08 December 2010

Statement: Severe Weather

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 8 December 2010

[The Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 14:01]
... ... ...
Severe Weather

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a 10-minute statement by Stewart Stevenson on severe weather. As the minister will take questions at the end of the statement, there should be no interruptions or interventions during it.


The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I am grateful for this opportunity to update Parliament on recent weather events and their damaging effects on the transport network. I should begin by saying that the westbound M8 fully reopened to all traffic at 13:15.

On Monday, a combination of events—the return of many adults and children to work or school after a period of school closures and disruption from previous snow, combined with more and heavier snow that fell over a longer time than expected—contributed to a very sudden deterioration in road quality and public transport services in central Scotland. The key question is whether our response could or should have been better in these very unusual circumstances.

The fact of the matter is that if the transport system grinds to a halt and people are forced to spend the night in their cars, something has clearly gone wrong. I regret that and apologise for the failure to communicate the situation effectively to the many people affected on Monday when the extent of the problem became apparent.

Of course I am sorry that anyone should have to experience the gridlock and inconvenience of recent days and, in terms of the aspects of the problems that can be resolved by Government, I accept that responsibility rests with me. We must be clear what the issues are.

I also want to be very clear on one matter. No doubt parts of the system did not work, but that does not mean that thousands of men and women—local government workers, those on gritters and in emergency services and many volunteers—did not do the best that they possibly could in the circumstances. To those who have worked the extra hour, who have helped their neighbour, who have pushed cars and who have brought aid and assistance—thank you. [Applause.]

That said, we are looking at exceptional circumstances. There are two big issues to address: fixing the immediate problem; and considering how we as a society can adjust if this weather is to become more common.

For the benefit of this chamber and the people beyond it I will try to describe the events that led to this situation. I should add that I am more than open to the idea of a wider review of what happened and I will be attending next week's meeting of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee where these matters may be discussed.

On Monday morning, we faced a perfect storm. A highly unusual weather system came in and hit our transport system exceptionally hard. Over the past fortnight, Scottish resilience has been managing snow volumes in the central belt at significantly higher levels than have been seen in many years. The Cabinet sub-committee on Scottish Government resilience has been in operation since 24 November. Resilience arrangements were well established over the weekend of 4 and 5 December, and meetings took place on both days; indeed, meetings have been occurring on a daily basis both at ministerial and official level. Weather forecasts from the Met Office were monitored closely throughout that time as part of the resilience process. Across the whole country, strategic co-ordination groups—connecting emergency services and local authorities, which plan for all manner of contingencies—were already working on the snow situation.

On Sunday 5 December, we were aware of weather warnings in which snowfalls in central Scotland were forecast. I have been asked what forecasts the Scottish Government received and when it received them. I would like to give members some details on that.

The first indications of heavy snow were issued by the Met Office at 16:01 on Sunday. The bulletin said:

"A band of heavier snow is expected to affect higher parts of the Ayrshires and Lanarkshires giving 5-10cm of fresh snow. Higher parts of West Lothian and the western Borders could see accumulations of 3-5cm. Western areas will still see mainly rain although this could gradually turn to snow in Glasgow where accumulations of 1-3cm are possible. Elsewhere accumulations of 1-3cm are likely including in the Edinburgh area."

A Met Office bulletin that was issued at 08:01 on Monday described the weather forecast at that time. It said:

"Generally amounts of fresh snow will be in the region of 2 to 5 cm although higher areas may see a further 10 cm. Behind this band of snow it will be generally dry and clear."

Presiding Officer—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. There is too much noise.

Stewart Stevenson: The next Met Office bulletin, which was issued at 10:37 on Monday, accepted that the position had become unexpectedly severe. It said:

"The band of snow that moved southeastwards overnight extended further eastwards than forecast, which has given more significant snow accumulations than were expected yesterday across eastern parts of the Central Belt. This has caused transport disruption across parts of Scotland and has been exacerbated by ice quickly forming on roads and the fact that the snow arrived across the central belt during the rush hour ... The snow will continue to move southwards during this morning, clearing the Central Belt by mid afternoon."

