London buckles under worst snow in 18 years

Britons are shaking their heads at how 8 inches ground one of the world's busiest cities to a halt.

Toby Melville/Reuters
Delays: Commuters waited for the train at Clapham Junction Tuesday as London recovered from its worst snowfall in 18 years.

Something happened this week that was so unexpected, so chaotic, that life in one of the world's busiest and wealthiest cities ground to a halt.

Schools and businesses closed, roads emptied of traffic, and London's public transport network of buses and trains was paralyzed.

It snowed.

After the heaviest snowfall for 18 years on Sunday night – four inches overnight plus another four Monday – Britons were shaking their heads Tuesday at the lack of preparation for a storm that had been widely forecast.

A postmortem is now under way into how the country's transport system buckled so badly, particularly in the capital.

In London, 10 out of 11 subway lines were suspended on Monday, most buses were halted and all flights at Heathrow and London City airports were canceled, leaving thousands stranded.

On Sunday night, my friends had laughed at the mild choice of language used by the weather forecaster, who spoke of a "significant snow event."

By Monday morning all had changed after the southeast of England bore the brunt of the snow, which was as deep as 25 centimeters (10 inches) in Kent and Surrey, the counties bordering London.

Like thousands of others, we hit the public parks to savor an extremely rare experience, pelting one another with snowballs.

Helping a Brazilian family construct their first ever snowman, we remarked on how strangers seemed to be smiling at each other for a change.

Anne Widdecombe, a well-known Conservative member of Parliament who trudged to work on foot despite the snow, pointed out to me the positive effects of the snow on life in the city: "I spoke to people on my street who I had never spoken to before, simply because we had time."

"Normally, everyone here is rushing around to get from one queue to the next, that's the way it is with any big city. But for once we all slowed down."

"Of course, we knew this was coming, and the stoppages could have been avoided simply by having gritters [sanders] and snow plows out in time. But we haven't got a clue," she added.

The sense of Britain's inability to deal with a few snowflakes was illustrated almost gleefully by the media.

Correspondents in foreign capitals were dispatched to tell us all how the Russians or Swedes easily coped with much worse conditions on a regular basis.

The winter fun has not come cheap, however.

The cost to the British economy from Monday's stoppages and closures is estimated at $1.7 billion in lost working hours – a bill which Britain can ill afford in the middle of a recession.

Almost 6.5 million people – almost a fifth of Britain's workforce – are estimated by the country's Federation of Small Businesses to have stayed away from work on Monday.

Though most public transportation started working again by Tuesday, thousands of employees decided to take a second day off.

Government agencies charged with keeping the country moving faced the music Tuesday, as did London's Mayor Boris Johnson.

He told the BBC that London's familiar red buses – each weighing 12 tons – would have been turned into "lethal weapons" if they had been allowed on to the streets.

The rarity of snow in the city meant it would be uneconomical to purchase New York-style snowplows, he argued.

But his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, said there had been abundant time to prepare: "There has never been a day where the bus service has been canceled for bad weather – not in 100 years."

Another favorite punching bag for many Britons also took a pummeling – health and safety laws.

After 3,000 schools were shut on Monday, callers to radio phone-in shows vented their anger at how health and safety regulations were cited by some head teachers as the reason for the closures.

Faced with angry parents who had to take time off work to care for their children, the government minister charged with overseeing England's schools, Ed Balls, admitted that in retrospect some schools could have stayed open but insisted that decisions had been taken responsibly due to forecast conditions.

More than 1,000 schools remained closed on Tuesday.

By then, a slushy normality was reigning again on London's streets as the snowfalls began to move toward England's hilly north and to Scotland.

However, even as snowmen slowly melted on street corners, weather forecasters were last night tentatively warning that it may not be over.

Virtually every part of Britain was set to shiver through heavy frosts on Tuesday night, while further heavy snow could be on the way again by the end of this week.

London is bracing itself for Round 2.

Perhaps this time the plows will be ready.

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