As I explained to the House yesterday, in light of the early and severe onset of winter last month I asked David Quarmby CBE to follow up his earlier review of winter resilience with an urgent audit of how well highway authorities and transport operators in England have coped with the cold weather between 24 November and 9 December 2010. David’s report to me is published today (21 December 2010) and copies have been placed in the libraries of the House.
In the main, he has found that the country’s transport systems coped well with the early severe weather during that period. However, given the more recent extreme cold snap, and that forecasts predict snow into the New Year, we welcome David’s recommendations on how we can further bolster our resilience. It is now vitally important that those to who they are addressed take these recommendations forward without delay.
The audit emphasises the volatile nature of British weather, but notes the Met Office’s view that the three severe winters are genuinely independent events. However, as I explained to the House yesterday, I will be assessing advice from the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington, on the longer-term implications of the changing climate and the way in which they should influence our investment decisions across the sector in relation to winter resilience.
The report finds that local highway authorities generally coped well with the extreme and early winter conditions, but used a significant amount of their salt stocks in doing so. To assist with salt supply over the Christmas and New Year holiday period when deliveries from the mines tend to become more infrequent, I am making available to highways authorities 30,000 tonnes from the national strategic salt supply which was established earlier in the year in response to Quarmby’s first review. I have also asked the Highways Agency to make arrangements for the import of further supplies of salt, up to an additional 250,000 tonnes, to strengthen further our resilience. This is expected to start arriving in January.
But we need to ensure that we make the best possible use of existing stocks, new mine production and imported supplies. As we cannot be sure how long the current severe weather will persist, or how often it will recur this winter, prudence requires that all highway authorities should critically examine their current levels of usage and look for economies to maximise the duration of existing stocks.
Varying spread rates between local highway authorities has been identified as a concern for David Quarmby. I have already asked the UK Roads Liaison Group and the National Winter Service Research Group to prepare additional straightforward guidance on spread rates based on all evidence available, so that all highway authorities can adopt the practice of the best.
The report also refers to the extraordinary events that occurred on the M25 at junction 3 on 30 November. Highways Agency officials have already briefed me on these events, and I look forward to a full report in due course analysing the incident and setting out the lessons that the agency have learnt.
The rail network has been particularly badly affected by the weather this year, perhaps in contrast to the 2 previous winters. Quarmby’s recommendations here are for the longer term; and I am asking the rail industry to formulate proposals on contingency timetables, real-time information and third rail alternatives. I will also ask them to conduct the recommended review of their operational performance.
Although the focus today is very much on aviation and the problems at Heathrow in particular, this was less of an issue during the period that this report covers and there are therefore no specific recommendations directed at the aviation sector. It is clear, however, that, as a separate piece of work, we will need to work with BAA and the airlines to understand exactly what went wrong at Heathrow over the weekend and why it has taken the airport so long to recover.
I would like to thank David Quarmby, who has delivered this audit report to a very challenging timetable. As with his previous reports, his analysis and recommendations are clear-sighted, and will help the transport sector to improve its resilience to winter weather.