Wednesday, 13 January 2010

No bus, snow Bus!

Schools in Jersey closed early yesterday, around 2.20 pm, as the snow and hail began to fall, so that the children would have time to get the school buses and get home safely. By 4.15 pm, the school buses had still not left as the bus inspectors were deciding - dithering might be a more appropriate word - on whether the buses should go or not, if the routes were safe enough. By this time, of course, the road surfaces had deteriorated still further, and the public bus service had been mostly cancelled completely.

The comments pages on the JEP have a lively correspondence on the buses not running (1).

One person writes:

We've just returned from Scandinavia, where it was up to a meter depth of snow, average temps down to minus 13 C, where it would be a joke to close schools, with parents not thinking twice about their children some as young as six walking or to ski to school, without worrying about their little darlings if they fall over, why? because like most sensible countries Norway is not caught up with the Exaggerated madness which ravages Britain called "Health and Safety"! Up there busses, trains and airports run as normal, people go to work by car as normal, as winter tyres are law, from Nov to March whether it snows or not. Before anyone says it, I can assure you Scandinavia hates winter, but they just get on with it, without any whining, and all that real winter hardly gets a mention in the media, don't believe it, then visit it, its stunning and an education that other countries could learn from.

Another writer takes a different tack, commenting on why snow chains were impractical for these sudden bursts of bad weather, as opposed to the thick and long standing levels of snow in Scandinavia.

In defence of Connex. If we had 6″ of snow on the ground I would expect them to fit snow chains and supply a service. As it is we have roads with 2″ in some places and 0″ in others. A fully laden Bus, approx 15 /20 tonnes running on snow chains with no snow would be an ideal way of smashing up the road surfaces. 15 / 20 tonnes of bus + 40 odd souls sliding downhill on ice into a bus queue does not sound too good either.

But another writer notes the difference between the older JMT buses which were narrower, and puts this down as part of the reason, although they also mention the snow chains impacting on the road surfaces.

Some interesting comments here. Connex can't run the buses on snow or ice for three reasons. The buses are too wide for a lot of the roads, they know that if the driver has to take evasive action, (usually to avoid a non professional car driver), the left side of the bus is gonna be ripped open risking passenger injury. Chains WILL damage the roads and they can't maintain a schedule anyway because the roads will be full of stuck vehicles. The gritters get stuck for the same reason.

A bus driver writes, and gives us an "inside view" on why the bus drivers refuse to drive:

Now are you sitting down, I'm about to defend Connex, or rather the bus drivers. We are good, but not supermen, the laws of physics still apply. During this week, I have refused to take a bus along part of a route until it was gritted. A 6 3/4 ton toboggan is not a fun ride! Why? Because I'm selfish, I'd rather you explain to your boss why you are late or can't get in, than me explain to a Coroner why you are dead don't think commuters blame the bus drivers for one moment, but many of them are a little vexed with the individuals who run Connex!

It doesn't explain why the JMT was running bus services in 1987, when I remember catching one from La Moye pub - they sensibly wouldn't go round Corbiere or down to St Brelade's Bay, but they did tackle St Aubin's hill. But perhaps buses were smaller then, and the bus drivers more used to driving in slippery conditions, or alternatively (which may be more likely) were prepared to take more risks.

But new snow tyres are suggested rather than snow chains:

How can anyone blame you for protecting yourself and your passengers? Your bosses should be thankful to you for being so wise. Furthermore, for the safety of all, Connex should invest in some new-generation snow tyres before even asking their drivers to take the buses out on hazardous roads.

Granted, your 'no-snow-roads-ruined-by-chains' scenario holds up but, I find it hard to see how anyone can really defend a company (Connex) which fails to invest in a few sets of winter tyres…New-generation snow/winter tyres don't have studs, therefore, do not cause any damage whatsoever to road surfaces…

Logistically, short bursts of bad weather do not make this feasible, as this writer comments. It would be worth knowing if Connex had snow chains and snow tyres in case of more prolonged and settled periods of snow, though.

Yes, snow tyres are good, but very "expensive". These tyres are also unsuitable and experience rapid wear when used on roads in normal conditions, and to say the least, the ride is uncomfortable. They can not be fitted in 15 minutes by the driver on the side of the road. In advance of inclement weather the wheels have to be removed by mechanics and the snow tyres fitted by tyre fitters. When the weather improves the process is reversed. From our recent experiences they would have been on and off at least 3 times in a fortnight.

So let's look at snow tyres in more detail. In some places, such as parts of Canada, they are required by law:

If you are driving in the winter remember Snow Tyres are now Law in Quebec! (2)

Remembering the writer who spoke of the Scandinavian countries, Norway has this policy in place, which is instructive because it shows there is an extra indirect tax on snow tyres because of their impact on the road surface:

Snow chains or winter tyres are advised during the winter (however, most urban areas now levy a toll on vehicles with studded tyres)(3)

Here in Luxembourg, we are required to have winter tyres, which makes driving in snow a great deal safer (4)

In Sweden there is next to no gritting either-there would be no point since it is too cold and snows too often. Instead people have the appropriate tyres and learn how to drive on compacted snow. As individuals we do not purchase a set of wheels with winter tyres because it is not cost-effective compared to the amount of use we'd get out of them in the UK. This is exactly the same type of cost-benefit analysis that councils have to perform when they decide how many gritters to buy and maintain etc.(4)

