Councils and transport operators today insisted there would be no repeat of the winter crisis of 2010 which saw a prolonged period of freezing weather bring Britain to a virtual halt.
Two years after thousands of passengers were forced to sleep overnight in airport terminals and stockpiles of grit ran perilously low, those responsible for keeping the nation moving were confident they had learned the lessons of the recent back-to-back harsh winters.
The Met Office is forecasting that temperatures will continue to hover around the freezing mark until at least the beginning of next week, with a further 10cm of snow expected to fall overnight before giving way to more generally icy and wintry conditions.
But the Local Government Association (LGA) said councils had built a stockpile of 1.3m tonnes of salt – twice the amount used in the relatively mild winter of 2011/12 - with 90 per cent reporting either increased or equal reserves compared to last year. There has also been considerable investment in gritters and snow ploughs, as well as improved communications on council websites, with Twitter and Facebook keeping the public informed.
A review of winter resilience in the wake of the last big chill requires local authorities – which are responsible for 90 per cent of all roads - to have 12-days’ worth of salt in reserve at the beginning of each winter. Many have now set up sharing agreements with neighbours, while the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency are keeping a further 425,000 tonne strategic stockpile in case they run low.
Cllr Peter Box, chair of the LGA’s economy and transport board, said: “Councils are as well prepared as they’ve ever been to keep roads safe and traffic moving as freezing temperatures and snow close in.”
Heathrow airport, which was scene of some of the most chaotic scenes in 2010, said there had been minimal disruption today. The airport has spent £36m on its winter resilience programme since, doubling the number of snow clearing vehicles and increasing the amount of de-icer stored by 20 per cent. Gatwick, which also said it was not anticipating further problems, had doubled its snow clearing capacity to 100 vehicles and was now as well equipped as Oslo airport.
Britain’s rail network emerged from the first significant test virtually unscathed today apart from a few problems with Greater Anglia trains whose passengers were experiencing some cancellations and speed restrictions.
“It is just a normal day on the railway. There is currently no disruption,” said a Network Rail spokesman. Investment has been made on the “third-rail” lines in Surrey, Sussex and Kent which are particularly susceptible to ice, although that part of the country escaped the worst of the weather.
There were other problems too. A number of schools were closed in eastern England today. The AA and the RAC said they had dealt with a 60 per cent spike in breakdowns whilst a 10-vehicle crash caused delays on the M4 in Berkshire.
The Met Office issued an amber weather warning last night. Eddy Carroll, chief forecaster, said: “We expect snow to affect many eastern parts of the UK over the next day or so leading to some disruption. With some very low temperatures over the next few nights we also expect ice in many places and people should be prepared for travel problems.”