Transport business: A risk business

John Smart, Director of Professional and Business Development, Institution of Highways & Transportation, discusses the recent review into the severe weather in February and considers the wider implications for the transport business

February 2009 saw the heaviest snowfall the UK has seen in 20 years. Travel was disrupted with the heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures on 1 and 2 February. According to some commentators this cost the economy half-a-billion pounds’ worth of damage. There was much written in the press at the time and since the disruption there have been three significant reviews: first from the Greater London Assembly, then from Parliament by the Transport Select Committee and the final one for the government. This article focuses on the review by the UK Roads Liaison Group at the request of government in the context of planning for the future and considers challenges now faced by the transport profession. These challenges are going to be increasingly important when faced with climate change: how to keep transport moving in adverse weather environments. And becomes part of a wider question addressed in IHT’s November event: ‘It’s a Risk Business - WRA Conference – In these changing times how do we deliver a consistent service to the travelling public?’

The review from governement
On 12 March Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon asked the UK Roads Liaison Group to consider the ‘lessons that can be learnt from recent events and to recommend what steps could be adopted by local highway authorities, trunk road authorities, producers of salt and other stakeholders to ensure the effective treatment of England’s road networks in order that we are even better prepared should similar events occur in future years’. The review has since been received by his successor Lord Adonis at the end of July and it is expected the review will be considered by him at the return of Parliament in October. The review: ‘Lessons from the Severe Weather February 2009’ states exactly the challenge now faced by Lord Adonis – to issue clear guidance to help councils and others draw up plans to cope with another cold spell: to ensure we are better prepared in future.
Stocks of salt were heavily called upon in February and Surveyor Magazine noted that 30 per cent of local authorities only had two days or less of salt left in their depots. However, the good news is that the Highways Agency managed to keep the Strategic Road Network in England operational over the whole period and no local authority actually ran out of salt supplies. The lesson is that we ran too close for comfort and climate change is likely to mean more severe and more frequent weather events: the risk to government is too great to say it was a one in twenty year event and not do anything.
For the first time since 1880 snow lay in October 2008 and continued across much of December, January and February. To prevent roads and footways freezing and help clear snow, highways demanded significantly larger than expected volumes of salt from earlier in the winter through to February. There was also insufficient advanced warning that salt supply may be a problem.
Seasonal salt production
Salt production is a continuous operation but demand is highly seasonal. Highways Authorities store salt before winter and often restock during the winter season. Some highway authorities had maintained high salt reserves, but many had reduced stocks over recent years, partly due to their experience of milder winters. Stock reductions have also been encouraged by expectations that introduction of systemised restocking arrangements by the salt industry would enable them to respond to winter demands.
The result last February was that, although the salt industry did significantly increase production and supply, some stocks were quickly exhausted and there was insufficient resupply capacity to meet the immediate demand. Many highway authorities took measures to find additional salt supplies, share stocks and reduce their salt consumption. The government response at the time was to set up an advisory national priority salt distribution system – known as Salt Cell. People might have different views of how this worked but generally accepted was that it did work; and that it would be useful to operate a similar system – as a last resort – if such an event does happen again.
Addressing operational risk
The review recommends a package of new measures to ensure that England is better prepared for a prolonged period of snow and ice similar to that which disrupted much of the transport system last February. The review includes 19 recommendations grouped together under four themes: maintaining service resilience, preparation for and operation of winter service, communications and procurement.

Key recommendations include:

  • Highway authorities are advised to adopt a winter service resilience standard that will ensure preparation for winter service is more rigorous and that more resources, especially salt, are available to respond to severe conditions;
  • Collaboration and innovation between authorities in sharing salt depots and salt stocks, joint procurement;
  • A coordinated approach to implementing minimum winter networks across neighbouring highway authorities;
  • Broadening the approach to salt supply by establishing framework contracts with more than one supplier;
  • Consider ways to improve the management of risk between salt suppliers and themselves, for example, longer contracts, performance contracts with minimum guaranteed purchase and supply, and contracts that include supply of salt and investment in facilities;
  • Moving from mainly commodity focused arrangements with salt companies to ones where the whole process is service-led with close communication;
  • Better communication with the public before and during severe weather.

