Enjoying the stairway to snow heaven

by Nikki's world, with Nikki White Tuesday, February 7 2012

When we get snow – or even just the threat of it – we somehow seem to go into panic mode. We stock up on enough milk and bread to see us through the next month and wonder when life will ever be the same again.

I’ve just come back from a week skiing and when it comes to snow, the French (or anyone who lives with the white stuff on the ground for about four months of the year) can definitely teach us a thing or two.

It’s a simple solution. They just shrug their shoulders and get on with it. If they can’t go anywhere, they stay in and crack open a bottle or two.

Take, for instance, the day we were all supposed to be going tobogganing. Not just any old tobogganing but down a 6km run.

We’d been gearing up for it all week, so you can imagine how disappointed we were when the snow arrived and just kept falling. Visibility was down to just a few metres and they cancelled the trip.

“No probleme!” declared the hotel staff. We had been promised tobogganing and that’s what we were going to get. They then spent the next half an hour gathering all the soft furnishings they could lay their hands on to build a giant cushion at the foot of the lobby stairs. They covered the stairs and cushions with a giant tarpaulin and then started shovelling snow from outside.

After much whacking down with a shovel, the run was complete and so we spent the next half an hour watching one person after another shoot down the staircase on a sledge.

Now, if I’m honest, it probably wasn’t the safest thing in the world to do (particularly for the man who tried to come down standing up) and I really wouldn’t recommend that you try it at home, but there were no broken bones, just a few dented egos and plenty of laughs.

So at the very least, I’ve got my own toboggan ready and I’ll be challenging the neighbours to a race down the nearby hill.

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Categories: snow | Weather

Let’s face it, we don’t do snow

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Tuesday, December 21 2010

Let’s face it, we don’t do snow. While railway systems and airports in cold places worldwide can cope, we are just not geared up for the white stuff.

It is costing billions in lost business and productivity, not to mention the cost to millions of people. Friends in Canada report that snow there is umpteen feet deep, but all transport systems are working normally. There has to be sympathy for the thousands of people stranded at airports and St Pancras International, many of them from overseas.

The message they are getting from the snow debacle is that we are a third-rate country who cannot get the world’s busiest airport back in action. Even if we don’t have enough hardware to clear the stuff, at least we could try to excel at communications and public relations.

But the stranded passengers have been badly let down by the absence of information. It’s a poor show, and a classic case study for PR professionals. They should have been working alongside the operations people to keep people informed. People accept that nature happens, but when they are not told anything, they do not know what decisions to make. They need reassurance and information is one way of doing it. Give Southeastern its due, it seems to have heeded the information gaps of January and early December to up its game.

Its website has been pretty much up-to-date, with station signage and announcements better than before. And it actually kept a lot of trains running. It is natural to blame the Government for every woe, but without adequate preparation there’s not a lot it can do.

The previous administration would have been no different. It did not properly prepare for lots of snow, and the present lot have continued that policy. However, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond needs to act quickly to reassure his boss and the public that he is in charge.

He has generally made a good start, and actually seems to know about transport, but he could come a cropper if he fouls up the snow issue. I know that snow has been rare in recent years, and that encouraged complacency. But the lessons of January and December suggest we may be in for a lot more of it.

Even if we are not, it is important politically to invest substantial sums in technology. Even more important to devise a rapid response Snow Action Plan that can be ready to implement every time. It needs to involve ministers, airport, airline, rail and road chiefs to ensure that we are never caught in such an embarrassing position again.

It will cost a lot of money - not something the Coalition wants to contemplate - the technology may not be needed very often, but the UK has to be seen to demonstrate that it is preparing for a next time. Otherwise it will never live down a battered reputation for crisis management. It really is time we did snow and stopped all this slipping and sliding that tells the world that we are not up to the job.

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Categories: Business | snow | Trains | Transport

Snow and Southeastern

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Friday, December 17 2010

Forget talk of a double dip recession for a moment. Double dose of snow is the main problem for businesses just now.

The white stuff is all around us again as the last clumps of dirty ice from the previous snowfall still linger in gutter and field. A deep snowfall would put a real damper on last-minute spending over the next few days, even though shoppers will do their best to get out and keep those tills jingling, especially as online shopping seems a no-no.

The big weakness with Internet shopping is you have to rely on someone delivering your items, and at busy times there are not enough people. When there is snow, vans cannot get through. Millions of gifts are piling up in distribution centres and there will be lots of disappointed people on December 25.

If you order online now, it could well be 2011 before the items arrive. That’s good news for the bricks and mortar retailers as shoppers get back to dealing with real people and handling real things. Hopefully, Southeastern will have learned lessons from last week’s chaos.

