Severe Weather

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:35 pm on 8th December 2010.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:35 pm, 8th December 2010

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.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 2:37 pm, 8th December 2010

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.]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. There is too much noise.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

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.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The minister will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in his statement. We have approximately 20 minutes and certainly no longer, after which we will move to the next item of business, so brevity would be appreciated.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

We are here because we have just seen the worst gridlock in living memory. Hundreds of drivers spent the night in their vehicles on the M8, hundreds more bus passengers were stranded on the M80 and many others endured a similar grim experience in sub-zero temperatures across Scotland. Meanwhile, the transport minister was on the BBC claiming a "first-class response" and refusing to apologise. In fact, it was a first-class cock-up and he was responsible.

The transport minister wriggles and squirms and pushes the blame on to others. He blames the weatherman. The problem was not the weather forecast or the Met Office; the problem was his totally inadequate response. This morning, the First Minister was on the radio and last night the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth was on the television. Was the transport minister in hibernation? If the Scottish Government will not trust him to speak to the public, how can the public trust him to keep their roads and railways moving? Does he regard it as acceptable that Gail McGrane of the BBC was providing more accurate information to the public than he was? Travellers should have been given much clearer advice and told to stay at home or at least to delay their journeys to allow proper action to take place.

I regret that, in the light of the minister's statement, sorry is not good enough. Will he take responsibility, admit his incompetence and go?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I will not resile from describing the efforts of the staff in local authorities, Government, business and the voluntary sector in very difficult circumstances as deserving the highest commendation. The member might not have been watching the communication from the minister over the piece; it has been substantial.

Let me return to the straightforward issue of the specific words that the Met Office provided at 10:37 on Monday:

"The band of snow that moved south-eastwards 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."

Those are not my words, but the words of the Met Office at 10:37, and—this goes to the whole point of today's statement—they are very different from the words of the Met Office at 08:01 on Monday, when we were still seeing predictions in line with what the BBC forecasters were saying of 2cm to 5cm of snow with 10cm over the hills. It is very clear that we moved to deal with the conditions that were forecast. We then responded to the change that reality brought, which was divergent from the forecast that was provided.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The minister has said sorry, and rightly so. That is fast becoming a habit for what is becoming an apology of a Government on issue after issue. We have heard about the weather forecasts on which the Government was reliant. I was watching television on Sunday night when the BBC displayed a graphic of a blizzard of snow blocking out the whole of central Scotland. If I could see that, and millions of other Scots could see it, why could not the Scottish Government see it and take decisions to act more expeditiously than it did to bring the additional resources to which the minister referred to bear on the problem? Is it not the case that the response was wholly inadequate relative to the information available to the public as a whole? Will the minister tell us what he is planning to do to correct the situation?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

We were working on exactly the same information. We knew that snow was coming and that the depth forecast was 2cm to 5cm. The preparations that we put in hand—the deployment of gritters and the preparation of snowploughs ready to respond—were exactly in accord with the forecast that we were provided with and which was confirmed at one minute past eight on Monday morning.

I remind members that the reality was that the actual falls were in many cases more than twice the maximum prediction of 10cm of snow over the hills. The reality was that we had as much as 20cm—twice that maximum—in areas that could not be described sensibly as hills. We responded immediately to that and made sure that we moved resources from elsewhere in Scotland to respond to the unprecedented—a word that the police used—conditions that we faced.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

Last week, the minister proclaimed that Scotland was ready for the Arctic blast and that lessons had been learned from last winter. How wrong could he be? People are making heroic efforts to get to work—doctors and nurses, carers, bus drivers and shopkeepers are all doing their bit to help the economy to keep going and to safeguard vulnerable people. They have all been let down by a bumbling transport minister who did not do his bit and who allowed vital strategic links to seize up. He is so out of touch that he announced to the world that his Government was providing a "first-class response" at the very moment when thousands of people were stranded.

