Transported: Out Of The Snow

Talk of the coldest winter in 100 years does not feel right with the temperature at a moderate 8 degrees today but the pavements have been ice-free for only two days. I finished work six days ago and before that I only managed to travel to Cheltenham for five out of the last seven working days. There was to be no public transport for me as a colleague was incredibly helpful and drove me to work and back.

The pavements were icy, the trains were delayed and the buses were not running in Cheltenham on the days I stayed home. I was being extra cautious at eight and a half months pregnant but I would not have risked the lack of buses no matter what state I was in. The snow near work covered the trees and the Cotswolds and settled at two to three inches on the pavements. In contrast, Bristol had little white but made up for it with plenty of ice.

Many experienced an early winter this year and the government commissioned an independent report on the resilience of public transport between the dates 24 November and 9 December. With great interest I noted one of the recommendations on the audit undertaken on how the severe weather was dealt with: “Some parts of the railway were caught out by early snow, […]; the industry’s own review of anti-icing equipment and operations on the third rail network is strongly endorsed;”

The review concluded that one of the worst affected areas was that south of the Thames where the three commuter networks using the ‘third rail’ network faced severe disruptions. One way to improve
railway performance and service to passengers during periods of winter disruption would be to improve the resilience of the third rail.

A little closer to home, most of the South West Rail trains are powered by electricity from the track-level third rail DC electrical system. This low cost system was introduced in the 1920s and 30s and operates just fine when the weather is normal. During freezing temperatures, however, snow and ice can form on the third rail and interfere with the ability of electric trains to draw power.

The Winter Resilience report recommends that the conversion of the third rail network be considered but the cost is high and who is going to pay for it? The Comprehensive Spending Review has implemented fare rises of RPI plus 3%, which could lead to 10% increases each year for three years, starting from 2012. For me that just won’t be affordable and I will have to consider other ways of travel.

Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus chief executive correctly states that “Passengers need to be asked about the balance of the cost of doing this weather-proofing of the railways, against the bill that will increasingly fall on rail users.”

The cost of running the railways is increasingly transferring to the passengers and with costs already running high we are going to have to start behaving like corporations as well. We will need to choose the affordable option even if that includes missing a few days of work. Let us hope that there is some truth to the Met Office’s advice that severe winters have only a 1 in 20 chance, that the weather in any one winter is virtually independent (statistically speaking) of weather in preceding winters, and that this incidence is slowly declining due to global warming. As Smith says: “Would you rather have two or three days of disruption or would you rather pay 10% more for your ticket to ensure it does not happen again? Heating the third rail is going to cost a fortune.”

For some of us paying more is not a viable choice.

Photograph courtesy of Passenger Focus

Winter Resilience Review

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