Ten ways to weatherproof Britain

  • @SimonCalder

There is no such thing as "the wrong kind of snow": this is just the wrong kind of country to cope with extreme weather.

Most of the time, our make-do-and-mend (or Sellotape-and-string) approach to road, rail and air transport works tolerably well, for which we should be grateful. But when it unravels, capacity constraints mean delays and stress start to, well, snowball. These 10 initiatives would make winter travel more efficient and less stressful, without either bankrupting the country or covering it in concrete.

1. Build another runway – but not where you might think

A third runway at Heathrow is now dead, with all three main parties lined up against the expansion of Europe's busiest airport. The prospect of a Thames Estuary airport is an expensive diversion from the main issue of how to squeeze a half-gallon into the pint pot of runway capacity in South-east England. The much-touted second runway at Stansted will not happen for at least a generation. So the only feasible option is a second runway at Gatwick, where the prohibition on expansion ends in 2019 and the impact would be less. A second hub for the capital would enable London to remain at the heart of global aviation, and could lure airlines from Heathrow.

2. More rights for train travellers

The "passengers' charters", devised in the 1990s and specifying modest recompense when things go awry on the railways, are no longer fit for purpose. The Transport Secretary should take note of what the EU's passenger-rights legislation has done to concentrate the minds of airlines. European rules stipulate a duty of care (including meals and drinks) for delayed airline passengers, and lay down financial compensation payable in the event of cancellations. The presumption is that the airline is at fault unless it can prove differently. And, emulating the practice on French railways, train operators should be obliged to distribute refund forms to delayed passengers to make claiming recompense easier.

3. Hurry up with road pricing

Given Britain's constrained road network and the absurd number of people who seem to want to use it at certain times, a continuously variable system of road pricing is urgently needed. And what's that got to do with wintry weather? Punitive pricing can keep motorists away from snow-hit trouble spots where congestion is building, which would have helped on the M40 and M25 at the weekend. Conversely, tactical discounts could even encourage drivers to use particular key arteries and help to keep them open: "Right across the Pennines on the M62, all yours for 20p while snow lasts."

4. Penalise poor planning

Hundreds – possibly thousands – of passengers at Stansted on Sunday morning missed flights because of long security queues, a result of staff being unable to get through the snow to work. Since the Met Office was spot-on with its weekend forecast, Stansted's managers could have booked hotel rooms at the airport for security staff on early shifts. Instead, passengers once again suffered when it all went wrong. A sharp financial incentive might persuade the airport to be better prepared next time, and reduce the stress and misery that such bottlenecks cause.

5. Follow the French

A grand projet to criss-cross the country with high-speed railway lines would be beneficial, controversial and impossibly expensive. So let's adopt a more humdrum Gallic idea for the roads. French drivers understand that, in bad weather, a lower speed limit applies – and is rigorously enforced. Many of the incidents that closed roads were cases of excessive speed for the conditions – 50mph on motorways and 40mph elsewhere should do it.

6. Make city buses free in snow and ice

Rush-hour yesterday in many cities was a nightmare, as cars crawled along treacherous and overcrowded streets. Some motorists could be lured out of their vehicles by the prospect of a free ride to work. Fewer cars means higher speeds for buses, of course. Meanwhile loyal bus passengers deserve the occasional treat for their public-spiritedness in using the least environmentally damaging form of motorised transport and occupying minimum road space. Who knows, some drivers may be converted to the double-decker.

7. 'Tarmac Contingency Plans' for airlines

The US suffers far more extreme weather than Britain. After numerous "Tarmac delays" in which passengers were kept on board awaiting a departure slot or a stand for arriving aircraft, all airlines must file a "Tarmac Contingency Plan". This details what care they will provide: from food and drink after two hours, to the right to get off the plane after four hours. You can understand why an airline wants us all on board a delayed plane: it makes grabbing a newly available slot much easier than if we all have to be rounded up from the bar. But there are limits, which should be specified.

8. Teach winter driving

I don't know about your driving tuition and test(s), but in mine, snow, ice and fog were conspicuously absent. Because extreme weather is, thankfully, so rare in Britain, many young motorists have no experience of slippery road surfaces until their first contact with what was once the A6 but is now the Buxton ice rink. It cannot be beyond the wit of the DfT and the games industry to devise a simulator to train would-be drivers about how to cope when the coefficient of friction or visibility approaches zero. And wouldn't it be fun to practise on?

9. Educate passengers

One reason snow disruption is so miserable is down to us travellers. The wise attitude for trying to get to, from or around Britain in winter is, "hope for the best but prepare for the worst". Airline passengers should build some slack into their plans. Then, if they end up in Prestwick or Barcelona rather than Heathrow – as hundreds did on Sunday morning – they can regard the resulting 24-hour stay in south-west Scotland or north-east Spain as a welcome free treat rather than the end of the world as they know it. And simple steps such as ensuring prescription medicines are not packed in checked-in baggage makes life less fraught when snow, ice or French air-traffic controllers interfere with your transportational aspirations.

10. Downsize Heathrow – at least in winter

As the past three days have proved, Heathrow has no slack in the system. So when things go wrong, the whole complex choreography unravels swiftly. The airlines – and Heathrow's owner, BAA – will squeal, but a decision to strip out perhaps 5 per cent of the winter schedule would provide some resilience. It need not be too hard: when airlines collapse or abandon Heathrow, their slots are simply taken out. And now, I'll head for the air-raid shelter.