Will there ever be the “right type of snow” in Britain?

February 2, 2009

The last time round when there was such widespread travel chaos in Britain due to snow was quite some time ago….it was in 1991 – the year the “wrong type of snow” was born – British Rail’s ill-conceived attempt to explain why the railways had come to a virtual standstill after heavy snowfall.

The “wrong type” of just about anything has since been used to explain why the country’s creaking transport system is grinding to a halt ….remember the one about the “wrong type of leaves” on the tracks?

OK, before you read on I should declare that I’m not British and hail from a country that usually copes with bad weather a lot better than Britain.

But I’ve been here long enough – 20 years to be precise – to think when I heard on the radio in the morning that no London busses were running at all – that didn’t even happen during the Blitz, apparently – …”oh well, it must be bad then … better log on from home”. And so did thousands of employees, many of them actively encouraged by their employers not to travel to work unless it was “critical”.

At least I could rest assured, sorry – work from home assured – when the Metropolitan Police declared in a news release that it was maintaining policing despite the bad weather.

But I still couldn’t help thinking:  why is this happening, and shouldn’t I make a bit more of an effort to get into the office? Why is there hardly any public transport, forcing so many people to stay at home when there is heavy snowfall? Can’t the streets of London be gritted, and why is no one shovelling the snow off the pavement outside their houses, an effort common in many countries that experience wintery conditions?

The cost to businesses is huge – an estimated 1 billion pounds a day as about 20 per cent of the country’s workforce is believed to have taken a “snow day” on Monday.

It’s not that it never snows heavily in Britain – but in London it’s not so common. London Mayor Boris Johnson, facing questions over the inability of the capital’s infrastructure to cope with six inches of snow,  conceded the city did not have enough ploughs to keep the roads clear.

“There’s no doubt about it, this is the right kind of snow, it’s just the wrong kind of quantities,” Johnson told the BBC.

But local councils said the snow was simply “too heavy” for their gritters to work.  “The problem with this sort of weather is when you grit and it snows heavily, of course, the maximum effect of that gritting is lost,” the Local Government Association said.

So, it WAS the “wrong kind of snow” again….


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It was Brian Redhead on the BBC who called it “the wrong type of snow”, not the BR spokesman. In fact the snow that day was unusual, it was like ice dust which could enter the electric motors of trains. This whole story is a massive canard.

Posted by Nick | Report as abusive

Just one thing more for us to winge about. It’s winter for God’s sake! That’s what it does in winter – it snows, and there’s precious little we can do against the force of the elements. Just go out and enjoy it as all the kids around here are doing – building snowmen and sledging. What a relief from video games.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

The situation has nothing to do with “the wrong type of snow” and everything to do with politics which are mired in outdated dogma instead of being directed towards creating and maintaining robust infrastructure and industry which can withstand bad weather, external energy shortages, financial shocks and whatever else might be inflicted on it. The principle is called self-sufficiency. The fact that we don’t have it is the fault of our self-serving politicians who prefer to squander our money on foisting a foreign ideology upon the country and furthering the aims of their friends abroad.

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

If you live within a few miles of work, there is nothing to prevent you from walking in! However, it’s strange to see people slipping on steps outside mainline stations. The authorities can surely clear away this type of snow!

Posted by Matthew Wilde | Report as abusive

Our local councils fail us again, it’s the same every year when the dreaded snow falls, is it so hard for the meteoric office to get things right ? why is this country so backward in coming forward, it’s about time we were getting value for money in relation to our council taxes – day light robbery – dick turpin was honest compared to this lot

Posted by Sandra | Report as abusive

Having suffered a “snow emergency” in Washington DC once in the 80’s, I know it’s certainly not just us. Once the day had been declared a “snow day”, then people needn’t bother going in to work, private drivers were not allowed on the streets without snow tyres, and you weren’t allowed to refuse to share a taxi with someone else. Apart from these three things, it was just as chaotic and miserable as anything we can manage.

While the first of them might go down well here, I can well imagine that the other two would have Middle Britain up in arms about the “nanny state” once again “infringing our basic rights”…

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

The reality is its a cost risk balance. We dont need to prepare infrastructure that can withstand this type of adverse condition it only happens once every 15 years or so. Sweden, Norway, Finland have a different climate so of course they spend to prepare and of course they laugh at us. So in reality its not really a type of snow question its an operational resilience issue.

Posted by Paulo | Report as abusive