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

3  Information provision and passenger welfare


45. Inadequate provision of information was raised by witnesses as an issue for rail, road and air travellers in December 2010. Incorrect timetables or a lack of real time information about services are not simply inconvenient: these problems can generate unnecessary journeys at a time when people should stay at home and compromise passenger welfare. In this chapter we outline the specific difficulties which came to light because of the bad weather in December and make recommendations aimed at putting passengers first during times of disruption.


46. Passenger Focus, the Government funded consumer organisation for rail and bus travel, told us that "progress is being made in the way the rail industry handled delays" but "a culture of looking after passengers when things go wrong is not yet second-nature across [the] industry".[103] Chris Burchell, the chair of the rail industry's National Task Force and the Managing Director of Southern trains, candidly agreed with this analysis.[104] Although the National Rail Enquiries system coped well with the high volume of hits on its website, it did not always show correct information and tickets continued to be available for sale for trains which did not run. In addition, Passenger Focus said "station displays and online live departure boards did not always keep pace with events".[105] The Office of Rail Regulation also referred to the "variable" quality of information provided to passengers and problems with the new Integrated Train Planning System (ITPS) for keeping timetabling information up-to-date were raised by London TravelWatch and Virgin Trains.[106] The Secretary of State identified "inadequate" communications with rail passengers as one of the main points arising from the winter disruption.[107]

47. Before January 2010 changes to timetables used to take two days to reach customer-facing systems which meant that during periods of weather disruption websites and telephone enquiry lines were often unable to provide customers with accurate information. Now, systems can be updated with changes to the next day's timetables if those changes are notified to Network Rail before 1pm.[108] This is still not sufficient to deal with late changes to timetables. Chris Scoggins, the chief executive of National Rail Enquiries, said "where … timetables were not correct we did have messages displayed on our website … clearly warning people that the timetables were incorrect. However, it was still possible to buy tickets for trains that were not going to run".[109] He said work to provide more timely updates to consumer-facing information about timetables was due to be completed in October.[110]

48. Robin Gisby of Network Rail said the rail industry was hoping to emulate London Underground in terms of the quality of real time communication with passengers about services. This was complicated by the "massively complex, fragmented and under-invested set of information systems" inherited from British Rail: Mr Gisby spoke of "170 separate information systems and other operational systems, some of which are 40 or 50 years old still".[111] The rail industry has identified improving the dissemination of real time information as a priority,[112] and the Office of Rail Regulation has published proposals to amend the licences it grants to service and station operators and Network Rail to clarify responsibilities for information provision.[113] The Secretary of State said the Quarmby review had identified that "the system has become dependent upon a computer-driven information supply such that the back-up systems are not used".[114] He was sympathetic to the suggestion that during times of disruption information could be provided by staff in regional control centres, over-riding automated systems.[115]

49. In our view, the rail industry needs to do far more to look after the interests of passengers during periods of disruption. Culture change is urgently required: the legacy of privatisation cannot be used to excuse the continuing inability of train companies to provide accurate information to passengers about delays and cancellations. We fully support the Office of Rail Regulation's initiative to clarify responsibilities for providing accurate information. The licence changes proposed by the ORR should be introduced as soon as possible and backed up by effective regulation. By next winter, there should be clarity within the industry about who is responsible for real time information provision and customer-focused timetable systems should always display accurate information. Failures in information provision should cost the firms responsible money.

50. In addition, we are attracted by the idea of using regional control centres to take charge of real time communications with passengers during periods of disruption. We recommend that the Department investigate this option with a view to assessing whether regulatory action is required to achieve it.


51. BAA were unlucky in that the snow on 18 December fell on what was expected to be Heathrow's busiest ever weekend.[116] Airlines are principally responsible under EU law for looking after passengers when flights are severely delayed or cancelled but it is clear that some did not discharge their responsibilities.[117] Nearly 10,000 passengers spent the night of 20 December in one of the terminals at Heathrow and we received evidence describing how difficult conditions were for the people stranded there. [118] The Begg report calls on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to investigate how the legal responsibilities on airlines to look after passengers during periods of disruption can be enforced and what rights and obligations are placed on an airport where airlines fail to meet their legal responsibilities. In addition, Begg calls on BAA, airlines and retailers to develop a sustainable welfare plan to ensure that stranded passengers are looked after.[119]

52. Passenger welfare should be at the heart of airport operations. We concur with the recommendation of the Begg report that Heathrow should develop a welfare plan for passengers during periods of disruption: other airports should do the same. It is unacceptable that such plans do not already exist. If airlines fail to meet their obligations to accommodate stranded passengers, airports should be prepared to step into the breach. We would support measures by which airport operators could reclaim the costs of providing support to stranded passengers from airlines which had not discharged their legal responsibilities and we recommend that the CAA investigate how this can be achieved.

53. One of the striking aspects of the December disruption at Heathrow was that it was not reflected in the airport's performance measures, which recorded an unexceptional month.[120] The Secretary of State said this would be addressed in a Bill introducing a new economic regulatory regime for airports which had been included in the Queen's Speech but which is now scheduled to be introduced in the next parliamentary session. Mr Hammond said "it is clear to me that we need greater levels of incentive, both regulatory and economic, for airport operators to build appropriate levels of resilience into their operations" and that this required "the shared community" at Heathrow "to face up to the need for higher levels of investment" in resilience.[121] BAA, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all concurred that a new economic regulatory regime was welcome although Manchester Airports Group described change as "unnecessary".[122] The Secretary of State announced to us that the Airport Economic Regulation Bill would be published in draft for scrutiny by Parliament and the aviation sector.[123] December's events have highlighted the need for the regulatory regime applying to airports to be revamped so that it properly takes account of passenger welfare in periods of disruption. We welcome the Government's intention to introduce legislation and we particularly welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that the Bill will be published in draft. We look forward to scrutinising the draft Bill when it is published.

