London shut down by its biggest snowfall in 18 years

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

LONDON -- It was hardly a blizzard, but it still shut down the city that beat the Blitz.

The biggest snowfall to hit London in 18 years idled the city's buses and Underground trains Monday, stranded thousands of airline passengers and raised the question of why a predicted winter storm caught authorities unprepared.

Transit officials had nearly a week to get ready, but they failed to keep things running normally in the capital, which received more than four inches of snow overnight and another four inches in the afternoon.

All five of the capital's airports briefly shut down -- with nearly 800 flights canceled throughout the day and thousands of passengers stranded. An international flight skidded off a taxiway at Heathrow, causing no injuries.

The city's extensive bus network was completely closed for most of the day and many trains didn't run. Traffic jams clogged roads because of fender benders and more serious accidents.

London's Ambulance Service's operations director Richard Webber said the bad weather had put the department under severe pressure, adding that it will respond only to calls from people with life-threatening injuries or illnesses.

Some people strapped on cross-country skis to get around; others spent the day sledding with their children.

Problems extended to France and Ireland as well, with airports in both countries reporting numerous delays and cancellations and motorists facing icy hazards.

Mayor Boris Johnson conceded that London lacked the plows and other equipment -- mostly because buying it is a gamble with big snowfalls so rare here.

The usually jokey, upbeat mayor said "the volume of snow was so huge" that the city's efforts to keep up were doomed and that skidding buses could become "a lethal weapon."

The mayor's official spokesman denied that concerns about insurance coverage led to the decision to keep the buses off the streets.

"It never got that far," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. "It was a basic safety issue. It might have caused some inconvenience, but it's nothing compared to the damage that could be done by a 12-ton vehicle cruising over crushed ice. The roads weren't fit."

Richard Tracey, conservative leader on transport for the London Assembly told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the bus company's willingness to deal with snow is different from in past years because of growing levels of health and safety legislation.

"I think the public are prepared to go out, but the bus drivers and the companies won't drive if there's even the tiniest risk of the bus skidding and people being injured," Tracey said. "Government legislation, European legislation and all that, that's what stops these things."

Former Mayor Ken Livingstone blasted London's storm preparations. He said it had been more than a century since the city buses were idled.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the government was doing "everything possible" to keep transit systems operating.

The harsh conditions led to hundreds of school closures, and many courts shut as well, including London's landmark Old Bailey. Hospitals remained open, but staffing levels were reduced.

Harried transport officials defended the system despite its near total breakdown.

The Underground subway network was hard hit because much of the system is actually above ground -- and when even one line gets shut down, it has a domino effect on the others.

A Transport for London spokesman said the agency must largely rely on London's local councils to treat roads -- and that not all of the councils have the same level of ability to deal with a heavy snowfall.

"We're not in Russia here," said Guy Pitt, a press officer for the agency. "We don't have an infrastructure built for constant snow."

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