Matthew Lugg, Chairman of the Steering Group from the UKRLG Winter Service Review made the following comments during the launch of the review: “During the severe weather, some authorities managed very well but many could not keep pace with demand, as a result they came close to running out of salt and there was a real danger that some would have run out had milder weather not arrived.
“We have to accept that climate change means more severe and more frequent severe weather events. There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned in order to ensure that we are as well prepared as we can be for similar conditions in the future.
“We believe the key lies in collaboration between authorities, clear minimum standards and close partnership with salt suppliers. There is a lot of good practice out there and we will all gain if we share it.”
It is now widely acknowledged that the world is experiencing a rapidly changing climate and this makes it more difficult for highways authorities to predict conditions from year to year. Winter service planning needs to take account of the increased frequency and intensity of severe events, as this is a consequence of climate change.
There is an interesting case study in the report on ‘Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire County Councils - Climate Change Adaptation Plan - The impact of climate change on their highway networks has been considered by the three counties and four adaptation responses identified for immediate or longer term actions’. For winter service the responses are: risk assessment surveys to establish which routes have the highest risk of ice formation, re-assess and re-classify priority routes based on future climate change predictions, review resources for winter service provision and consider if changes need to be made, and provide a more flexible and responsive winter service.

Predicting the future
Accurate long-range forecasts would be a useful tool to help highway authorities predict salt usage and for salt suppliers to arrange appropriate supplies. However, given that in reality such forecasts are not sufficiently reliable, relating salt stock prediction to long range weather forecasting is too high risk. On the other hand, reliance on medium term weather forecasting, although giving good indication of needs for salting, does not provide a sufficiently long time for highway authorities to order and take deliveries of any significantly larger quantities of salt than normal, or for suppliers to significantly increase supplies. Weather forecasting cannot therefore be reliably used as the main determinant for salt stocks either at the start of the season or when re-ordering, although it may be a relevant consideration.
This article has focused on the review from government – ‘Lessons from the Severe Weather February 2009’. The report highlights 19 recommendations that should be considered as a whole by all parties involved and it is now the task for the Minister to review these recommendations.
The implications from the severe weather in February to the transport system raise a wider question: are we now in a riskier business? Financial meltdown, climate change, regular flooding and heavy snow, these are all recent problems that have affected operational and reputational risk. Managers of our highways have to reassess their thinking on how they manage their networks more effectively including the change of emphasis on the use of road space, whilst still maintaining a safe and reliable service for the travelling public.
This article has touched on the relevance from the review into the Lessons from the Severe Weather 2009 to risk in a broad sense – but has drawn out challenges and solutions with particular focus on operational and environmental risk. Financial risks are important too – the review notes that costs of any new arrangements can only be determined at a local level and will need to be considered against service resilience and value for money criteria. The cost of investment must be weighted against the financial risk if the movement of people and goods is again disrupted.
There are user risks too and to reduce these many highway authorities provide information to the public before the winter season so that any winter service arrangements, especially salting routes, are well understood by users and the community. Some highway authorities also issue information leaflets with advice on travelling during severe winter weather conditions.
The four elements of operational, environmental, financial, and user risk are topics that the WRA-UK Congress 2009 will consider. IHT invites you to come and hear how senior staff from all four overseeing organisations, a range of first class UK and overseas speakers, experts in their field, see these risks emerging and, more importantly, managed.

For more information
IHT/WRA UK Congress Conference – It’s a Risk Business. In these changing times how do we deliver a consistent service the travelling public? takes place 5 November at Copthorne Hotel, Birmingham. Please see for more information.

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