Heavy snowfall catches London officials off-guard

Much of city's transport is brought to halt

A cyclist rode through the snow in the morning rush hour in central London yesterday. The heavy snow caused nearly 800 flight cancellations and hundreds of school closures. A cyclist rode through the snow in the morning rush hour in central London yesterday. The heavy snow caused nearly 800 flight cancellations and hundreds of school closures. (Toby Melville/ Reuters)
By Gregory Katz
Associated Press / February 3, 2009
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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 trademark red buses and Underground trains yesterday, stranded thousands of airline passengers, and raised the question of why a predicted winter storm caught authorities so unprepared.

Transit officials had nearly a week to get ready, but they failed to keep things running normally in the capital, which was buried under more than 4 inches of snow overnight and another 4 inches in the afternoon.

Londoners who needed to get somewhere often found they couldn't - unless they were willing to walk for miles.

"There's no point in going to work today," said office worker Caroline Samuel, 36, after waiting for a train that never arrived. "I'm going home."

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 simply didn't run. Colossal traffic jams clogged roads because of fender benders and more serious accidents.

Mayor Boris Johnson said London lacks the plows and other equipment - mostly because buying it is a gamble with big snowfalls so rare.

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."

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 than in past years because of growing levels of 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."

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," he said.

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