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Analysis: Snowbound Britain highlights need for resilience

Operators of vital networks need to be better prepared for unusual events, E&T discovers. 

It's a freezing afternoon in December. At London's St Pancras station two official-looking types are examining the doors of a train destined for Luton Airport. The train is packed with passengers desperate to catch a flight before Christmas. Heathrow and Gatwick are snow-bound and Luton offers an alternative escape route.

After 40 minutes, the driver asks everyone to move to a different train because ice has jammed the door mechanisms. Halfway to Luton, he is back on the intercom. The airport has been closed because of the icy conditions. 'Wrong type of doors, wrong kind of weather, wrong time of year,' someone mutters, referring to the now infamous 'wrong kind of snow' that British Rail blamed for winter disruption in 1991.

Most of us will have similar tales about how the UK's infrastructure's failed to cope with the coldest December in Britain since 1910. And yet, globally speaking, 2010 was one of the warmest years ever.

The need to adapt our transport, energy, water and communications networks to climate change has been a hot topic in government and engineering ever since floods led to power failures and the loss of water supplies across three counties in 2007. A near breach of the Ulley Reservoir dam at the time also threatened to inundate the M1 motorway, a major electricity substation and a gas network connection for Sheffield, highlighting the interdependence of some of our key assets. Two years later, during the Cumbrian floods, there was a real example of this kind of 'cascade failure' when a bridge collapsed that carried 312 fibre-optic circuits serving 40,000 people, including the police.

Disruption by snow and ice doesn't feature in climate change projections for the UK. Known as UKCP09, these predict more frequent extreme events like heat waves, storms, floods and droughts but warmer, wetter winters. However, an article in the Guardian by environmental writer George Monbiot suggests that the last two unusually cold winters might be due to heat elsewhere. Global temperature maps from NASA show a deep blue splodge over Iceland, Spitsbergen, Scandinavia and the UK in November, and another over Western US and Eastern Pacific. Temperatures in these regions were between 0.5 and 4'C lower than the November average from 1951 and 1980. 'But on either side of these cool blue pools are raging fires of orange, red and maroon,' said Monbiot.

We certainly need a better understanding of how global warming will influence UK weather in the long term. But what about the infrastructure, which seems so vulnerable?

Short-term susceptibilities are being handled through the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Programme, established by the Natural Hazards Team, which is working with government to develop Sector Resilience Plans. These will form part of a longer consultation leading to a National Resilience Plan for Critical Infrastructure.

The first cycle of resilience plans address flooding. Findings show that the water sector is most vulnerable, with 63 sites at a higher flood risk than the 1-in-200-year standard. Transport is less of a concern as there are, in theory, plenty of alternatives. Electricity companies have plans to provide a target level of protection of 0.1 per cent flooding probability (1 in 1,000 years) but how that fits in with the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan for 40 per cent of electricity to come from low-carbon sources by 2020 is not clear.

A recent policy analysis paper, 'Resilience of UK Infrastructure' by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, explores potential difficulties. Risks change and there are no plans for any transition to link the short-term work started by the NHT and the long-term implications of climate change. Business models that aim to boost short-term efficiency may conflict with investment in resilience. The paper says regulation can help: 'In its 2009 to 2014 review, Ofwat, the water regulator, promoted long-term planning by asking water companies to set their five-year business plans within a 25-year context.' However, the Institution of Civil Engineers has argued the system focuses too much on consumer price rather than resilience and funding reserve capacity.

A report by the consultancy URS for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on infrastructure and climactic changes has also raised concerns that capital investment in infrastructure depends too much on short-term returns.

So, what is the answer? The Council for Science and Technology has recommended setting up a body to coordinate a systems-based approach to mediating responsibilities and overseeing both the short and long-term planning of national infrastructure.

The Engineering the Future group, led by The Royal Academy of Engineering, the IET, ICE, IMechE and IChemE, is also preparing a report on infrastructure. Expert workshops last year add further weight to the view that a nationally coordinated infrastructure engineering strategy would make sense.

The communications and IT workshop suggested that smart monitoring and control in the energy sector are likely to make networks more vulnerable to cascade failures unless resilience is carefully planned. Mobile and fixed-network distribution and exchange points are thought to have only one hour of battery backup. Energy loss might cause an outage of remote site control, which would inhibit recovery of energy supplies and disable the control of water and gas supplies and the operation of other transport systems.

This same report draws attention to a potential shortage of appropriately skilled engineers: 'The working environment for engineers may become increasingly difficult as extreme weather events are likely to be the cause of increasing numbers of call-outs.'

And so back to St Pancras. Train operator First Capital Connect explains how it hopes to reduce the risk of doors freezing by using a new de-icing fluid, which 'is effective at temperatures down to -25'C'.

Undue faith in de-icing fluid is one way seemingly insignificant 'make-do' decisions can contribute to infrastructure chaos. *

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