Cold Comfort Conference keynote address

An overview of transport winter preparations throughout the UK.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Norman Baker


Cold Comfort Conference keynote address

Good afternoon

Thank you for once again inviting me to give the keynote address on the opening day of the 21st annual Surveyor Winter Conference and Exhibition.

My apologies that I am unable to be in Coventry in person to give this speech.

Like all of you at this 2 day Conference, I take the issue of winter preparations very seriously indeed. Whilst I am pleased to say that last winter’s weather was not as severe as in previous years, all parts of the country did naturally still experience spells of snow, freezing rain and below average temperatures.

As we all know, our weather can be unpredictable and I recall hearing of a cricket match in Derbyshire having play stopped in June due to snow. So it is vital that we do not become complacent and as transport operators we all have robust contingency plans in place to deal with any eventuality.

It is essential that we do everything possible to keep our transport infrastructure - both strategic and local roads, rail network, as well as our airports and port facilities - operating as efficiently and safely as possible.

If we don’t there is personal inconvenience. But there is also a wider economic impact. The report that we published in December last year highlighted that the total cost of delayed journeys to both businesses and individuals due to snow was estimated to be around £280 million a day in England alone.

That is why it is important that we continue to build on the recommendations arising from the ‘Quarmby winter resilience report and audit’ and the Transport Select Committee report following an inquiry they undertook in 2011, to ensure that we continue to be in a resilient position as we head into this winter.

We at the Department for Transport are determined to stay ahead of the game.

We continue to work closely with the Met Office to make sure that we have the best advice available to prepare for severe winter weather.

I note that you will be hearing from Dr Adam Scaife from the Met Office tomorrow afternoon in respect of weather forecasting. I was pleased to see that the Met Office have taken steps to improve their service and last year launched improvements to the National Severe Weather Service which allows more targeted forecasting of potential impacts from severe weather.

We continue to maintain a substantial national strategic salt reserve and have a robust distribution process in place, if for any reason this salt of last resort needs to be allocated.

The findings of the recent salt audit undertaken by the department suggests local highway authorities will enter the winter with a healthy supply.

Authorities continue to place orders with domestic salt suppliers and are receiving stocks. This demonstrates that the supply chain is also in a much better position than a few years ago.

The department will, as in previous years, continue to monitor salt stocks that are held by authorities across the country, as well as the Highways Agency, on a monthly basis.

It is vital that authorities continue to help us with this activity so we can ensure the country continues to have a good level of resilience. Your co-operation in this is very much appreciated.

Finally, my officials are currently updating the Strategic salt protocol note that we published on the department’s website last year. This note sets out the arrangements for the allocation of strategic salt, if and when required, including the price of salt per tonne. I hope that we will be in a position to publish an updated note in early October.

Of course salt is just one issue in ensuring we keep disruption on the transport network to a minimum in the event of severe winter weather, and it is worth highlighting briefly what other modes are also doing to ensure that we enter winter well prepared.

The Highways Agency is currently finalising preparations for its winter driving campaign - ‘Make time for winter’ - which will commence on 29 October 2012.

This year the messages will place emphasis on drivers taking more responsibility for their own actions based around two key themes, ‘Be prepared’ and ‘Be informed’.

The purpose of the campaign is to alert drivers to the steps they should take, such as ensuring their vehicles are roadworthy, that they have emergency travel kits in their vehicles, that they drive sensibly and take precautions while travelling, and make use of weather-related traffic and travel information (both before and during their journeys) to make informed decisions - about whether to travel at all.

This year the Highways Agency will continue to work with the freight industry and its campaign messages will be shared with partners and stakeholders including the Road Haulage Association, Freight Transport Association and other independent contractors to assist HGV drivers and freight organisations in preparing for driving in winter.

This year’s winter campaign messages will also feature at ports and truckstops including a range of posters translated into several European languages including, Spanish, French, Polish, German and Italian.

Following our experiences over the last three winters the agency has a good story to tell. They now have a fleet of more than 500 winter vehicles for treating motorways and major ‘A’ roads around the clock to help keep the strategic network open under all but the most extreme of circumstances.

However, when sudden spells of very severe weather coincide with periods of heavy traffic, it is not always possible to prevent congestion and delays, as our winter service vehicles need space to treat the roads quickly and effectively.

Therefore it’s vital that road users - HGV and car drivers alike - give the agency fleet and their contractors the space to do their jobs following bouts of severe weather.

On the rail network I am also pleased to say that train operating companies and Network Rail have taken steps to learn lessons from the severe weather in previous winters and apply them in preparing for this one.

Let me give you just a couple of examples - although I also am aware that you will be hearing from Tony Jackson from Network Rail tomorrow.

Network Rail has ‘Key route strategies’, which set out arrangements for keeping lines and critical junctions open. On the routes which are electrified with a ‘third rail’, principally those south of the River Thames in south east England, Network Rail has introduced heating of the conductor rail in critical locations, which will keep it clear of snow and ice.

Network Rail has also introduced improved snow and ice clearance trains, including a snow plough and equipment to keep the conductor rail clear of ice and snow. In some locations, extra point heaters have been installed to ensure that points remain operational during freezing weather and maintenance has been carried out on existing point heaters to ensure their reliability.

Train operating companies have also undertaken maintenance work on their train fleets to ensure reliability during winter operation. This has included actions to minimise problems with frozen sliding doors and frozen couplings. Some fleets on the ‘third rail’ network have been equipped to spray de-icing fluid in order to keep the conductor rail clear of ice and snow.

Contingency timetables have also been produced which can be introduced in the event of severe winter weather. These have been validated by Network Rail to ensure that they are capable of being operated robustly. Improvements in timetabling software mean that these can be uploaded to industry journey planning systems overnight, which will allow passengers to have an accurate picture of the level of service being operated.

I am also pleased to say that changes have been made to passenger information systems at stations to improve the accuracy and timeliness of information available to passengers when services are disrupted. These improvements worked very well last year. In addition, some train operating companies are now using social media such as twitter to disseminate information to passengers in real time.

I am also pleased that following the disruption to air services at UK airports during the winters of 2009 and 2010, the aviation industry has also taken significant steps to improve its resilience to severe winter weather.

The busiest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, have made significant investments in additional snow and ice clearance capacity. For example, Heathrow has tripled its clearance vehicle fleet and quadrupled staff numbers available for snow clearance.

Both these airports, and indeed others, have revised their operational command and control procedures to improve their response to severe weather, including working in closer co-operation with airlines and other transport providers.

In addition, websites and social media provided updated flight information to ensure that passengers could fly with the minimum amount of disruption. For those passengers who were unfortunate to have a flight cancelled, the airport and airline operators had robust plans in place to inform those passengers in advance so they could make alternative arrangements or arrive at the airport at a later time.

Last but not least, we all know the importance to the UK economy of ensuring that our port operations remain open during the any severe winter weather event. My officials are working closely with port operators to ensure they build on lessons learnt from previous years and have the right winter management plans in place.

I appreciate the significant efforts that have already been made this year across all transport modes to boost our resilience and preparedness for possible severe winter weather and I hope that any disruption that may occur is kept to a minimum due to the plans that are in place to ensure that the transport system recovers as quickly as possible.

However we must not become complacent. We all should remain alert to ensure that we can tackle any severe winter weather that we may encounter this winter season.

Thank you. Enjoy the conference.

Published 21 September 2012