Winter Weather Disruption

Britain and much of Europe has been under a blanket of freezing weather, bringing snow and ice across much of the country for an extended period. The severity of the weather has not reached those seen in late 2010 but it was still significant enough to see Heathrow airport drastically cut capacity earlier in the week and to witness renewed levels of public anger at the inability of the UK transport system to perform well in extreme weather. One estimate of the costs of the disruption on just one day was £280m.

Simon Calder, writing in the Independent, earlier this week suggested several easy remedies. These included more rights for train travelers affected by delays, penalizing transport companies that do not get their staff in place in anticipation of the bad weather, lower speed limits and construct extra capacity. These are all things that can be done at a system level.  Reports by Begg and Quarmby following the events of last year provide a few more. Many of these suggestions will have merit and be taken forward – but there is not the space here to discuss them further. Instead, should we ask a more fundamental question about our own travel patterns, the expectations we have and the expectations that are put on us?

The Disruption project ( is studying the extent to which travel patterns are actually more adaptable than we currently anticipate. We change job, home and the types of activities over time and we make much more frequent re-evaluations of where and at what time we do things. Our choices are often influenced by the actions of other household members. One example would be the knock on impacts of a school age child being ill or a school closing for training or bad weather if there are no full-time carer roles in the household.

We make assumptions about the availability and quality of transport services when we make our location decisions and it is here that the problem may lie. Over time, as transport networks have expanded, then the ability to commute longer distances have increased. Distance though brings vulnerability to adverse events such as accidents on the network or weather. Typically, the further out from cities we are the less choice of alternative ways of travelling we have.

This brings us back to thinking about the winter weather problem. The current default policy position is to attempt to keep transport networks operating as fully as possible for as long as possible. As Heathrow have found, where the network is built around operating at or near capacity, this can quickly break down. On the roads, even when roads can be kept clear, conditions can be treacherous and accidents are commonplace, leading to additional jams in conditions which are difficult to tackle. There are very significant costs in the machinery, manpower and chemicals required just to maintain the operation of the core network. There is however, little guidance as to how we should use this precious resource. People struggle in to work because they think they should. For some jobs this is unavoidable but for others it is possible to reschedule and restructure. Could we embrace this further and have both a plan for the use as well as operation of the network in extreme conditions? If, for example, a reduced size and frequency public transport network could be guaranteed to operate who should use it? Could there be differential pricing or some sort of “priority card”? Should it be made clear to people that if you live within walking distance of these priority routes that you will not be penalized for failing to reach work on time? Would it be more cost-effective to have winter weather travel planning? One of Norman Baker’s remits in the Department for Transport is to consider alternatives to travel – this seems like an opportunity to put this into practice.

This article might lead to a sustained period of the warmest winters on record. However, all of the policy prognoses are for climate change to bring more extremes of weather and, therefore, one might expect more weather related disruptions. For now, it is back to looking out of the window, checking the websites and hoping that the gritters have done their stuff. Maybe in future we will have learnt some different lessons and also be reacting to the potential disruption by working smarter. That might have financial gains and safety benefits as well as distressing the winter disruption experience.

If you are interested in further findings on the Disruption project please contact Dr Greg Marsden ( The research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and involved partners at the University of Aberdeen, Brighton University, Lancaster University, University of West of England, University of Glasgow and the Open University.

This is part of a monthly blog on research projects at the Institute for Transport Studies by the Director, Dr Greg Marsden (