that we can get to in any given day with that.
Q68 Mr Leech: I have a couple of points of quick clarification. Mr Gisby, you suggested that you would have made a few decisions differently.
Robin Gisby: Yes.
Mr Leech: Is that with hindsight, is that suggesting that you just made the wrong choice at the time, or is it just having seen the evidence and what happened after those decisions were made?
Robin Gisby: It is probably a bit of both. Mr Ward referred to the two GLVs that were in maintenance during that first week. We should not have done that. We could have had them out a couple of weeks earlier and that would have helped at the margin, a couple of hundred miles against the many thousands of miles. There was a decision, as I said, about the South West Trains timetable on that Thursday. There were a few trains that got stranded. There was a difficult issue at Tonbridge and one at Three Bridges. Should we have kept running as late as we did? One of the ones was only about an 8 o’clock departure out of Victoria so that would have been a bit early to shut things down. We also flagged up in our evidence a couple of other basic operating mistakes that were made in that first week.
It is better to run eight and 12-car trains because they have more traction than four-car trains, and there were a few four-car trains out there when the weather was tricky. So it is little things like that. If I did it again, we would improve those numbers by two or three percentage points in appendix 3. We learned that, and in the second period we were a bit better.
Q69 Mr Leech: But would it be fair to say that the decisions were reasonable decisions to be made at the time rather than significant errors and that, for the future, you would be learning from those errors about how you might do things differently next time, rather than someone making a big mistake?
Robin Gisby: I don’t see one big mistake in this. If we had got going 48 hours earlier, probably that first week would have been a little better, and we all feel we didn’t do as well as we could have done because we like to do this well. What we actually delivered for passengers and freight users in that first week could have been better. We regret that because of the impact it had on them and we just don’t like delivering that level of service.
Q70 Mr Leech: My other point of clarification is in relation to what Mr Burchell said about the rail industry taking some of the slack from other modes, of passengers having to go by railway instead of other modes of travel. Is it the case that in some circumstances you were having to deal with more passengers than you would normally deal with and, because of the number of people who were choosing to stay at home, you had a bigger proportion of your passengers than perhaps other modes of transport did?
Chris Burchell: Certainly there is evidence that the intercity operators were picking up a number of people who may have travelled by air instead and that that therefore increased the number of passengers they were expecting or being expected to carry. In other places, for example, where the road network wasn’t operable but there was a local rail service, some railway companies were carrying more bus passengers. There is evidence that people will choose their mode depending on what is running and what is available, and that does depend on the information.
Q71 Mr Leech: There will have been some services that were over the normal numbers because of the adverse weather conditions, and you were having to cope with more passengers than normal and also cope with the adverse weather conditions as well.
Chris Burchell: That is true, but I think there is also an impact that a number of passengers will decide not to travel if they don’t need to. Even if they have made a booking, they may decide not to leave home. But that is the judgment we have to make in terms of the likely level of demand that we are going to see.
Q72 Mr Leech: Would it be fair to say, though, that the rail industry is the only transport mode that suffers in that way, because of the nature of the rail industry? People who can’t travel by car or air all tend to end up on the railways.
Chris Burchell: I don’t think I would perhaps use those terms, but I do think that passengers, rightly, have a reasonably high expectation of the service that rail can provide, because in most situations the rail service is resilient and sometimes when other modes aren’t operating the railways still are. Therefore, we welcome those passengers. If we can provide a service for them, that is a good thing.
Robin Gisby: I think, on the whole, yes. We saw it at that time particularly, as Chris says, with the longer distance operators. They were full and standing at times between London and Scotland because it was the only way of getting there. You saw that also with the Eurostar. We did have some difficulties with queues at St. Pancreas for two or three days because some of their rolling stock was unavailable, but the amount of traffic they took because Heathrow was closed at the start of that second week-I think it was about 18 or 19 December-was a huge extra burden on them because it was the only way of getting home.
Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming and answering our questions.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Derek Turner, Network Delivery and Development Director, and Simon Sheldon-Wilson, Traffic Management, Highways Agency, Councillor David Parsons CBE, Deputy Chairman, Local Government Association, and Matthew Lugg, Director of Highway Transportation, Leicestershire County Council, gave evidence.
