Contractors are blamed for snow chaos on roads

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The Independent Online

A Government road contractor was guilty of a "very serious lapse" in dealing with "White Thursday", when thousands of vehicles were stranded in a snow-storm which swept across the northern Home Counties and the southern Midlands.

The contractor, Carillion, which also holds rail maintenance contracts, began to lay grit on the roads "too late to prevent chaos", according to a report form the House of Commons Transport Committee. It was "utterly astounding" that a breakdown in radio communications involving a gritter lorry fleet in the area worst hit by the weather lasted for four days, the committee said.

It was also "intolerable" that the Highways Agency, for which Carillion worked, had no immediate financial sanction available when a contractor failed to keep roads open and free of ice, the committee added.

The report, "The Work of the Highways Agency", said that the agency should consider taking direct operational control of road gritting procedures in emergency circumstances. It said that many drivers were stuck in their vehicles all night between30 and 31 January, with areas north of London in general and the M11 in particular experiencing appalling driving conditions caused by ice and snow.

The report said that Carillion had delayed gritting roads in the northern Home Counties and southern Midlands on the morning of 30 January because it was "mindful of the above zero temperature forecast and high winds which blow salt from the road surfaces".

Salting began at 1pm on 30 January, but gritting lorries were caught up in accidents and congestion, meaning the network was only partially salted.

The report said: "The committee finds it utterly astounding that repair procedures were apparently so slack that a breakdown in the radio communications between the contractor and his maintenance lorry fleet persisted for over four days at the most crucial time of the year.

"We are dismayed that the Highways Agency should have been unaware of this. The agency and its contractors must take immediate steps to ensure that their communications systems are the best available."

The report added that the agency's chief executive, Tim Matthews, had said that when interpreting the weather, its agents in that area had made a "defensible interpretation of the weather information they were given", although he accepted that "in retrospect, they were wrong".