When did the resilience unit pack up and go home on Sunday? Did the minister sanction that? He asks us to believe that the Government received no forecasts between 16:01 on Sunday and 08:01 on Monday, yet across Scotland householders were tuning into updated Sunday evening severe weather warnings. Why did he turn a deaf ear to those warnings? He must explain himself. Until yesterday, nobody was suggesting that Stewart Stevenson should personally clear the snow, but now that would be the best thing that he could do—he should leave the chamber, pick up a shovel and start digging. It is time for him to make amends.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The updated forecasts that many saw on the BBC were precisely those that were in our hands at 16:01 and on which we based our overnight response.

I associate myself absolutely with Alison McInnes's remarks about people throughout Scotland responding in the best possible way.

The question whether we were ready for winter was—properly—posed. I acknowledge that, on communication, we did not have everything in place. We had the Traveline Scotland helpline, which was operational, but it became clear that we needed additional facilities. Thanks to the good offices of Strathclyde Police, public access was provided to its control room. The fact that we did that was justified—we received 7,000 calls in the first 12 hours. I acknowledge absolutely that that was an important change in our direction, which we undertook in response to communication issues.

Were we ready for winter more generally? One key lesson from last year related to whether we had enough salt and grit. This year, we have six times as much material waiting to be deployed. However, I remind members of the inescapable fact that salt has no effect on the road network when temperatures fall below -10°. Overnight, we had a temperature of -17°, and we expect very low temperatures today.

Not even six times the amount is all. We have placed a further order for salt, which is to be delivered in four weeks' time, to ensure that, as we consume the substantially greater amount of salt that we have this winter in comparison with the previous winter, we respond to that depletion by continuing to top it up. I have discussed that situation with United Kingdom ministers, who hope that what we have done will be replicated elsewhere.

The preparations that we made did not accommodate the conditions that we experienced, but we learned substantial lessons from the previous winter.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We move to open questions. I do not have a hope of fitting in everybody but, if questions are brief and answers mirror that, we will do what we can.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

In addition to putting on record my thanks to West Lothian Council staff, I thank Scottish Prison Service staff, whose endeavours in this climate often go unnoticed.

The situation of train services in and around Livingston is desperate. The worst example is that no trains have left Livingston North station in the past 10 days, which has forced thousands of my constituents on to hazardous roads. Given that rail services are fragmented—they involve ScotRail, Network Rail, Transport Scotland and so forth—what does the minister think that we can and must do to get rail services in West Lothian and throughout Scotland on a par with those in other cauld and snowy northern European countries?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Angela Constance makes good and proper points. A particular issue in the rail network is heating the points at the junction where the line to Bathgate and Livingston North leaves the main line from Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk.

Network Rail has squads of staff monitoring as many junctions as possible, but they have not defeated the ice in every case. They have even used heated blankets over some points, which has been of some value. We will ask Network Rail to examine that issue further. The organisation has done well, but it, too, feels that it will have lessons to learn.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

Does the minister accept that it adds insult to injury for all those who are affected by disruption to the rail network that it has been hard for passengers to obtain reliable information before they travel or on the platform? As he is a party to a series of rail franchises that involve paying £600 million of taxpayers' money to ScotRail and Network Rail, what has he done to establish why rail travel information has been so poor, why Network Rail has been unable to address frozen points throughout the network and why the east coast operator has not run a single one of its services to Aberdeen or Inverness not only this week but for a large part of last week?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am prepared to be corrected, but I believe that there have been services both from Aberdeen to Inverness and Glasgow and Edinburgh—

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I know that I should not take sedentary interventions, Presiding Officer, but the member has clarified that East Coast is the issue, not the franchise for which we are responsible.

I have received communication—[Interruption.] I make it clear that I have received communication from the managing director of East Coast trains about the very real difficulties in the network, not simply in Scotland but south of the border, meaning that journey times are substantially extended. The choice that the company has to make is between taking trains on the whole journey—there is a not-as-good alternative of putting people on ScotRail so that they reach their destination—and, because journeys are taking longer, reducing the number of services. The operational decision that the company made was to preserve the number of services and for people to travel on First ScotRail. Again, in the review of the situation, we will discuss the matter. I will discuss it with my opposite number south of the border, who is responsible for the east coast franchise.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

I apologise to the minister for missing much of his statement. He will know that the Glasgow to Edinburgh rail service was paralysed for most of this morning. People were queuing outside the station and into George Square in the freezing cold.

