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How London Keeps Moving in Icy Winter Weather

An icy night time view of London's St Paul's Cathedral, taken from the Millennium Bridge

Dealing with winter is a costly and, at times, controversial problem in the UK. Especially when it falls on the public purse strings to ensure a good ongoing operation.

When it comes to Transport for London, keeping the roads clear and a good Underground service running is crucial for the prosperity of the city. But it’s no easy task.

With more harsh winters hitting the UK over the last few years there are some serious lessons that need to be learnt.

Problem’s unique to the UK

The UK’s problems lie largely in the unpredictability of the weather, in both summer and winter.

If you look at somewhere renowned for snowfall, Canada for example, they experience much harsher, longer winters than the UK. Yet they always seem to fair much better despite worse conditions.

The reason for this is first being able to justify and quantify the expense of winterisation. The second is that they know what to expect and when to expect it.

This means that it behoves them to spend the money required to keep the infrastructure running as efficiently as possible.

In contrast, here in the UK, we simply don’t know what to expect.

For example, we were unexpectedly struck down by the Beast from the East in 2018. Few precautionary measures were in place.

By the time train services had been gotten back to being acceptable (occasional snow drifts notwithstanding) the snow had mostly gone and we were back to standard wet & tepid weather.

The issues around running services are even more controversial, due to the expensive equipment that often lies around unused in the sidings throughout the winter.

For example, a snow blower capable of handling 3 metre drifts was bought by the former Network Southeast. It saw no action in more than ten years and was eventually moved to Scotland.

Keeping rail services running through winter

One of the key problems in dealing with winter here in Britain is justifying the cost. As the country ground to a halt in the face of a few arctic blasts this year, it was estimated that the British economy lost over £1bn a day.

Obviously this is a lot. However, for the brief periods of snow that we do have, is it worth preparing for the winter properly like Russia or Canada?

These countries spend a huge amount each year on measures that would be almost entirely pointless in the UK. The city of Toronto Canada spent over $85 million on gritting salts in 2015. That’s just one city of 2.5 million people.

Another example: in countries like Canada or Norway, most people swap to winter tyres to help deal with driving in extreme conditions at a certain point in the year.

There are about 30 million cars in the UK and winter tyres start at around £60 each. That would mean a collective expenditure of around £7.2 billion. This seems extreme for a few days of snow a year.

On top of this, there is the practicality of swapping your tyres for a few days of the year, it’s a big effort for not much reward.

When it comes to preparedness, councils and railways across the UK have to tackle this problem. Yet it just isn’t practical or cost efficient to prepare for a winter in the same way that Russia or Canada do.

Take line-side snow fences for example, usually found in countries like Japan and Canada, along with shelters that prevent drifting in exposed areas. After the initial investment for select points in the UK, these have fallen into a state of disrepair and becoming completely useless, all because the cost of maintaining them just isn’t worth it.

So how does TFL cope?

It’s clear that our biggest challenge is that we really don’t get enough snow to justify proper preparation. Does that mean that when the blizzards do come we should just accept our fate and stay indoors for a few days?

Transport for London have come up with a number of clever ways to keep services running as efficiently as possible (and we are proud to say we are part of that solution).

“On London Underground there are well rehearsed plans that include running de-icing trains overnight, keeping tracks as clear as possible and treating platforms to keep them safe for customers.” – TFL 2018 press release

Night (ghost) trains

Overnight ‘ghost trains’ create regular passage on tracks and are one of the most effective ways of keeping tracks clear and functioning in time for the morning services.

This, first and foremost, stops the tracks from icing over, it also helps them reduce problems around coupling and uncoupling. Whilst keeping trains heated overnight is costly, they are more likely to be trouble free. Not to mention being nice and welcoming for passengers in the early morning.

Staff training and Communication

The benefits of well trained staff in any scenario should go without saying. Add to this efficient communication methods and this allows for any problem that arises to be dealt with as swiftly as possible. Making for an efficient system.

There is also a constant stream of information going out to the commuters keeping everyone informed allowing for alternative travel plans to be made if need be. This allows for the most efficient utilisation of the system by passengers.

Unfortunately, due to the intensity of the tube service in London, even a few minutes delay can cause a backlog effect which means that delays can quickly build up.

One way they combat this particular problem is by running a reduced service – some service is better than no service after all.

A powerful CHELA solution

We supply TFL with a selection of carefully developed products to use across the london transport system. The application of de-icing chemicals may seem like a simple solution, but it is one of the most effective methods for keeping roads and tracks free of ice and snow.

On top of this, we make products that are specifically designed to be eco-friendly, as many traditional salts and deicers have harsh chemicals in them.

Find out more about our powerful aviation grade de-icing and anti-icing solutions, liquid, salt and solid based products for extreme weather.


All of these are compromises aimed at balancing an acceptable expenditure with the best result attainable.

Countries like Norway, Canada and Russia are always going to be better equipped for extreme weather. Blizzards, storms and sub-zero temperatures are the norm, and the expenditure is essential.

However, over the years the UK is becoming more and more savvy at finding smart solutions and compromises to offer the best services throughout our increasingly uncertain winters. And we are proud to be part of the ever more efficient and effective Winterisation programme around London.

If you’re looking for further advice on working with safe, efficient and environmentally friendly Winterisation products, get in touch. We will be happy to discuss your requirements.

To find out more about us you can read some of our cleaning case studies and discover why we are one of the UK’s leading suppliers of intelligent cleaning solutions for the most demanding applications in transport, construction and industry.