Q73 Chair: Good afternoon, gentlemen, and welcome to the Committee. Could I ask you please to identify yourselves with your name and organisation for our records? I will start at the end.
Derek Turner: I am Derek Turner. I am the Network Delivery and Development Director for the Highways Agency.
Simon Sheldon-Wilson: Good afternoon. I am Simon SheldonWilson, Director of Traffic Management for the Highways Agency.
Matthew Lugg: Hello. My name is Matthew Lugg. I am Chair of the UK Roads Board, also Vice President at the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, and also Director of Environment and Transport for Leicestershire County Council.
David Parsons: I am David Parsons. I am Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association and leader of Leicestershire County Council.
Q74 Chair: Thank you very much. Could any of you give me some examples of how you have learned from the problems of last year’s bad weather and made improvements this time around? Can you give any examples of things you did better this year?
Derek Turner: First of all, we spent a lot of time, as a result of David Quarmby’s report, in establishing a strategic salt stockpile to enable us to provide resilience centrally for the supply of salt, which was a problem in February last year and the previous winter.
Also, from the Agency’s perspective, because we undertook the salt strategic stockpile on behalf of the country as a whole-our own salt stocks were adequate last year-we did increase them significantly this year up to 260,000 tonnes from 227,000 the previous year.
We also had an issue, you will recall, over previous years down on the A38 at Haldon Hill in Devon where vehicles lost traction. We introduced a different system there with the local authorities and the local police where we marshalled traffic and actually led them across the hill. That worked successfully this year as an example of the way we would look to deal with difficult locations in the future.
In addition to that, we started predeploying our national vehicle recovery vehicles across the network at 26 locations across the strategic road network, enabling us to gain additional traction for HGVs that were slipping on slopes. So there are three examples.
Q75 Chair: Does anybody else have any examples of things you did better this year?
David Parsons: There were more grit bins around my particular county, which is Leicestershire. There were teams of volunteers in 4x4s to deliver hot meals to elderly folk if they were unable to get their daily meal. We have introduced a series, also, of snow wardens, which are our eyes and ears on the ground. We also increased our salt stocks and that was very important. Of course, we are also involving district councils in the organisation of how we run our county in a time of weather emergency.
Q76 Chair: What about weather forecasts? Were the weather forecasts accurate enough or good enough? Would it be better if we had more medium-term forecasts?
Matthew Lugg: My experience from the shortterm perspective is that the weather forecasts have been pretty good. The problem is in the medium to longer-term forecasting where, take for example this winter, after the period of very severe weather there was a prediction of a further cold spell in February which we haven’t had, Chair. The local forecasts short term have been pretty good, but longer term I think there is still scope for improvement.
Q77 Chair: A re there any other views on weather forecasts?
Derek Turner: I think, as we have said in our evidence, the overall forecast is fairly reliable. We expect, in the forecasts that our service providers purchase from their providers, 90% accuracy. We are generally meeting that in terms of when the weather is going to be. I think the intensity is something which we are slightly concerned about and, in particular, the degree of low temperatures.
On 15 November the Met Office were predicting a 40% chance of a colder than average winter period, a 30% chance of a milder than average winter period and a 30% chance of it being the same. It has actually turned out to be one of the coldest winter periods across the nation as a whole that we have seen for many many years, back to the 1980s.
In addition to that, while the snow predictions were accurate where it was going to fall, the intensity of the snowfall, particularly on 30 November and 1 December, was greater than we were expecting or we were led to believe. That becomes quite an issue.
Q78 Chair: Who did you consult when you were drawing up your winter resilience plans?
David Parsons: In my own county we consult the people of the county. How do we do that? We do it online, through our community forums and through parish councils and so on. We try and keep people as well aware of what is going on in our counties as possible. I think this is fairly general practice across the country.
Q79 Chair: What about the Highways Agency?
