Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Britain slips, slides and smiles to a halt.

I said yesterday that we had been hit by the worst snowfall in almost twenty years. Well, this morning we read of the damage that a mere six inches of snow has wreaked.

In London, where up to 27cm fell, all 700 bus routes – a total of 7,000 buses – were suspended for the first time in history. Not even during the Blitz were such measures taken. Similar chaos ensued on the Tube network. At one point, nine of the 11 London Underground lines were suspended or part-suspended.

More than 5,500 schools were closed across the South-east, including 4,000 in London, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said. A spokesman said it would not be until later today that the Government would be able to say how many schools in all were forced to close.

At airports, flights were cancelled and passengers stranded. At one point in the morning, both runways at Heathrow were closed. Those that did fly were subject to long delays. With the weather expected to become worse, passengers could be set for more woe. A BA spokesman said: "There will be some disruption. The forecast isn't good but it remains to be seen how many flights we can get up today. Every airline operating from Heathrow will have some disruption."

On the roads, traffic jams snaked along most motorways and major roads. The M25 had the worst tail-back. At about 9am, TomTom, the satellite navigation company, said that a queue of 53.8 miles stretched from Junction 19 at Watford to Junction 8 at Reigate. The A66 – the main road between Cumbria and North Yorkshire – was closed completely.

An astonishing one in five people failed to turn up for work yesterday, meaning that 20% of the workforce were unavailable. And, unbelievably, several London theatres failed to open their doors last night.

I went out yesterday to the local park where I found it much busier than normal with kids building snowmen and adults all carrying cameras and all taking pictures of the snow scape. It did seem to me as if Britain had chosen to take the day off.

From my window this morning things look exactly as they did before I went to bed. The snow from yesterday is still there, but it doesn't look to me as if there has been any more snowfall overnight.

Breakfast News says that trains are operating normally and that most motorways are open again.

As always the Tories sought to make political capital out of something as unusual as the worst snowfall in twenty years.

As the snowfall intensified yesterday afternoon, and forecasters warned the cold snap could last for the week, the government and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, were under pressure to explain why they had not been better prepared.

During a press conference with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, Gordon Brown said every effort was being made to get the transport system moving again.

"We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the services - road, rail and airports - are open as quickly as possible and we are continuously monitoring this throughout the day," he said.

But the Conservatives said bad winter weather was not a wholly unexpected phenomenon and better provision should have been made. "Both our national and local transport infrastructure should have better contingency plans in place for extreme weather," said Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary.
Were this to be a more common event, I would agree that London should be able to cope better. But the truth is that events like this occur once every twenty years, so it's silly to expect London to have the same snowploughs that clear New York's streets. They would simply sit idle for two decades waiting for the day that they were needed.

It looked to me as if London had chosen to take this as an opportunity to have an unofficial day off, and it certainly looked as if London was enjoying itself.

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