Let’s not be snowed under with irrelevancies

Our transport infrastructure is creaking to a halt. But forget a few days of weather hell, says Fiona Harvey. We must address the real issue.

It’s funny what a little snow can do. Throw it on the City of London and see grown-up bankers stop to build snowmen. Throw it over the road network and watch the whole country screech to a halt.

The question on everyone’s lips was how could a day or two of snow cause so much trouble? After all, it snows every year. Overseas visitors, used to functioning road and railway networks that we haven’t enjoyed for years, reacted politely – but you couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as the shambolic state of this country’s transport infrastructure was thrown into sharp relief.

Since the beginning of the year matters system seem to have grown worse than ever. It all started with bad news on the trains. The fact that commuters are now to be obliged to pay higher fares for fewer trains raised little more than a despairing shrug. The absurdity that the answer to the problem of unpunctual services was to reduce the number of services and keep us waiting longer for even more overcrowded carriages was just one more example of the Kafkasque joke that passes for management in the railways.

Then we had the tube derailment at Chancery Lane. Thankfully no one was killed, but the seriousness of the accident should not be underestimated. Though the immediate cause of the derailment appears to have been the motors, the accident threw a spotlight on the state of appalling unreadiness of much of the tube infrastructure. No regular passenger can help but be aware of the brittleness of the service, where the slightest incident seems to result in unconscionably long delays, because there is not enough slack in the system to cope with everyday foreseeable adversities.

But few were prepared for the reality of the widely reprinted picture of a track repair on the Victoria line held together by a bit of wood. Follow-up reports that the repair, supposedly a stopgap intended for a few days, had been in situ for months did nothing to reassure people.

To the engineering community, it was doubly distressing. Engineers pride themselves on their regard for safety. Engineers work to serve the public, after all. And engineers like jobs done well.

Yet the problematic state of the tube track has little to do with engineering and everything to do with management. Tube insiders talk of a divisive culture where different sections of London Underground simply do not communicate with each other. The overbearing bureaucracy that will accompany the public-private partnership has rightly been ridiculed, but critics should remember that the present system is scarcely less convoluted. Engineering solutions get lost in bureaucracy, and the anxiety to cut costs results in chronic engineering disrepair.

Management of the networks, rather than the UK’s engineering capability, also affects the railways, and was responsible for the chaos on the roads after a fall of snow. The engineering solutions are there if we want them – the management will and investment to put them in place are not.

But, though to foreign visitors it may seem that the whole of the UK’s transport infrastructure is creaking for the same reasons, we should draw clear distinctions between the problems we should be solving and the problems that we can leave alone. Weather is one thing; track repair another.

In the case of snow, cheese-paring management is justified. When the snow drove road users round the bend last week, wiseacres were all too eager to trawl up examples of countries where it snows a lot, like Norway, Switzerland, Canada and so on. These can deal with heavy snow each winter without grinding to a halt. If these countries can do it, people asked, why can’t we?

Well, the answer is obvious. We could if we wanted to, but we’re better off not bothering. If it snows a lot, you have to invest hugely in infrastructure to cope. The difficulty in the UK is that in over most of the country it snows only a little each year. Do you invest for a few winter days, or do you spend most of your investment on the rest of the year?

Clearly, it would be absurd to maintain a vast countrywide engineering capability that could cope properly with the few days of snow we get. It makes much more sense to maintain a small contingency for snow and accept the small number of occasions when that capability will be overwhelmed. When that happens it will be uncomfortable, and people will have to stay at home.

Then the snow will melt away, as it does every year, and we will forget until next year about the problems that it caused. Meanwhile, the real transport management issues will remain: on the railways, underground and overground. What solutions can engineers draw up for these problems?

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times.