Derek Turner: The service providers have to draw up their winter service plans for our agreement, but in drawing those up we would expect them-and they do-to consult the local authorities and with the police to a certain extent in terms of dealing with extreme circumstances. We also try to ensure that they talk to each other throughout the area. There are certain locations where we could improve our communication with local authorities and the local police, and we will certainly take lessons from that from this winter period.
Q80 Chair: Councillor Parsons, do you feel there are any inadequacies in the way the Highways Agency approached this? Was local government consulted enough?
David Parsons: I rely on advice on this, Chair. I have no evidence that we were not contacted by the Highways Agency. I was trying to think of how the Highways Agency network in my neck of the woods fared. It fared equally well-I think local government did a good job in the bad winter which has just gone by, and all indications were that the Highways Agency did cooperate.
Matthew Lugg: If I can add to that, local authorities do generally have a good working relationship with the Highways Agency, particularly where there are interfaces with trunk roads within the geographic area. It is very important that there is clarity about who is doing what and where so that there is no ambiguity or anything missed. In terms of resilience and mutual aid, the Highways Agency again have worked very closely to help support local authorities when salt stocks have been diminished and there is a need for some support locally.
Q81 Chair: Are you saying that works well? The co-operation works.
Matthew Lugg: I am indeed, yes.
Q82 Mr Leech: In local government, do we get the right balance between trying to keep the local area moving in general and specifically looking after the interests of particularly the most vulnerable groups?
David Parsons: Yes, I think we do. I spend half my life on local government improvement. Can you be more specific?
Q83 Mr Leech: Let me give you an example. In Manchester, they are pretty good at keeping the major roads free, but then, for instance, because people are likely to be more ill in the cold weather, they are not able to get to the doctors’ surgery because the pathways to the doctors’ surgeries aren’t clear. Do we get that balance right between letting the system run smoothly and making sure that we are looking after those most vulnerable people?
David Parsons: I have a view on that. I think that is an area on which we could improve. I have a similar example of people getting to a school on a road and then not being able to get off the bus, go up the path and get into the school. That has actually happened and that is a lesson that we would do well to learn. But, nevertheless, I do think that that sort of lesson is being learnt. One of the benefits of somebody in my position being elected leader is that you can go around and chivvy people like this and make sure that those links are made.
Q84 Mr Leech: But is that a lack of coordination or just a lack of resources to deal with the whole problem?
David Parsons: No. I think that was a lack of coordination, undoubtedly.
Q85 Mr Leech: Is there any evidence from certain authorities that there is a lack of coordination between local authorities and the Highways Agency in terms of accessing Highways Agency routes by certain roads not being prioritised by local authorities that perhaps should be in order to access the major Highways Agency routes?
David Parsons: That has not been brought to my attention but I would seek advice. Do you know about that?
Derek Turner: Most local authorities salt a large proportion of the network-between 20% and 45%. Inevitably that will cover the strategic roads, which are the A and B routes, and they are the roads that will connect to the trunk roads. I am not aware of any sort of disconnect in terms of that relationship. There may be some issues about the timing of treatment based on the regimes that local authorities and the Highways Agency have, but in general I don’t think there are roads that are not treated.
Q86 Mr Leech: I have one last question, Chair. I asked one of the previous panels about whether or not people changed their behaviour enough in terms of the way they drive or the way they go about their daily business during adverse weather conditions. Do you think there is evidence that, because we only get these adverse weather conditions very rarely, people don’t perhaps do as much as they could in terms of changing their behaviour to make the road safer?
David Parsons: That is a very interesting question. It is one on which I traditionally would seek advice. The answer is I truly don’t know. I suppose one can have a gut feeling that perhaps they don’t, but nevertheless I would seek advice on that.
Q87 Mr Leech: From the Highways Agency, for instance, we hear about a lot of jack-knifed lorries. Do we have more of a problem with jack-knifed lorries than other counties that are used to really adverse weather conditions?
Chair: As the Highways Agency what, in fact, can you do about dealing with problems that arise from jack-knifed lorries? There was some criticism this year about blockages caused by that situation or by other types of congestion because of the bad weather. Is there something different you could do as the Highways Agency?