To be fair, it was not all their fault, and Network Rail made a mess of de-icing by putting two trains into maintenance as the snow deepened. Southeastern prides itself on getting information right on its website but has blamed the national rail inquiry service for not using the right information, making it seem that trains are running when they are not. I spoke to Vince Lucas, the operator’s service delivery director, at the first anniversary celebrations for High Speed 1 (a real snow success story).

He admitted there were things they could improve, especially on the information front. “Our website had a pretty accurate picture of what was happening. Unfortunately, many people looking on their iPhone or computers were getting feeds from National Rail Enquiries.”

As for those unlucky people stranded for hours in trains, he said it was safer to keep them inside the train than allow them to wander alongside the track in sub-zero temperatures without the right clothing. Apparently, there is a heating strip on the third rail, but Mr Lucas says it would take huge amounts of energy to heat it all.

And the snow was so deep in places that no heating in the world would have made any difference. There are calls for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise but these are knee-jerk reactions to the mess it made of the snow communications.

Season ticket holders may not get any compensation because of Southeastern’s reasonable performance the rest of the year. That is a blessing in disguise. At least it shows that when snow is not around, Southeastern doesn’t do a bad job. They should not be fired for failing to cover themselves in glory in extreme weather conditions. Even the Swiss might have had problems with the wrong sort of track with which Kent is stuck.

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Categories: Business | snow | Southeastern | Trains | Transport

All Night Train

by The What's On blog, with Chris Price Friday, December 3 2010

Devotion to the cause is one thing but snow covered train tracks, nightmarish roads and slippery pathways have made supporting your favourite band like a snowplough clearing a Himalayan avalanche this week.


I have always been a man of my word but the bravado of my previous blog’s “call-to-arms” at Kent’s gig-going fraternity so nearly came crashing down on me.  


The spirit of rock and roll should implore you to support your favourite band no matter the obstruction or journey time” I said from the comfort of my desk chair. Little did I know the frustration I was about to endure, made worse by the feeling of helplessness against the elements. 


I set off to see Arcade Fire at the O2 Arena last night (Thursday, December 2) at about 5pm. I wasn’t too worried about seeing whoever was supporting. The main aim was to meet a mate of mine up there for a few beers and to head in for Arcade Fire a little while before they were due to start at 9pm. What could possibly go wrong?


The train to London Bridge, where I planned to get the tube on the Jubilee Line to the O2, was due to leave at 5.18pm but I accepted there would be a delay. The ticket operator advised the next train should be about 40 minutes despite the snow covered line, pictured.


Two hours and a quarter later I am still waiting for a train to arrive with no hint on when the next one will be. At this point my mate Mark has already made it to the O2 from where he works at Bexleyheath. We are losing valuable drinking time and it looks like I am only just about going to make it for Arcade Fire. A train finally pulls in at 7.30pm.


Okay so I’ll allow double time to get to London Bridge – a 40 minute journey. With the tube that should mean I reach the O2 just in the nick of time for Arcade Fire. Happy days! We’re on again! Or so I thought.


What followed was a one and a half hour journey from Gravesend to Dartford. This normally takes about 10 minutes. The train struggled with the hilly route, unable to draw power from the line. It would travel 100 yards, then go back 50 so it could take a run up to do another 100 yards. At this point I was a broken man.


I called Mark and told him to go home. At this rate I would be lucky to make it to London Bridge by Christmas. He was gutted but understood. I just felt guilty because he had made it there and I was stuck on a train with the tickets.


Then a glimmer of hope. The train was terminating at Dartford but another service was running to London Bridge via Greenwich and rumour had it the line was clear.


As I stepped onto the platform I asked the conductor what the chances were of making it to London tonight was. “This is the only line that has not had a delay on it all day” she said. I felt elation.


“Mark turn around you have to come back mate” I said frantically on the phone. “This train is apparently fine and I reckon I’ll beat Greenwich for 9.30pm.”


And on it went, flying like the wind. Plan A was long out the window and I hopped off at Greenwich and hailed a taxi. At this point Mark had returned with his car and parked up at a nearby Odeon cinema. Bless him – he originally got the bus from work so he could have a beer, then when I told him it was all over he got back on the bus to Bexleyheath only to drive his car all the way back to the O2. We picked him up on the way and pulled up at the arena at 9.55pm.


We legged it to entrance F which was right on the other side of the main entrance. With tickets scanned we hurtled in to find Arcade Fire just as they were about to begin their track The Suburbs. The feeling was amazing. It looked all over but we had made it after a five hour journey. It was close to the feeling I had when Ole Gunnar Solskjær poked in the winner in the 1999 Champions League final for Man Utd in the 93rd minute in a game which had looked out of reach for so long. Close.


And the gig? Worth every travelling minute. Arcade Fire will be a classic stadium rock band, ending their set with Wake Up, a song made for arenas as impressive as the O2. Would I do it again? You bet!

