South East snow: How did the transport operators cope?

South West Train makes it way through snow in Basington South West Trains amended its timetables to cope with the snow

Now the snow seems to be slowly melting, I thought I'd try and assess how the transport authorities have done in the South East.

I sense an improvement but it's only my impression so please give me your thoughts at the end.

Bear in mind it's not just London that has struggled in the snow, and obviously these things are very subjective for passengers.

Roads and buses

The capital's top performer? Gritters timed their runs right and avoided the dreaded ice and grit skid fest of 2009. That meant very few buses had to be cancelled and most of the main roads were kept clear.

Of course timing and the length of the snowfall is crucial but standards seem to have improved since the bus fleet was suspended in 2009.

I visited the Transport for London (TfL) snow desk where it monitors road temperatures. It also co-ordinates salt.

Some boroughs were running out and TfL co-ordinated more deliveries.

The key routes are also more defined now to include bus depots and hospitals. If you live on a minor or side road though, these days you are pretty much left to fend for yourself and that meant a lot of skidding and prangs.

Cyclists and pedestrians have also complained that cycle routes were not gritted. I'm afraid these do not look like priorities anymore; it's all about the key routes.

London Underground

Overall not bad but overrunning engineering works on Monday blotted their record. That compounded problems and meant Monday wasn't great.

They did recover quite quickly though but the components on the overground trains seem to struggle in snow and ice. The Metropolitan line also, again, had problems.

Snow plough at Heathrow Airport Heathrow Airport had to cancel flights due to the snow
Network Rail/train companies

The last big snow storm in 2010 caused real problems due to the notorious third electric rail which stops working in the snow and ice. Here's a blog I wrote in 2010 on the problem.

What's really changed? Rail passengers faced long delays and cancellations again. Ghost trains and de-icing trains didn't work in places on Monday morning.

The train companies blamed Network Rail who said they needed more investment from government who said that was the plan in the long-term.

Train companies including South West Trains resorted to amended timetables very early on; that provoked anger from commuters who had their services cut like here in Weybridge.

It's difficult to see how this is going to change unless there is a substantial investment in infrastructure and conversion to overhead power lines. There has also been repeated criticism about the lack of information. That could be remedied much more easily.


Oh dear. Heathrow talks a good talk but if you run at near-capacity and something goes wrong then you are bound to hit problems. That has meant most of the horror stories seemed to have happened at Heathrow; stories of people being stuck on grounded planes for seven hours only to be left in the terminal.

British Airways has also been criticised by Labour's Jim FitzPatrick for handling it badly compared to other airlines.

Other airports have fared better - certainly they don't garner the same media coverage.

Gatwick has gone on the offensive and wants Heathrow to reduce the number of flights for three months during the winter.

Guess where those flights would go? Yep. Gatwick. Unsurprising moving flights for three months challenges the principle of what a hub is and how many "feeder" flights are needed.

The background is that the Davies commission is looking at aviation capacity in the South East.

Gatwick wants to be heard and be considered a player. However as many have pointed out, it wasn't that long ago the boot was on the other foot and Gatwick had problems.

Most interesting is the war of words now between the airports.

Let me know your thoughts. Am I being fair, too kind or too harsh?

Tom Edwards Article written by Tom Edwards Tom Edwards Transport correspondent, London

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  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    How much would it cost rail companies/Network Rail (i.e the public) to change from a 3rd rail to overhead lines....?....Billions??
    Does a week of bad weather really warrant that?
    This may sound crazy but people could always leave home a bit earlier to get to where they need to be.....?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    All very well to blame the third rail, but it is cheaper to operate than overhead and doesn't frequently get damaged by wind. In addition, it too suffers from ice and snow (usually forgotten). Most problems are caused by points freezing, and reducing the service which means less trains pass over the rails. Weybridge pic shows bay platform, hard to run deicing trains through that being a dead end!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    once gatwick gets a 2nd runway in the 2020's & flight numbers increase, they'll face similar probs as heathrow due to large increase in tarmac requiring removal of snow - it isnt just the runways taxiways too

    gatwick tries to talk the good talk but cant be compared to heathrow which runs at full capacity

    dont forget that many heathrow cancellations were due to probs elsewhere, caused by snow!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The third rail system has been a major problem in many weather types but overhead wires are very expensive and we will end up footing the vast bill.. why not change the third rail to a way where the conductor is on the bottom of the rail (similar to the DLR) this is cheaper and would help greatly... It's proven to handle weather conditions so much better..

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Not so long ago Gatwick was owned by BAA. Gatwick' s new owners have invested heavily in the equipment required to maintain an operational airfield in snow, the results of which have been seen over the last few days. It's again, the management of Heathrow failing to respond to a problem which is inevitably going to happen. Having people and processes in place to support investment is vital.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    When it comes to National Rail, snow or no snow, I always refer to my UK Train Times app on my phone. Every train has a GPS tracking signal and all the info you need on how late something is or if it's been cancelled and if you're smart enough, you can pretty much work out where your train is and what your options are without having to rely on info from an uncaring or uninformed staff member.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The only credit I can give Southeastern for improvement is that last year they began using their Twitter account to actually respond to people and help, with a real person operating it.

    But unhelpfully, when things got too busy, rather than putting more staff on they said "We're receiving an unusually high number of tweets so we're focusing on providing general service information at the moment"!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Southeastern's biggest failing's long been their information provision at stations. People expect problems when there's snow, but they need the info that someone at Southeastern must have: where is their train? Every winter SE say this will improve but it still hasn't.

    And despite TfL accepting SE tickets on its services, SE didn't publicise this loudly at stations to help people get from A to B!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Heathrow dropped the ball by not acting to reduce flights on Friday - but crisis management was weak in pulling the airport teams together to get the show back on the road.

    The lack of organisation - tying up stands / slots / deicing (mainly with BA in T5) and the lack of communication to passengers made things much worse than it should have been.

    That isn't a runway issue - it's management.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Agree on buses - TfL seemed to have got a grip.

    Interesting role reversal on temp train timetables: SWT pulled what used to be Southeastern's standard trick of switching to a poor timetable that their performance could then be judged against for DfT stats purposes; while Southeastern didn't, for the first time in years. I wonder if criticism of SE had got to them? Would love them to answer why!



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