Derek Turner: As I explained, one of the things that we are doing and have done from previous years is this predeployment of our national vehicle recovery fleet. They will help to get the HGVs that have lost traction through the difficult part and over a steep period. To prevent a vehicle jack-knifing is beyond our capability. The problem, as you are aware, is not just that when the vehicle jack-knifes it blocks the road but it also prevents the salt spreaders from carrying out their service, and that is a very difficult thing to happen. There was some evidence of HGVs travelling in the outside lane and some evidence of HGVs jack-knifing and causing a number of seed points for congestion.
We do attempt to try and encourage drivers to change their behaviour pattern. In the pre-Christmas period, we issued 15 press notices and gave over 252 TV and radio interviews to try and explain it.
Q88 Chair: But what would you do differently next time, because there was a problem in this area?
Derek Turner: Indeed there was. What we are looking at is to try and look and learn the lessons from places like Haldon Hill and improve our predeployment of the recovery vehicles to try and help those HGV drivers who stray out into the untreated areas.
Q89 Julie Hilling: I wanted to turn to Mr Leech’s arguments and some questions that I was asking a previous panel. In terms of side roads, roads on to estates and pathways, although the main thoroughfares seem to be cleared relatively quickly, there is still an ongoing issue and a longterm issue often in certain parts of my constituency, which are quite high. There were several weeks last year when people could not get out of their houses and could not get off the estates. Should local authorities have a responsibility to clear side roads and pavements?
David Parsons: Yes, and they do. We have a priority network, but that doesn’t mean to say that we will not then, if that priority network is treated, go into other areas and try and get those side roads dealt with.
Q90 Julie Hilling: So when that isn’t happening, and I would suggest it has not been happening well over the last couple of years, what should be done then?
David Parsons: I suppose the simple answer is that we believe in localism. We ask the councils what they are going to do and it is up to local authorities exactly what their procedures are. But in my own local authority, once the priority network is cleared, we then seek to go and get other roads cleared as well.
Q91 Julie Hilling: My suggestion is that that is not currently happening. What do we need to do to make sure that happens across the country?
Matthew Lugg: One of the issues is about the resources available, but there is scope to gear in additional resources. Certainly, in Leicestershire, we work very closely with the district councils who have some equipment. The arrangement we have through a service level agreement is that we provide salt and then they will spread it within some of the areas that we can’t get to because our focus will be on the priority network.
But, similarly, as David says, we helped to clarify this, working with the Department for Transport, where we issued the Snow Code, where we were trying to give better advice to the public about what they could and couldn’t do, because there has always been this concern about liability and therefore people have not always been keen to go out and do some selfhelp. We would now more actively encourage that so that people could clear their own part of the network if we can’t get to it in a reasonable time.
Q92 Chair: But to what extent can voluntary efforts clear the roads and pavements? What contribution can voluntary efforts make?
David Parsons: We have volunteers in deep rural areas who will do this for us on contract. We have encouraged-and this has happened-school yards to be cleared so that people can get into schools. We have evidence, certainly in my own county, that that sort of thing happens.
Q93 Steve Baker: Earlier on, Mr Quarmby was telling us about the shortcomings or the limitations on the use of salt. Could I ask you in your own words to tell us what those limitations are, because it seems sometimes we do have too high an expectation of what can be achieved through salting?
Derek Turner: At extremely low temperatures, like some of the periods which did occur, salt ceases to be as effective. Salting is used as a pre-treatment, particularly to prevent ice forming. The idea is that you produce a barrier, similar to what you heard from your railway witnesses, to prevent the ice forming by having a slurry of brine. That ceases to happen gradually at very low temperatures, below minus 10°C. It isn’t just a cut-off point. The other issue with salting is that salt itself is not very effective in terms of preventing snow forming and accumulating on the carriageway, which is why you need to plough the carriageway. If there is a slurry of brine there, it will prevent the snow accumulating, which is why we try to get out and lay that slurry of brine before snow starts to fall. But one of the issues with the very intense and heavy snowfalls is that the brine gets diluted by the sheer volume of water of the snow and then ceases to become effective.