Modern winter tyres are not just designed for snow, however. The technology has improved:

Winter tyres are, in fact, designed not just for snow and ice but for any type of cold weather. Winter tyres have especially designed treads to move larger amounts of water than regular tyres, as well as coping with mud and snow, maintaining adhesion long after ordinary tyres lose grip. The softer rubber compound used in cold weather tyres provides excellent grip when the temperature falls below 0 degrees, moulding more easily to cold road surfaces and providing better braking in snow and ice. (5)

In fact, as Wikipedia mentions, winter tyres are actually softer rather than harder, so have less impact on road surfaces. It also mentions the possibility of studs, but notes that is never for heavier vehicles - like buses.

Mud and Snow, (or M+S, or M&S), is a classification for specific winter tires designed to provide improved performance under low temperature conditions, compared to all-season tires. The tread compound is usually softer than that used in tires for summer conditions, thus providing better grip on ice and snow, but wears more quickly at higher temperatures. Tires may have well above average numbers of sipes in the tread pattern to grip the ice.

Some winter tires may be designed to accept the installation of metal studs for additional traction on icy roads. The studs also roughen the ice, thus providing better friction between the ice and the soft rubber in winter tires. Use of studs is regulated in most countries, and even prohibited in some locales due to the increased road wear caused by studs. Typically, studs are never used on heavier vehicles.(6)

But I think, that despite the gripes about health and safety, that the bus driver has a point. One comment on another site in the UK puts this well from a UK bus driver:

The impression I am getting from a few posters here is that they consider that, once it becomes too dangerous for them to drive their own car due to snow and/or ice, it is perfectly acceptable to expect somebody else to drive them (and up to 80 other people) to where they want to be.

Now, I know that public transport should be available to all at all times and it is, if we're being honest, a trifle laughable that it grinds to a halt in inclement weather. I don't want to get into the whys and wherefores, or the Elf'n'Safety aspect but I would like to put across the bus driver's point of view.

It is a huge responsibility, and one that is rarely acknowledged in my opinion, to carry a bus load of passengers about safely and without incident. As a driver, you am responsible for the life of everybody on that bus and as one poster has already said, those passengers will be someone's mum, dad, son, daughter etc. Not only that, but you are also responsible for ensuring that you do not injure anybody not on the bus (if you see what I mean). When the roads are clear and the weather is fine, you can accept that responsibility and, by and large, that responsibility is totally within your control.

Add thick snow and sheet ice (as we have here) into the equation and the control that you exert over the situation diminishes rapidly. A full single decker (ie 49 seats) will weigh in total around eighteen tonnes and that is a lot of vehicle to keep on the straight and narrow. As another poster has said, once a bus starts to slide on ice all you can do hold on to the steering wheel and hope for the best. It is a terrifying experience and one that, once you have had you will not want to repeat ever again.(7)

In conclusion,

A) I think that Connex are certainly right to cancel bus services, except for those on the flat - to Gorey and to St Aubin, but they need to do more to educate the public on why they are doing this - the sheer physics of the situation. It should not be up to bus drivers to defend what is a very sensible policy. Some necessary PR from the bus company, or Transport and Technical Services is required.

B) It would also be worth knowing if they have contingencies such as snow chains or winter tyres for prolonged snow for at least a skeleton bus service.

C) Moreover, with school buses, to get children on buses, then off buses to wait again, and have over an hour between schools closing and buses leaving is simply not acceptable. The schools should have closed earlier before the snow settled, the buses departed promptly before the conditions got worse. I have spoken to people who have young children catching school buses who have been somewhat traumatised by the experience. There seems to have been in some cases certainly - rather like the Eurotunnel fiasco - no responsible adults taking charge and providing reassurance and information, which is what was needed in a crisis.

D) One really good point, for those with internet access, is the rolling display which shows disrupted services, or whether they are running on time at the which seems to be updated very promptly. I checked this morning, and knew at once that school buses and public services were running normally.

E) This could be improved further. A fixed "emergency" page, available via WAP on mobile phones, would be an even better improvement, as many phones can access mobile web pages (such as those excellent ones providing weather, tide times on Jersey Insight) and would enable the commuter on the move to instantly find out what is happening. After all, if Jersey Insight can provide such as WAP enabled service, it should be simple, and not too costly for Connex to do so.

Lastly, I cannot resist this anecdote posted by one commenter on the JEP website, which evokes a bit of wry humour from yesteryear.

I went to The Beeches, or De La Salle College, in the 60s and I can not recall anytime when we missed school through adverse weather. I can recall when we had snow and ice,in the mid 60s, some scallywag put water in the locks of one of the class rooms, so that when it froze, the teachers couldn't open the building for a while. Then of course there were the inevitable snow ball fights on the playground. Somehow I think the J.M.T. always managed to get us to school….not always popular in those days, as I am sure we would have preferred to have stayed at home.(1)


1 comment:

Keith said...

The question of do we need snow chains in the UK is interesting as we only get a little snow for such a short time each year. As I understand it, snow chains have to be taken off once you are not driving on snow and ice, so we would be continually taking them off and putting them back on again during one journey.