Keeping the UK moving: The impact on transport of the winter weather in December 2010 - Transport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Winter 2010-11: how bad was it?

1. Winter 2010-11 was the UK's third cold winter in succession. The UK mean temperature for the winter as a whole (ie December, January and February) was 2.4?C, warmer than last year's 1.6?C but the second coldest since 1985-86[1] and 1.3?C below the seasonal average.[2] December was particularly cold. The average temperature in the UK was over 5?C lower than normal, making it the coldest December since at least 1910.[3] Temperatures below -10?C were recorded in a number of places throughout the month.

2. Although much drier than average,[4] December was also snowy. There were nine "snow events", beginning in late November,[5] and the snowfall was the most widespread of any winter for 30 years.[6] There were very large accumulations of snow in parts of Scotland and northern England.[7] January and February were more benign, with February 2011 being notably mild.[8]

3. The worst periods of snowfall, from 30 November to 3 December and from 16 to 22 December, and the intensely cold weather caused extensive disruption to the UK's transport networks. Most significant was the closure of Heathrow Airport from 18 to 20 December after 7cm of snow fell in one hour on 18 December.[9] Several other airports also closed for a time, including Gatwick Airport for 46 hours between 1 and 3 December.[10] Rail services south of the Thames, where electricity is conveyed to trains using a third rail, were badly affected as were some inter-city services.[11] Infrastructure and operational failures in France caused disruption to Eurostar from 19 to 24 December.[12] Although the major road network in England was mostly kept running,[13] the AA submitted evidence of "massive congestion and disruption".[14] Local roads in many areas were severely disrupted.[15]

4. Perhaps most dramatically, the Office for National Statistics estimated that the severe winter weather at the end of 2010 reduced the UK's gross domestic product in the final quarter of the year by 0.5%, tipping the UK back towards recession.[16] This put the cost of the weather disruption to the UK economy at £1.6 billion.[17] The Secretary of State told us that the cost of travel disruption to the economy was £280 million per day.[18]

A third severe winter in succession

5. The winter of 2008-09 was the worst for 20 years.[19] Heavy snow in London and south east England in early February 2009 caused severe disruption to transport in London which was the subject of inquiry by our predecessors.[20]

6. Winter 2009-10 was the UK's coldest for 30 years and the coldest since records began in northern Scotland.[21] Snow fell frequently from mid-December until the end of February and every month of the winter was colder than average.[22] There was disruption to rail services and aviation but the main issue was the availability of adequate supplies of salt for gritting roads.

7. In March 2010 the previous Government commissioned a review, led by David Quarmby CBE, chair of the RAC Foundation, to "identify practical measures to improve the response of England's transport sector—road, rail and air—to severe winter weather".[23] The Quarmby review published an interim report in July 2010 and its final report in October 2010. Mr Quarmby was subsequently asked to undertake an "urgent audit" of how well the highway authorities and transport operators in England had coped with the period of bad weather beginning at the end of November. His audit was published on 21 December but did not take account of the second period of exceptionally bad weather, in the week before Christmas.[24]

Effective scrutiny

8. One theme of all three recent bad winters has been the subsequent scrutiny of how transport infrastructure and operators fared and the lessons which can be learnt for the future.[25] The Quarmby review and audit were thorough investigations into what went wrong with road and rail travel[26] and their recommendations were accepted by the Government.[27] In response to the disruption at Heathrow, the airport's owners, BAA, established an inquiry led by Professor David Begg, a non-executive director at BAA, which published a thorough and hard-hitting report on 24 March, after we had finished our oral evidence.[28] We commend the Government, and its predecessor, and transport providers for their willingness to learn from periods of transport disruption due to adverse weather. We recommend that, when transport is subject to significant weather disruption in future, the Government should initiate reviews along the lines of the Quarmby review to examine what happened and ensure that lessons are learnt.

9. This report builds on the work undertaken by Quarmby and others to focus on what the Government can do to ensure that UK transport networks are better prepared for bad winter weather in future and passengers are kept well informed during periods of disruption. We launched our inquiry on 18 January 2011[29] and heard oral evidence from Mr Quarmby and his colleague Brian Smith, witnesses from the road, rail and aviation sectors, and the Secretary of State for Transport. We are grateful to everyone who submitted evidence, both in writing and orally.

1   Met Office, Back

2   Ibid. Back

3   Ev w10, summary and Ev w10, annex B. Back

4   Met Office, see footnote 1. Back

5   Ev w10, summary and paragraph 2. Back

6   Ev 53, paragraph 1. Back

7   Ev w12-13, Annex A. Back

8   Met Office, see footnote 1. Back

9   Report of the Heathrow Winter Resilience Enquiry, 24 March 2011 (hereafter Begg Report) paragraph 52 and see Ev 92, section 3.2. Back

10   Ev 78, paragraph 3.2. Back

11   Ev 72. Back

12   Ev 56, paragraphs 26-27. Back

13   Ev 57, paragraph 39 and see Ev w46, paragraph 5 and Ev w51, paragraph 1.5. Back

14   Ev w14 and 16, paragraphs 1.2, 5.1 and 5.2. Back

15   For example see Ev w47, paragraph 13 and Ev w66, paragraphs 11 and 13. Back

16   Statistical Bulletin: UK output, income and expenditure, 4th quarter 2010, ONS. Back

17   The total fall in GDP at market prices was £1.927 billion (table C2), a decrease of 0.6%. 0.5 percentage points of this decline was attributed to the severe weather. Back

18   Q219. Back

19   The Resilience of England's Transport Systems in Winter, Final Report, DfT, October 2010 (hereafter Quarmby final report) section 1.1 and Met Office, Back

20   Fourth Report, 2008-09, The effects of adverse weather conditions on transport, HC328 (hereafter TSC report on adverse weather 2008-09). Back

21   Met Office,, and Quarmby final report, sections 1.1 and 1.2. Back

22   Ibid. Back

23   Quarmby final report, Appendix A for terms of reference. Back

24   The Resilience of England's Transport Systems in December 2010, An Independent Audit by David Quarmby CBE (hereafter Quarmby Audit) and see Q2. Back

25   For example, in 2008-09, see TSC report on adverse weather 2008-09, paragraphs 2 and 31. Back

26   Aviation was less badly affected than other modes in winters 2008-09 and 2009-10 but relevant winter resilience issues were covered in part D of Quarmby final report and chapter 6 of Quarmby AuditBack

27   HC Deb, 26 July 2010, c72WS; 22 October 2010, c79WS; and 21 December 2010, c168WS. Back

28   Begg Report (see footnote 9). Back

29   Our terms of reference were "The impact of the recent cold weather on the road and rail networks in England and Wales and on the UK's airports, including the extent to which lessons were learnt from winter 2009-10, the provision of accurate weather forecasts to transport providers in advance of the bad weather, and the recommendations of the Quarmby reviews of the resilience of England's transport systems in 2010". Back

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Prepared 12 May 2011