Home > cultural commentary > Thoughts from a comfortable sofa

Thoughts from a comfortable sofa

I’ve spent part of the day looking at reports of snow and snowbound people on TV, and one thing that struck me is how often people said ‘we can’t get any information about what’s going on’. And a couple of thoughts occurred to me about the complexity of modern life.

First off, a lot of transport links are high-volume places and when the means of transport grinds to a halt, an awful lot of people find themselves in places where they don’t want to be and the number increases rapidly. Heathrow normally shifts in the order of 43 million people a year, almost 118,000 per day (I got the figure from Wikipedia). The current Wembley Stadium, by way of comparison, has a capacity of 90,000. So the scale of the problem ramps up pretty quickly.

Second, as we’ve been hearing, network problems tend to spread. Planes can’t land because there’s nowhere to put them; they can’t take off either because they can’t be moved off the stands, or because the places they’re supposed to be flying to are also closed. We haven’t been hearing much about problems elsewhere (except that other countries deal with it better, apparently – my experience has been some do and a lot don’t).

Third, there’s going to be more of this. Some level of disruption is actually normal and natural, and major transport hubs have to be closed for a day or two for all kinds of reasons, from weather, natural disasters, other kinds of disasters and terrorism through to the completely banal. I used to live somewhere where the central library was closed for months because the wrong kind of glue had been used to stick tilework on the front of the building and they had a distressing habit of falling off and injuring people; last year I had an 8-hour train journey to London, which is normally less than 2 hours, because rats had chewed through signalling cables. The more complex and high-volume the network, though, the more difficult it is to cope with problems – especially if they occur unpredictably, as of course they tend to.

And fourth, I have a shelf-full of books on the sociology of disasters that offer one awkward conclusion: when there is an unexpected problem, information networks are often the first casualty. In some cases it’s because information about the situation ‘on the ground’ can’t get through and/or there aren’t enough people or isn’t enough processing capacity to deal with it (several nuclear disasters bear this out). In other cases it’s because the disaster itself prevents key decision-making people from making decisions, or knocks out ways of communicating information to the public (phone lines overloaded, power outages etc.) or even to staff trying to deal with the situation.

It’s cold comfort, I know, to say ‘just take it easy’ if you’re a passenger in the middle of some major travel problem, or to say ‘never mind, at least it’s not as bad as it could get in the future’. And I’m saying that from the comfort of my own home, having abandoned plans to travel next week. But at least armed with those thoughts, people can start to make informed decisions about what they would do and how they would cope… Thermos of coffee, big leather coat and a good thick book in my case, I think.

Good luck, everyone. Take it easy and and just be grateful it’s not as bad as it will be next time!


  1. December 19, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    It really is tacky to say that it’s almost 70 here today, isn’t it? That’s not Celsius, but doesn’t that equate to about 20 something? Chilly breeze, but everything’s relative, I suppose. No snow. Nothing for 500 miles that even hints of snow. I do, however, tend to treat my home as my hermitage this time of year, regardless of the weather.

  2. December 19, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    What people seem to forget is that the staff of airports, emergency services etc are human and don’t have wings. They have as much difficulty as anyone else getting around and this can only add to the chaos experienced by the staff who did make it. Humans, unfortunately seem to think they should be able to control everything. Sometimes we just have to be sensible and admit defeat. Especially against the vagaries of the weather.
    I’m sure airports etc are doing their best. And they’ll learn lessons from each new problem.

    • December 19, 2010 at 9:58 pm

      Of course. I certainly wouldn’t like to be the one trying to de-ice planes and get them off the stands at 5am or whatever, especially if my co-workers hadn’t been able to make it in. Sometimes we need to remember ‘staff’ are human too, and sometimes they’re as much in the dark as everyone else and trying to make the best of a bad situation.

  3. December 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Yes, 70 F = 21 C. We had -8 C last night (17 F) and my computer dashboard gizmo tells me it’s -5 right now, at 9.39pm (I gather it picks up the information from the local airport weather station). Enjoy your relative balmy weather!

    Part of the problem here is that this is exceptionally cold and trying to equip trains, airports and roads with everything needed to cope with the kind of weather we last experienced in 1981 (so the news tells me) means it would then sit around unused for years on end.

  4. December 19, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    We actually had 18 inches of snow here one year. You can imagine what happened. Absolutely nothing. The city was paralyzed. It was on the weekend, which was helpful. I think it took two days to melt.

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