RAC Foundation: Battling the Beast from the East

With the country, and the media, gripped by the Beast from the East and Storm Emma, it is worth noting that while we have been here before – the impact of the particularly cold winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 will be remembered vividly, if not fondly, by many – such remarkably cold and snowy weather is still the exception rather than the rule in this country, particularly the South East.

There is a reason why Nordic countries and Alpine regions barely bat an eyelid in the face of brutal blizzards. It’s because they are the seasonal norm, and so it makes perfect sense for them to be prepared for conditions that come around like clockwork year-after-year.

While it might be true that we are facing more frequent and more extreme climatic events, there is only so far we can expect our authorities to go in preparation before they start racking up huge bills that we will end up having to meet. While as citizens we might ask why other countries seem better placed to cope with wintry weather – though reports this week suggest the picture is not much better on the near continent with parts of France suffering no less paralysis than the UK – as taxpayers, how much do we want to see spent on machinery that might stand idle from one year to the next?

In the wake of the previous disruption, the RAC Foundation’s one-time chairman David Quarmby was called in by the then-transport secretary to review how well placed we were to deliver an appropriately resilient transport network. (The RAC Foundation would later commission its own winter resilience review from a member of David’s Quarmby’s team after another cold spell in early 2013.)

As a result, changes were made: councils now carry bigger stockpiles of salt and grit, and have got better at talking to each other to cover strategic routes from start to finish, rather than thinking only within their county boundaries. We have nigh-on 4,000 gritters licensed in the UK. But that is probably scant comfort to people waking up this week to see the roads outside blanketed in snow. And let us not forget that however smoothly the motorways might be running, almost all our journeys start not on the MX, Y or Z, but on the local road on our doorstep.

The real question we should be asking, however, as we dig out our driveways or stand shivering on station platforms, is not whether every one of the 262,450 miles of the UK road network be treated, but whether, with hindsight, the response to the Siberian conditions was as good as it should have been, given the fact that we don’t have – and probably don’t want – limitless resources applied. Only by reviewing what’s been done and learning how to do better next time, can we be assured that those we trust to run our transport networks are coming up to scratch.

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