ITC debates managing the unexpected, crisis scenarios

Crisis Scenarios: how can transport best manage the unexpected?

The Occasion

ITC Guest Speakers

Simon Linnett, chairman of the Independent Transport Commission, chaired a panel comprising Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority; Rosanna Briggs, chair of the Cabinet Office’s National Steering Committee for Warning and Informing the Public; and Dr Richard Stephenson, Group Director of Heath, Safety and Environment at Transport for London. Dr David Quarmby CBE, author of the government’s Winter Resilience Review, also contributed.

Heavy snowfall, ice, volcanic ash, strikes, and flooding were just some of the crisis events that affected our transport systems in 2010. What lessons can transport learn from crisis situations, and how can we better prepare for such events in the future? These were the some of the timely questions addressed at the Independent Transport Commission’s winter Discussion Evening on 17th January 2011. Bringing together leading experts from throughout the transport world, the debate welcomed more than 40 senior figures from the air, road, rail, engineering, technology, planning and local government sectors.


The evening’s guest speakers each approached the issue of contingency planning from a different vantage point, focusing on civil aviation, public communication, and ground transport networks. In the lively discussion that followed there was widespread acceptance that the most effective means for improving crisis planning was good communication with the widest range of stakeholders. Preparation for future crises needed to include better management of expectations, as well as appropriate harnessing of new technologies. Finally, as a warning for the future, participants noted that crisis management would become increasingly difficult as transport systems became congested and reached capacity limits.

How can transport best manage the unexpected? – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Effective and inclusive consultation results in better preparation for crises. We must engage with all stakeholders who stand to be affected by extreme events, including local authorities and communities. By making full use of knowledge networks, and pooling insights, authorities stand to make better decisions when such events do hit. There is always a danger of becoming too inwardly focused in crisis planning.
  • Good communication is the key to successfully managing extreme events. Clear real-time information is important for stranded passengers, and new information systems would help here. Communication strategies should be properly planned in order not to give confused messages to the public. It should not be forgotten that good communication involves listening as well as communicating.
  • People need to be the first focus of contingency planning. At the heart of good crisis management is an understanding of the different needs of those affected. Good planning will make it easier to manage and relieve large numbers of passengers, and they will respond better if regularly and clearly informed of developments. Local communities should be engaged in relief efforts, and must not be forgotten in the aftermath of disasters.
  • The possibility of extreme events should never be discounted. Certain kinds of disaster may only occur once in a generation, but for that reason require special planning, especially since those with experience of such situations may no longer be in post. Natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions and storms, are extremely unpredictable and can never be discounted.
  • We can never prepare too well for crisis events. Planning for such scenarios is an ongoing process, and we must always be ready to learn from new insights. The most successful examples of winter resilience were seen in those authorities that had embedded their planning within wider contingency preparation. London, in particular, has a Resilience Plan that is widely integrated across authorities, with the result that key players are familiar with each other in emergencies. Such planning should remain strategically rather than tactically focused, always aware of how bad a situation might become. At the same time, authorities need to remain true to their key principles, particularly if tasked with upholding safety standards.

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • Good Communication is an imperative. There was widespread agreement among attendees that effective communication strategies stand right at the core of successful crisis management and contingency planning. Clear messages during crises from both the media and via the websites of organisations managing relief are essential. It was also noted that good information changes people’s behaviour, and increases satisfaction with crisis management. New technology also has a role to play, with many passengers now able to use interactive systems. There was broad consensus that in disaggregated transport systems one party should have the right to decide on the reaction. Others felt that a bottom-up approach to communication could result in an improved response to crises, especially when command and control proves too slow. This could be more appropriate when dealing with weather disruption than terror events since mobile networks might be disrupted. The point was raised that we should also strive for better communication between authorities and Members of Parliament. Attendees generally found Transport Select Committee reports helpful, although transport industry representatives were much less sure.
  • We should not forget the long view when managing extreme events, particularly disasters. Some crisis events will take years to resolve, particularly those involving trauma and fatalities, and long term planning will be necessary to address the recovery needs of local communities and those suffering trauma. At the same time, we should recognize the opportunities that arise from disasters for renewal and regeneration. The revival of Manchester after the IRA Arndale attack is a case in point.
  • Managing and understanding people’s expectations is important. Concern was expressed at the way expectations were often unrealistically inflated during crisis events, and it was pointed out that the media have a crucial role to play in managing such expectations. We also need to recognize the emotional dynamics of passenger travel, which will be more volatile during festive seasons. In many ways the notion of essential travel on a personal level is misconceived since it depends upon emotional commitments (including those of others), and the availability of an alternative to the journey. Stranded passengers may therefore need to be managed in different ways. Insurance and compensation strategies may also affect people’s decision making when facing travel disruption.
  • Risk management and cost-benefit analysis have a role to play. Questions included asking what degree of planning we require against disaster, and whether tolerance levels vary with different disasters. It was noted that there was often a trade off between passenger choice and preparedness. Good risk assessment can help when managing unpredictable events.
  • Contingency planning will become more difficult as networks reach capacity. A warning was offered that as transport networks reach capacity limits the risk of disruption and problems when managing crises will increase. The capacity problems at Heathrow, for example, exacerbated the difficulties dealing with the December 2010 snowfall. Policy makers should be much more aware of these dangers.