England 'had enough salt to cope', report says
The government and local councils in England did stockpile enough salt to cope with the first severe bout of snow this winter, a Whitehall-commissioned report has said.
But the report found it "may be challenging" to meet road salt requirements for the entire winter.
The report, by transport expert David Quarmby, also called for better rail information to be given to passengers.
Labour has accused the government of being ill-prepared for bad weather.
In his report, Mr Quarmby looked at how transport systems in England coped with bad weather from 24 November to 9 December.
But the travel expert - who is the chairman of the RAC Foundation and conducted the report at the request of Transport Secretary Philip Hammond - said the report was equally relevant to the current severe conditions.
Speaking at the report's launch, Mr Quarmby said there was "an opportunity" for transport operators to spend more to combat severe conditions.
"We are all struggling but maybe businesses and the government will make a decision to up (the level) of resources.
"These are policy decisions that have to be made by our elected representatives and not be me," he said.
Mr Quarmby said local highway authorities had performed well overall and he was not concerned that only 150,000 tonnes of the 250,000 tonnes of road salt in the Highways Agency reserve fund had so far arrived.
But he said the use of rock salt had been "high so far" and despite record salt stocks and the new national strategic reserve, the government and highway authorities "may find it challenging to meet requirements for the rest of the winter".
"To ease the large demand for road salt, a priority should be making the guidance on lower spread rates produced by the national winter service research group available to all authorities urgently in an easily accessible format," he added.
The report also found there had been an "unacceptable" lack of information to rail passengers caught up in the bad weather in southern England.
"Some parts of the railway were caught out by early snow, in spite of major efforts by the rail industry to improve its management of contingency timetables and associated communications," it said.
Mr Quarmby recommended changes to the third rail, which supplies power to trains.
The existing system for services south of the Thames was vulnerable during severe winter weather and a new current-supply system should be considered, he said.
He admitted the proposal would be expensive but insisted it was something train companies and Network Rail should look at.
He said the country had just experienced "one of the earliest spells of severe weather for many years" which had "placed great pressure on the transport system" and while many had "coped admirably" there were still lessons to be learned.
"All local authorities need to ensure that their winter plans follow good practice wherever possible.
"Train operators coped well but there are still improvements to be made," he said.
But he added that there appeared to be no evidence that there would be a "clustering" of severe winters.
Mr Quarmby also recommended the Highways Agency prepare a report on the bad congestion on 30 November at junction three of the M25, where it meets the A20 and M20 near Swanley in Kent.
The roundabout was "locked up for several hours", said the report, with lorries slipping and stalling and blocking ramps and traffic tailing back on to the M20.
Responding to the report, Councillor Peter Box, chairman of the Local Government Association's economy and transport board, said the report had made it clear the "thorough preparation" made by councils had left them well equipped to ease some the inevitable disruption.
"Public safety is the top priority for councils and the thousands of gritting staff who are working around the clock in sub-zero temperatures to treat roads and paths.
"We know that councils are using salt carefully and many have already implemented recommendations from the government-commissioned review on winter resilience which was published only a few weeks before the cold weather hit.
"Where there is room for improvement we would join Mr Quarmby in urging government to share technical evidence with councils on how to make salt go further," he said.
In a written ministerial statement responding to the report, Mr Hammond said he was asking the rail industry "to formulate proposals on contingency timetables, real-time information and third rail alternatives".
Mr Hammond added: "The report also refers to the extraordinary events that occurred on the M25 at junction three.
"Highways Agency officials have already briefed me on these events, and I look forward to a full report in due course analysing the incident and setting out the lessons that the agency has learnt."