Snow report urges Met Office cash

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The Independent Online

The Government should consider providing extra funding to the Met Office to help improve its long-term forecasting, a report by MPs into last December's snow disruption said today.

The current seasonal predictions "do not provide a firm basis on which decision makers can act with confidence", the report from the House of Commons Transport Committee said.

The committee said Transport Secretary Philip Hammond had put a £10 million price tag on the additional computing power needed by the Met Office to provide more accurate decade-long forecasts.

The committee's chairman, Louise Ellman MP, said: "Ministers must look again at the resources available to the Met Office.

"Given the huge cost of winter weather disruption to the economy - some £280 million per day in transport disruption alone - the £10 million suggested by Mr Hammond would be a small price to pay to improve the Met Office's long-range forecasting capability."

Looking at the impact on transport of the ultra-cold and snowy December 2010 weather, the committee's report said more can and should be done to ensure UK transport networks continued to operate in severe winter weather.

The committee said:

:: Heathrow airport was totally unprepared to recover from any major incident which necessitated its closure and that its owners under-invested in winter resilience equipment;

:: Mr Hammond should appoint a "snow supremo" - a senior Department for Transport official who would oversee snow plans at Heathrow and other airports;

:: Extra investment should be targeted on those parts of the travel network which have shown themselves to be least resilient to bad weather;

:: Airport operators should be allowed to reclaim the cost of looking after stranded passengers when airlines fail to discharge their responsibility to do this;

:: There should be better online advice for individuals and communities about tackling problems arising from severe winter weather;

:: A high profile campaign should be launched to increase the proportion of motorists taking precautions for driving in winter weather.

Mrs Ellman said: "Every airport operator must now be pushed to plan properly for bad weather so that people are not left stranded and without even basic supplies in airport terminals for days on end."

She went on: "A culture change in the rail industry is needed to ensure that passengers are looked after during periods of disruption. In future, any failure to provide information about service disruption during severe weather should cost the firms responsible money.

"The strategic salt arrangement introduced a year ago clearly kept many main roads open last December. The Highways Agency and police forces must however work to manage blockages on the strategic road network more pro-actively, making greater use of roadside and in-car information systems to warn motorists about poor conditions and disruption."

The Met Office said: "Throughout the cold weather, the Met Office provided consistently good advice. Of 13 individual spells of severe weather, the Met Office forecast provided very good advice on 12 of them. In a public survey in November following heavy snow, 80% of people surveyed said they were aware of the warning and 95% of those found the warning useful."

The Met Office statement went on: "The recommendation on additional funding recognises the potential for longer range forecasts to provide useful advice on all timescales.

"We have already shown significant skill in long-range forecasting and, although it remains scientifically challenging, we will work with the cross-departmental working group established by Mr Hammond to consider the issues and optimum investment."

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said:"We recognise that the industry needs to get consistently better at providing information to passengers when there is disruption.

"Operators, together with Network Rail, have been and will continue to invest heavily in improving information and are looking closely at how they could do better when faced with this kind of bad weather."

Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic Airways, said: "We are not surprised at the criticism levelled at (Heathrow operator) BAA in this report. This was a disastrous situation, with the world's busiest international airport shut for a prolonged period at a crucial time of year, and this must not be allowed to happen again."

A BAA spokesman said: "We reject the committee's impression that Heathrow was 'totally unprepared to recover from any major incident which necessitated its closure'.

"This is contrary to the findings of the (BAA-commmisioned) inquiry by Professor David Begg, which found that BAA had historically 'demonstrated its ability to respond well to earlier weather events' and also contrary to the evidence from the airspace closure caused by volcanic ash in 2010."

The Highways Agency said: "Last winter was a tough test. Despite the severe weather we worked hard to keep the majority of England's motorways and other strategic roads open for road users, but we are not complacent.

"We agree more can be done to give road users information when and where they need it and we are already looking at ways in which we can achieve this, particularly for those caught up in disruption on the roads."

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: "Exceptional conditions of the sort seen last winter would put any transport system to the test and inevitably lead to significant transport disruption. We saw the evidence of this across much of northern Europe.

"The extra measures we put in place, for example to ensure sufficient salt provision, meant we entered last winter in a much better position than we have previously. But I agree with the committee that we cannot avoid some disruption during extreme weather and we should look at what lessons can be learnt."