Q94 Steve Baker: It seems pretty clear that we should not be too ambitious in our expectations for salting when it snows very heavily. It sounds as if in very heavy snow we should just expect to drive on a snowy surface. Is that right?
Derek Turner: In very heavy snow, over an intense period, it is difficult to clear the snow by salting alone. You would need to plough the road to remove that amount of snow. If you have a carpet of snow that has formed, the issue is that granular salt will just bore its way down. If it is a brine, a prewet that is applied, it will still bore its way down through the snow. With these very heavy snowfalls that we saw on 30 November and 1 December, even ploughing is a problem because the intensity of snowfall is such that the snow starts to accumulate soon after the ploughs have passed.
Q95 Mr Harris: We all know the arguments that are peddled out every year-and they are valid arguments-that Britain doesn’t have the same level of response to bad weather that you would have in somewhere like Canada or Norway because we have less severe weather to deal with and therefore it wouldn’t be good value for money to have that same level of preparedness. But are there countries, perhaps European countries with a similar climate to ours, that the Highways Agency and the local authorities benchmark against to judge whether or not our response is up there with what is reasonably to be expected from a moderate climate?
Derek Turner: If I could start, I heard what Dr Quarmby said and I agree with his analysis. This winter, the comparable western European countries performed in a similar way. The conditions were similar and the outcome, unfortunately, was fairly similar as well. The treatments and the type of approach that we have are benchmarked against other similar European countries.
It is, as you say, different in terms of Canada and Scandinavia where you would be looking to things like changing tyres and snow chains. Indeed, the road network is very different there because in many of the Scandinavian countries there aren’t surfaced roads or positively drained roads. So the application of grit, for instance, which is one of the other treatments which is used in those countries, is less of a problem because the grit washes off into the ditches rather than blocking drains, which is one of the issues in this country if we apply large quantities of grit to the road.
Q96 Mr Harris: Has that level of benchmarking been going on over a number of years is or is that a recent practice?
Derek Turner: In the Agency’s terms it has been going on for a number of years. Indeed, the World Road Association is meeting in Scotland in May this year and I am sure the issue will be discussed yet again as to whether we can learn anything from comparable countries. But I think David Quarmby’s response was right. The situations are difficult to deal with.
The example I gave at Haldon Hill, where we did have a really good successful scheme, cost £100,000 to introduce and £10,000 each time we deploy it. If you spread that across the country, those soon mount up to a considerable amount of money, bearing in mind we spend something in the order of £20 million on winter service on the strategic road network.
Q97 Mr Harris: My colleague Mr Baker asked about the effects of salt, and if salt isn’t effective when there is deep snow, maybe we should get used to driving on deep snow. Would it be more sensible to advise people that, instead of driving on deep snow, they shouldn’t drive? Is there a cultural problem we have in this country with people thinking, "I have a car, I intend to drive irrespective of the weather and it’s up to the public sector or the Highways Agency to get me out of trouble if I get into trouble"? Is there a more robust message that we should be sending to drivers that, if the authorities have forecast that there is going to be heavy snow, then you, as a private individual, should make a more informed judgment about whether or not you should drive?
Derek Turner: I would personally support that. Simon, you might want to add something on that.
Simon Sheldon-Wilson: We did some research back in March of last year to look at driver behaviour following the severe winter weather then. Of the respondents to that survey, just over half said that they wouldn’t change their travel plans, or indeed travel behaviour, to a certain extent; they would continue to drive. Of the balance of that, round about half abandoned their journeys part way through and returned home. A very small percentage, about 14%, delayed until conditions improved.
We work hard to get our messages out across the winter period through the media and with the advice that travel should only be taken if it is essential, and that is in common with the police message as well. But, clearly, from that research we did and when we looked at that again, we can see that the change in behaviour is still quite small. Whether, over a continuous period of winters like those we have recently experienced, that behaviour will change is yet to be seen.
Q98 Chair: Mr Parsons, what is your view on this?