The minister has repeatedly said that comprehensive lessons were learned from last year. Beyond ordering more salt, what are the comprehensive lessons that were learned? Beyond ordering more salt, what specific measures did the minister implement?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The problems that affected Jackson Carlaw and perhaps other members in the chamber related to failures in the Polmont area, where there were particularly low temperatures. One consequence of Network Rail's focus on key junctions is that alternate routes have not been available. That might have been the case with some of the failures in the Polmont area going via Falkirk Grahamston. That has been one of the difficulties. The impact of failures has been much greater than normal. I understand, and the presence of Jackson Carlaw in the chamber might support this, that the failures have been cleared. We have asked again for further information on why those failures occurred.

Jackson Carlaw asked what else we have done. Through First ScotRail, we have improved, to an extent, the weather proofing of some of the rolling stock. That has been of value, although accumulations of ice have largely negated some of the steps that have been taken. The camera system around our network has been improved, and we will look to make further improvements in light of this year's issues. Of course, the strategies for the deployment of grit and salt have been reviewed and revised.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The minister has placed heavy reliance on quoting the Met Office in his defence, but that surely misses the point. He is part of a resilience process that is supposed to plan for all manner of contingencies. When ministers got the Met Office forecast of 2cm to 5cm of snow, can we take it that that was all they planned for and that they did not think that anything worse would happen until they heard it from the Met Office on Monday and on Tuesday morning? That response is simply not credible. What is the purpose of a contingency process if it does not plan for the worst contingency? [ Applause .]

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The member should be aware, of course, that although we were hit severely in the central belt, there were forecasts for snow throughout Scotland. What actually happened was that a substantially higher amount of snow fell on the central belt than was expected and rather less elsewhere. What we then did as a contingent response to an unforecast event—


Answer the question!

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The member is asking; I hope that I am answering.

We moved additional equipment from further north during Monday. We did that precisely in response to that unforecast event in central Scotland, having satisfied ourselves that the equipment would not be required further north. We have continued to move equipment around Scotland. That is precisely the kind of contingency planning that has to be in place. Let me—very gently—say to the chamber that there is little point taking equipment away from one area to help another if a set of problems is immediately created elsewhere.

We have taken a balanced approach, with a contingency plan that swung into action and brought in additional equipment precisely as planned.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

Unlike many Opposition members, who do not say what should be done, I will ask the minister about something that could help many people immediately. Can he order councils to grit pavements, so that pedestrians can walk to the shops, to work and to school; to provide grit bins, if they are not there, and to refill those that are; and to stop piling snow from road clearing on to pavements?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is part of the resilience team, and it is clear that it understands the need to do what the member describes. It is also working with private retail outlets, many of which have resources. I will not order councils, but they are inside the tent and I will ensure that they get the message and respond.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Does the minister accept that individuals and families who were stuck on motorways, without information and advice, fearful of running out of petrol—with no effort apparently having been made to identify and prioritise help to vulnerable passengers, including children and people with medical problems—will simply not accept his statement that the Government responded quickly and will see his complacency and lack of humility as part of the problem that they suffered?

When did the minister realise that his back-to-work strategy was not working? Where was he from that point, and what did he do before the belated meeting at 8 o'clock at night? Will he respond to the man on the motorway hard shoulder who said that someone should pay and that, in his view, it should be the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change? If not the transport minister, who should take responsibility and go in response to the dreadful circumstances that people face?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The 8 pm meeting was the second resilience meeting of the day; there had been one in the morning. In response to that meeting, an extra 1,000 police were out to engage with the people who—I absolutely accept—were finding conditions on our roads so difficult. Those people were receiving quality support from 1,000 policemen.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I apologise to the eight members whom I have been unable to call.