There has been much negative comment about the ability of the UK’s Transport System to cope with the current weather conditions which have left the UK covered in snow for over two weeks. Comparisons have been drawn with previous spells of bad weather in February 2009 and 2007 (http://daithaic.blogspot.com/2009/02/fair-weather-britain.html ) and in 2003. Then Britain ground to a halt as the transport systems lack of operational competence and depth was once again cruelly exposed. However, one considerable difference this year has been how London Underground has held its own with a very creditable performance in keeping the Lines and Stations open and keeping London moving. This has been all the more crucial as road and, to a large extent, suburban rail transport became implausible.
Fresh snowfall crippled transport networks today bringing travel misery to tens of thousands of Londoners. As airports closed, hundreds of trains were cancelled or delayed and roads were deemed hazardous, commuters demanded to know why the Met Office failed to forecast the conditions. At least four centimetres of snow blanketed the capital overnight, and up to three more centimetres are expected by the end of the day.
Of the rail operators, Southeastern was worst hit, using shorter trains as some staff were unable to reach work. The Hastings to London line suffered long delays because of icy tracks and many smaller lines failed to operate. Southern, which includes the Brighton line, said all routes to and from the capital were affected. There were delays on South West Trains services through Woking in Surrey, and some trains between London and Woking, Basingstoke and Guildford were axed. All First Capital Connect Thameslink services between Brighton and London Bridge were suspended as were those on the Wimbledon Loop.
I have some personal knowledge of the difference because my normal commute is on the Chiltern Line (a subsidiary of German State Railways!) which uses London Underground’s most weather exposed section of track, the Metropolitan Line between Amersham and Rickmansworth through the Chiltern Hills and onto Harrow on the Hill. This is the furthest the Underground gets at 43 km from central London and is the highest point at 490 feet above sea level. This morning and all during the bad weather the performance has been impressive with trains doing their best to be on time, staff opening stations and clearing and salting platforms even when the snow was falling at 7.30 am. Behind the scenes much was being done with traction current kept on overnight to stop conductor rails freezing, point heaters being checked to ensure there were no frozen points and special de-icing trains being run through the night and during service hours. The contrast with other transport modes and indeed with cars crawling at 5 miles per hour on adjoining roads has been dramatic. This resilience in the face of bad weather has not been an accident but has been the subject of much planning and hard work and determination. Indeed the biggest difference has been the attitude and determination not to roll over in bad weather.
There has been in the past an assumption that bad weather would stop the show but on Chiltern and the Underground there has been the opposite assumption, that they will stay open and run the service. And indeed this is half the battle for once you suspend a service the railway, platforms, tracks freeze up and get covered in snow. At the risk of stating the obvious half the secret of keeping a railway open is to keep it open! Don’t take my word for it, here is a passenger comment from today’s London Evening Standard which shows that the determined efforts by London Underground staff have not gone unnoticed by the most important person, the customer;
“A BIG thanks to all the London Underground Tube staff who have been out in all weathers all through the night to make sure that the rails, points, signals and trains are kept in working condition throughout this cold weather, providing a near normal service when other operators haven’t. It seems that the ES only has bad things to say about the Tube, but misses out on the good things.”