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Beauty and the beast

By Darran Messem, Head of Transport

Last week’s transport disruption wasn’t just a crisis of bad weather; it was a crisis of communication. 

What surprised me most about my snow-hit heavily-delayed journey home from central London on Friday last week was that along the entire length of the railway line, which skirts the southern perimeter of Heathrow airport where 300 flights had been cancelled, the snow was less than an inch deep. An inch!

The ‘Beast from the East’, as this relatively tame (by global standards) snow storm has been called, highlighted fundamental weaknesses in the capacity and capability of the UK’s transport system, but it also revealed weaknesses in the system’s capacity and capability to communicate.

At the UK’s busiest train station - Waterloo - trains marked ‘delayed’ steadily progressed across the departures board before quietly dropping off, unannounced.  Not cancelled; just gone, only to be replaced by another scheduled service that would seemingly evaporate.  Occasional voice announcements over the public-address system were barely audible but none referred to the missing trains. Scarce station staff had little helpful information on whether services would run. One staff member briefly inspired hope by answering that a service would run, but shattered this brief glimpse of optimism by saying it wasn’t his job to share this information with the waiting passengers. Instead, thousands anxiously waited, with no information to go on. Escalators from Waterloo Road continued to pump people on to the concourse with no warning of the crowd blocking the top, creating an uncomfortable and dangerous crush. Without a hint of irony, Trainline, a popular train ticketing and service app, was confidently showing services running normally, and on time.

A lady desperately made a call to a loved one to say she couldn’t tell what was happening, so was intending to jump on any train heading south west, and the unfortunate person she was calling would just have to drive out in the snow and ice to collect her. Another made a similar call saying in the absence of information she was leaving to find a hotel for the night. Then, suddenly, a train was announced out of nowhere. A rush to the platform ensued. Those whose anxiety about a lack of information caused them to leave the station missed the train. The Times later reported one passenger from Bournemouth blaming a “complete lack of plan and a lack of communication” for the stress of her journey. ITV reported another passenger from Weymouth citing “no information for 13-odd hours”. “The guard keeps coming out to apologise but we’ve had no information about what’s going on”.

This wasn’t just a crisis of bad weather; this was a crisis of communication.

A crisis of communication

Let’s be clear, this is not a remote under-populated rural region we are talking about.  This is one of the busiest train stations in the world, serving one of the wealthiest and productive economic regions in the world, and linking the world’s financial services capital to, among other places, the world’s busiest international airport, and the home of the British Monarch, not to mention Legoland. We live in an information economy. Real-time live information about the price of cocoa in Africa is available on an ordinary phone, so why doesn’t the UK’s busiest train station know when the next train to Windsor will depart?

It’s not just a problem with the railways. An estimated 75,000 Britons were impacted by cancelled flights, but the only communication received by the majority was seeing ‘cancelled’ on the departure board. Many roads were blocked or closed, and drivers were advised to “check before travelling”, but check what? Ferries were cancelled, with no information on the expected next departure, as if, somehow, the storm might last forever.

One explanation is that this disruption is a symptom of fundamental economics. Snow-clearing machinery and capability cannot be as cost-effectively maintained to deal with the occasional extreme weather incident. Canada and Norway can cope with worse snow precisely because every winter there’s snow in vast quantities. It’s harder to justify investment for snow clearance. Investment in snow ploughs and heated points on railways is harder to justify when the temperature rarely drops below zero, particularly on a complex, dense network where the chain is only as strong as the weakest link and that link could be anywhere along its length.

Making the business base 

Nonetheless, there is an investment case to be examined. The Chief Economic Adviser to the EY ITEM Club, a UK economic forecasting group, is reported to estimate that the cost to the UK economy of weather-related disruption last week was around £1bn per day, and could halve GDP growth in the first three months of the year. The economy benefits, and society benefits, and every family benefits, from keeping people moving. Some simple improvements in communication last week could have helped protect the economy and the revenue of those relying on it.

Furthermore, UK Meteorological Office data shows that between 1980 and 2010 the average number of days of sleet and snow fall at Heathrow was nearly 4 in February and nearly 2 in March.  That’s approximately a 10% daily probability of sleet or snow. The probability of snow in the UK is greater than some might think.  

The head of long range forecasting at the Met Office reportedly briefed the Cabinet Office of the impending freeze four weeks ago. Apparently, the same shift in the jet stream that sucked Siberian winds over the UK preceded similar freezes in 2009 and 2013. How, I wonder, was this communicated and shared, and what was the level of awareness among UK transport operators this time last week?

The impending departure of a service is clearly known to the operator some time before this knowledge is available to the passenger.  This gap can be closed by linking information systems and operators through cloud-based services and network capacity. A definitive, authoritative UK rail information and ticketing online service and app could provide up-to-date information and alerts, drawing on a range of data sources to cover anticipated departures not just cancellations.

The difference between a cancellation and a postponement of a service is a hugely significant difference to an anxious traveller. Likewise, the estimated time of arrival at a destination is more important than the current extent of a delay.  These differences can be communicated through both staff and information systems with appropriate training, communication capability and above all care.

Across our entire transport system there is significant room for improvement in communication. In Beauty and the Beast a magical mirror enables Beauty to see in to the Castle of the heartbroken Beast, who Beauty then frees from the fairy’s curse. The UK doesn’t need a magic mirror, but it does need communication to break barriers and enable better flow of information and passengers, particularly in a crisis.