Snowfall road chaos - agency criticised

HIGHWAYS Agency bosses have admitted a radio failure among its gritting teams worsened the roads chaos during January's snowstorms.But they said the communications breakdown – partially caused by the crippled mobile phone network – was "only a small part" of their problems during the cold weather.

By Jonathan Barnes

HIGHWAYS Agency bosses have admitted a radio failure among its gritting teams worsened the roads chaos during January's snowstorms.

But they said the communications breakdown – partially caused by the crippled mobile phone network – was "only a small part" of their problems during the cold weather.

Poor communication with the police, contractors, and the public also contributed to the chaos while an investigation is being carried out into the work carried out and its timing, an agency spokesperson said last night.


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The snowfall, on January 30 and 31, left thousands of drivers stranded on the M11 and M25 and facing a night in their cars. Many of the roads were not salted even though poor weather was forecast.

The radio failure – which prevented gritting lorries from responding quickly as temperatures fell – was revealed as the National Audit Office delivered a critical report on the agency, which touched upon the chaos.

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A spokesperson for the Highways Agency said: "There was an issue of a communication failure, but it only happened at one depot and was only a small part of the problems on the day.

"It was one of a number of issues that went towards creating the total problem. The main things were when the gritting was done and how it was carried out.

"Other problems included communications with the police and with contractors and communications with the general public.

"The biggest issue is clearing roads when there has been a major incident and the procedures in place to deal with these incidents."

But West Suffolk MP Richard Spring, who endured a 13-hour wait in his car outside Stansted Airport on the M11, accused the Highways Agency of "incompetence beyond incompetence".

"I'm pleased that at last there has been some progress on why this happened, but radio communication has nothing to do with the nub of the problem," he said.

"We all knew temperatures were going to drop but the Highways Agency simply did not grit all the roads. I have written to the Highways Agency asking for an explanation and have heard nothing."

The NAO's report found a number of deficiencies in the work of the agency, including not knowing if it is hitting road-gritting targets because full records are not kept.

It said the first investigations into the events of January 30 and 31 had "indicated temperatures dropped much quicker than forecast, giving agents less time to mobilise their gritting vehicles and that gritting was hindered by unexpectedly heavy traffic flows.

"These problems were compounded by a breakdown in communications between gritting vehicles and their control centres."

The NAO added the agency was now looking at any changes in procedures that might be necessary and reminding its staff that they "must err on the side of caution when marginal weather forecasts are received".

In its official statement, the Highways Agency said it welcomed the report and would be considering the 18 recommendations set out.

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