David Parsons: This is also true of local authorities. Starting with my local authority, we are constantly bringing out information as to whether people should travel or not. It is quite difficult if you live in an area which is a long way away and you need to maybe access services and something like that. But certainly in my own local authority we are constantly putting that message out and I believe that to be the case of many, if not all, local authorities.
Q99 Steve Baker: Mr Harris has prompted me to go a bit further than I did earlier. I happen to use winter tyres for various reasons and, as a result, on snow I never have a problem. What would be the trigger point at which you would advocate the adoption of winter tyres much more widely?
Derek Turner: This is quite an interesting area and certainly warrants further research. I know that the FTA have a view on the applicability of a requirement to fit winter tyres for the type of frequency of the winter weather that we hitherto, or hitherto in the last or two three years, have been experiencing. The Department will be looking at trying to assess this, but our current view is that the conditions do not warrant or have not warranted it. The general use of winter tyres for the general public will of course improve traction, as opposed to chains, which is quite a serious increase in traction capability, but it has huge implications in terms of safety and damage to the road surface. It is an area which is one of the things that will come out of the discussions as a result of this winter.
Q100 Chair: Councillor Parsons, how much will it cost local government to repair potholes and other problems on the highway caused by bad weather?
David Parsons: Last year the Government gave us £100 million.
Q101 Chair: Is that enough?
David Parsons: I am advised that the roads are in a worse state than they were last year, so I would be looking for more money, if it were available, than we got last year.
Q102 Chair: How much more?
David Parsons: I would be more than happy to double that figure, Chair.
Q103 Chair: So about £200 million?
David Parsons: But my Government might slap me down and say it has not got the money.
Q104 Chair: But that is what you think is required?
David Parsons: I started from the benchmark that we did have £100 million, and that the roads are in a worse state, so I am giving you a guesstimate as to how much we would appreciate.
Q105 Chair: What other problems will be caused by spending cuts in local government in preparing for any bad weather next year?
David Parsons: It is up to local authorities, in my view, to deal with the spending cuts as they see fit. We have local priorities in my own area; local government has its priorities. The one thing I would say, bearing in mind that it is difficult to predict the weather, is that I would not recommend, and I am certainly not doing it in my own local authority, actually cutting expenditure in this particular area.
Q106 Julie Hilling: This is linked partly to the spending, but one of the issues, it seems, throughout transport is about information and saying to people, "Don’t travel unless you have to," and so many people saying, "I’ve got to." Could we be better in terms of specific information such as, "This route is okay. This route isn’t. If you go that way, it’s okay"? I guess that also links to financial needs in terms of how you would put that information out and what systems you would need.
Simon Sheldon-Wilson: At the moment we have a National Traffic Control Centre where we coordinate traffic data from across the whole of the Highways Agency’s road network and then we disseminate that to road users through a variety of means, primarily through our website Traffic England. We have made some improvements over the last year. We have introduced an iPhone app, so we are keeping uptodate with the latest technology. We have 450,000 users of that who have downloaded and used the app. We had 95,000 people a day using it over the winter period. We also experimented in the latter part of the December winter with Twitter feeds providing information on roads that were being affected by any incident, whether that is severe weather or anything else.
Q107 Julie Hilling: Does that link to local authority, more urban roads? Is there a feed-in for whether you can go up that street or not?
Simon Sheldon-Wilson: What we don’t do from that is provide diversionary information. We provide information on what is happening on the network for people to make decisions about the route they would choose to take. We provide it through to the media as well, through an information service directly to media broadcasts, and we provide information to Transport Direct where other information from other modes is also being collated so that people who want to take a view on other routes or other modes of transport can go to Transport Direct where there is a combination of information, including our own.
David Parsons: We do have real-time information. I think that that system can be improved and I think that is one of the lessons. Real-time information, as has been said, is also put out on local radio. We use that greatly during bad weather and it is extremely useful.
Q108 Steve Baker: My colleague mentioned people who insist that they must travel whatever the weather. Would you agree with me that for those people it would be sensible to at least consider buying four-season or winter tyres?
David Parsons: Yes.
Chair: You got the answer then. Thank you very much, gentlemen. Thank you for coming.
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