54. Voluntary arrangements between BAA and the airlines using Heathrow to ration slots during recovery from disruption were used for the first time on 19 December.[124] Colin Matthews told us that:

There is a good question as to whether in the regulatory framework there should be the ability for someone to impose an emergency timetable … I am not saying necessarily that it should be us or it should be the CAA, but there is a very good argument for someone being able to design an emergency timetable which isn't simply done because 95 airlines agree … There is a good case for having something more rigorous, more planned, whereby an emergency timetable can be imposed very, very quickly.[125]

The Secretary of State told us that it was "essential that there is an ability to impose restricted timetables at a disrupted airport, particularly at Heathrow because of its lack of spare capacity, and to enforce them to avoid the unacceptable spectacle of thousands of passengers turning up for flights that were not going to happen and then being held in sub-standard conditions in terminals".[126] Stewart Wingate, the chief executive of Gatwick Airport, described this issue as "perhaps a peculiarity to Heathrow" and said there was "no appetite" for an emergency timetable at his airport.[127]

55. The report of the Begg review makes detailed recommendations about how an emergency timetable regime could be implemented at Heathrow.[128] We have not had the opportunity to scrutinise this proposal fully, although we note that the Board of Airline Representatives is opposed to the suggestion.[129] In principle, we can see the benefits to passengers of imposing an emergency timetable at busy airports during periods of disruption, particularly so that passengers can be sure of whether or not their flight will take off. However, the CAA must have a role in ensuring that decisions concerning the design and implementation of an emergency timetable are fair and transparent and in providing airlines with a right of appeal. Consideration must also be given to financial compensation to airlines whose flights are grounded because an emergency timetable has been implemented. We intend to keep a close eye on how this proposal develops.


56. There were a number of examples of very significant problems on major roads in December 2010, involving hours of delay, including the closure of the M25 at junction 3 on 30 November and the closures of the M4 and M40 on 18 December.[130] When we took oral evidence these incidents were still under investigation. The Highways Agency said it was "investigating what further steps could be taken to help further mitigate the impact of localised intense snowfall on people's journeys. Such measures may include wider resource deployment prior to and during severe weather, as well as more focused road user communications during localised intense snowfalls where disruption to traffic is likely".[131]

57. The AA's survey of motorists found considerable support for a more proactive approach by the police to stopping traffic joining blocked motorways.[132] The Freight Transport Association (FTA) called on the Highways Agency to identify areas of the network where lorries are prone to jack-knifing, one of the prime causes of motorway closures, and supported the use of convoys of lorries, escorted by gritters and snow ploughs, to grind salt into ice and snow.[133] The FTA also suggested that the Highways Agency could adopt an alert system for predictions of ice and snow, similar to the existing system for warning of high winds.[134]

58. The Highways Agency is right to look into ways of minimising the impact of intense periods of snowfall on major roads, particularly in order to avoid large numbers of motorists being caught up for extended periods in queues because of road closures. We recommend that greater use be made of roadside information displays as well as more sophisticated in-car information systems, such as the now ubiquitous sat-navs, to provide motorists with real time information about road conditions and disruption.

59. We also recommend that the Highways Agency and police forces should continue to develop more proactive responses to dealing with blockages in the strategic road network, including, for example, by identifying areas which are susceptible to accidents and ensuring that traffic officers are located there during severe weather and ensuring that motorists are not directed on to motorways which are closed in bad weather.

60. Finally, we recommend that the Government consider the FTA's suggestion of introducing snow and ice warnings for HGVs, akin to strong wind warnings, which could play a role in reducing the number of HGVs which cause major delays by jack-knifing.

103   Ev w36, paragraphs 4.1 and 4.2. Back

104   Q63. Back

105   Ev w36, paragraph 3.3.1. Back

106   Ev w27-29, paragraph 8 and Ev w63, paragraph 46. Back

107   Q218. Back

108   Ev 66, paragraph 4.2.2. Back

109   Q53. Back

110   Q53. Back

111   Q63. Back

112   Ev 69, paragraph 7.3.2. Back

113   Public letter from Bill Emery, Chief Executive, ORR, published 29 March 2011, Back

114   Q231. Back

115   Q232. Back

116   Begg Report, paragraph 59. Back

117   Ev 92, paragraph 3.3.1 and Ev w56, paragraph 3.6. Back

118   Begg Report, paragraph 100 and see Ev w70. Back

119   Begg Report, recommendations 13 and 14. Back

120   Q138 and Back

121   Q240. Back

122   Qq 139-40, 196 and Ev w20, paragraph 5.3. Back

123   Q241. Back

124   Q183 and Ev 87, paragraph 2.1.9. Back

125   Q183. Back

126   Q218. Back

127   Q186. Back

128   Begg Report, recommendations 8 and 10. Back

129   '"Hands off airline timetables" says BAR UK', press notice issued 15 March 2011. Back

130   Ev 57-58, paragraph 40. Back

131   Ev 58, paragraphs 41-44. Back

132   Ev w16, paragraph 4.3.5. Back

133   Ev w46-47, paragraphs 6-8 and 12. Back

134   Ev w67, paragraphs 17-18. Back

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Prepared 12 May 2011