Categories: Communting | Entertainment | Showbiz | snow | Southeastern

Kent paralysed by snow: Who's to blame?

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, December 2 2010

The inevitable inquest begins.

Why does every piece of transport go to pot in the snow in Kent and the UK?

Why can’t we be like the Swiss, the Austrians or the Scandinavians, goes the argument? KCC leader Paul Carter, who launched his gridlock-solving strategy on a day of extreme gridlock, suggests we should all invest in snow chains so we can at least drive our cars. But that would not be much help on the railways.

Blame flies everywhere. Just as last January, Southeastern is the whipping boy. Understandable, if you are stranded at a station or stuck in a cold carriage for hours on end. And more so when you are charged a fortune for the privilege.

The lack of information, the main complaint last time, has been the main problem this time around. Why on earth in this age of modern communications a steady flow of information should not be readily available is beyond me. It is little help for the operator’s spokespeople to say the website is updated.

Few people have Blackberries and other devices to access the internet remotely. And info is often overtaken by events. What passengers need are real announcements at regular intervals at stations and inside the trains.

They need to feel someone knows what they are doing and to have confidence in the staff. Unfortunately, both are sadly lacking, for all the efforts and passion of the rail crews. But it's over-the-top to call for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise.

In more weather-friendly times, they have been doing a reasonably good job. And Network Rail probably should shoulder some of the blame. Southeastern has a partial technical excuse in that the third rail system with its conductor is appalling in bad weather.

Just look at the high-speed and Eurostar trains working pretty well with the overhead catenary. It would be great to replace the third rail with catenary, but in the present financial climate that’s unlikely to happen.

But I’m sure a technical whizz should be able to build heating systems into the third rail and the conductor pick-up. Some veterans seem to think things are worse now than they were a few years ago when the the system was the same. Has it got worse??

SouthEastern does not appear to have learnt much from January, and it should show a readiness to compensate season ticket holders for abysmal service, notwithstanding the harsh conditions. With commuters facing a swingeing inflation-busting increase in January, it would be a nice PR gesture to postpone the increase for a month or two.

How about it Southeastern – and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond? Passengers deserve compensation for their ordeal - as well as a decent snow-busting plan next time around. This chaos cannot be allowed to happen again, disrupting so many lives, damaging the economy and harming so many Kent businesses.

Categories: Business | snow | Trains | Transport

Against All Odds

by The What's On blog, with Chris Price Wednesday, December 1 2010

OK, so the snow has wrecked just about every single travel route in Kent.

I joined the hundreds of commuters stuck on the gridlocked A2 yesterday (Tuesday, November 30) until I swerved off the pandemonium onto the hard-shoulder for about 300 yards (very naughty I know) and took the next junction off the motorway and made my way home through the country lanes.


London is slightly different. You can actually get from A to B, albeit at a snail’s pace in some instances. I know from the ear-ache I’ve been getting from my commuter dad and brother that there are no excuses for city workers heading into the capital. The trains are slowly running from my home town of Gravesend into the Big Smoke but I know delays have been much heavier for commuters from other areas of Kent. We have all heard stories of people stranded on trains on their way home on four-hour journeys.


So it is with this knowledge that I fear for anyone going to see Arcade Fire at the O2 Arena tonight (Wednesday, December 1) or tomorrow. Although I appreciate travelling is tough at the moment, I’ll be hacked off if the venue is half empty for a set from one of the best live acts in the world at the moment.


A gig is nothing without atmosphere and while tonight’s performance is sold out and tomorrow’s (which I am going to) has only some additional seating left for sale, I fear the worst for the attendance levels.


What would the Canadian outfit think of what happens to this country when we get a few inches of snow? Of course, the UK’s budget for dealing with this level of snowfall is much smaller than that of the North Americans but that will not stop the sniggers from our cousins across the Atlantic. It might also dissuade Arcade Fire from playing over here at this time of year again.


To be honest I was a bit miffed when I heard their headline sets at the Reading and Leeds Festivals this summer were poorly attended. This was largely down to scepticism from ticket buyers about the Montreal band getting bill topper status when they had only released two albums.


Yet when they released their mind-blowing third effort The Suburbs in the spring, it should have silenced the doubters and made for a sensational gig. Let’s face it, the other two headline acts were Guns and Roses, whose frontman Axl Rose showed up an hour late, and the brilliant but slightly dated Blink 182.


So for anyone out there umming or arring about whether to brave the cold and hop on a train to the O2 (I am not advocating driving – this is clearly not safe at the moment) then this is a call to arms. The spirit of rock and roll should implore you to support your favourite band no matter the obstruction or journey time.


It is not as if you’ll be suffering delays for a train that is going to take you to work, where you don’t want to be anyway, is it?

Categories: Celebrities | Commuting | Entertainment | Leisure | Trains | snow

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