Britain slips, slides, and stays home as winter snow roils Europe

An early bout of winter snow across Europe has brought a frustrated Britain to a standstill. London's Gatwick Airport is closed until Friday, while police try to fend off calls about snowball 'incidents.'

Akira Suemori/AP Photo
A airport employee clears snow on the runways to reopen the London City Airport as a British Airways plane is seen in the background in London, Dec. 2. More heavy snow caused havoc across Britain on Thursday disrupting plane and rail services and leaving travelers stranded.

An annual British tradition is taking place earlier than usual: the yearly bout of soul-searching after a few flakes of snow bring the country to a grinding standstill.

OK, so more than a few flakes dropped in the past 48 hours. The internationally important Gatwick Airport remained closed until Friday morning after 6 inches of the white stuff came down overnight, while more than 6,500 schools were closed Thursday around the country.

But, like clockwork, questions are being voiced once again about why the UK has allowed itself to be caught out after similar conditions in January of this year and during the winter before.

"Why did we slide into chaos?” demanded the Daily Telegraph

“So where are the gritters?” echoed the Daily Express, a familiar complaint focusing on the apparent slowness of local government authorities to dispatch vehicles spreading "grit" in the form of salt or sand onto roads.

Across the UK, Britons awoke and found that they would be unable to make it to work, contributing to what is expected to be an overall hit of more than $1.5 billion a day to Britain’s already fragile economy.

Across Europe, freezing temperatures and snowy weather this week snarled airports, closed highways, and shut down rail lines. The bad weather has been blamed for more than 30 deaths. In Britain, in the worst-hit areas of Scotland, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and southeast England, police advised the public not to travel unless absolutely necessary.

Most miserable of all perhaps were the passengers on a train to the English south coast resort of Brighton who reportedly had to sleep in train cars Wednesday night.

In the north, dozens of drivers spent a second night at a Methodist chapel near the city of Sheffield after being stranded on the A57 motorway since Tuesday evening. They were forced to abandon their vehicles.

So just how could the authorities in a northern European country where weather conditions can be, to say the least, unpredictable, be so unprepared?

“Comparisons are being drawn with Scandinavia and Canada and so on,” said Derek Quarmby, the Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) foundation, who was asked by the government to undertake an urgent review into how Britain’s transport infrastructure has coped.

“But the real difference is that those countries always get severe winters. They know almost to the week when it’s going to come, how long it’s going to last, how much it is going to be and they organize themselves for it.”

He told the BBC in a radio interview Thursday morning: “Our pattern is really very, very different. This year, winter has come early and it has come quiet severely.”

Among his suggestions were greater investment in snowplows, the use of more widespread contracts with farmers who have tractors that could be temporarily converted into plows, and improvements to systems for keeping rail passengers and other commuters informed.

Another problem: snowballs. Police switchboard operators in the central English county of Nottinghamshire have received hundreds of calls about people throwing snowballs in the last two days.

“We are advising people to only ring us if there is an incident with snowball-throwing that it seems only police can deal with,” the force said in a statement it felt compelled to make.

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