We have now received accurate measurements of the snowfall during the 24 hours from 09:00 on Monday. Those measurements show that some areas clearly received more snow than the amount that was forecast. At Gogarbank in Edinburgh, 7cm of snow fell; in Penicuik, 9cm of snow fell; and at Livingston Mill in West Lothian, 12cm of snow fell. There were falls of 20cm in other areas, which was twice the maximum that was forecast. Some reports suggest more than 30cm of snow fell in East Kilbride. A North Lanarkshire Council report that was issued at 02:50 on Tuesday said:

"The heavy snowfall yesterday morning was not forecast to be as late in the morning or nearly as severe."

All that demonstrates that, although the Met Office was giving reports to the best of its ability, the snowfall was greater than it was estimated to be even after the incident had started.

Let me say a little about preparation and forecasting. We have a network of cameras around the trunk road network that are generally co-located with ice-monitoring equipment. When actual temperatures drop to 3°C, we invoke road treatment action in anticipation of icing. In that respect, we act in a similar way to the Met Office and others. Observations of current conditions are used, coupled with a view of recent changes to predict future weather conditions. Ploughs and gritters were out and applying appropriate treatments before the snowfall hit central Scotland, but access to the road network became difficult as jack-knifed lorries—as many as a dozen of them on Monday evening—and a small number of car incidents blocked key roads and junctions.

In central Scotland alone, Transport Scotland had 327 staff using 63 vehicles working round the clock. Throughout Monday night and Tuesday, more than 1,000 additional police officers and the Red Cross were active. I pay tribute in particular to the work of police officers throughout Strathclyde, Central Scotland and Lothian and Borders. We hired in extra vehicles to recover lorries, but in many cases clearance was followed too quickly by further incidents, and it became increasingly difficult to reach those lorries.

For the M8 westbound, the absence of moving traffic and temperatures below the level at which salt works allowed significant build-up of ice, despite appropriate treatment, and led to closure. As I said, the M8 is now fully opened. This morning, Transport Scotland and its contractors have given a special treatment to the M8, with double levels of salt and grit, and gritters and snowploughs operating together.

There have been problems on our railways, too. Network Rail has special squads looking after the most critical junctions. Heating blankets are supplementing points heaters and have proved largely effective, but diversion routes and sidings are not available, which means that any train failure has greater-than-usual impact. Therefore, Network Rail has restricted network capacity. Our most modern diesel rolling stock, the class 170s, are designed for operation down to -17°C. In fact, they did a bit better than that, but were frequently defeated by ice, with up to 3 tonnes per carriage.

Yesterday, 80 per cent of scheduled bus services and 55 per cent of normal train services operated. Today, our airports are open, with the exception of Campbeltown and Wick, which will open shortly. Overnight, vehicles worked continuously to keep the road network working. Police report that temperatures dropped to -17°C in places and the Met Office said that the temperature would continue to fall until 9 this morning. The Army has been helping, and we thank it. It has assisted the Scottish Ambulance Service by providing 10 four-by-fours and 50 soldiers.

A slight alleviation of the worst of the cold conditions is forecast for the next few days. I am determined that we should make the best use possible of that window of opportunity to bring services back to normal. Today, two thirds of schools are open, which is a better performance than for 10 days.

I am the transport minister and I am responsible. What happened on Monday has been extremely difficult and challenging. It should not have happened and I have apologised for the failure to communicate the position better and earlier. However, the steps to prevent it and the actions to negate it are hugely complex. The areas that I want to review are long-term strategic issues. Public communication should be improved. What went wrong with links between Met Office forecasts and information flows? Do we need to invest more in heavy-duty winter equipment? Although we deployed help and assistance quickly, should we have increased additional resources even more speedily than we did?

My focus now is to make this work and to put in place a system that is robust. If the weather is to be more severe, more often, the fact is that we need a step change. That applies to everyone in Government, every business and every household.

Stewart Stevenson
does not gather, use or
retain any cookie data.

However Google who publish for us, may do.
fios ZS is a name registered in Scotland for Stewart Stevenson

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP