Weatherwatch: 9 February 2009

Paul Brown: The most celebrated excuse for late trains was made on 11 February 1991

The most celebrated excuse for late trains was made on 11 February 1991 when British Rail's operations chief, Terry Worrall, blamed "the wrong kind of snow" for a week of disruption. The snow was not deep enough to use snow ploughs but the flakes were so small they were sucked into the air intakes of the engines, causing electrical short circuits.

In more robust times, when the train was the main form of long distance transport, only the sheer volume of snow could stop steam engines. In the winter of 1854, after a cold snap, there were severe gales across the country with heavy snowfalls. Norwich, for example, had "several feet" and drifts were up to four metres deep all along the east coast. York was cut off along with many towns and villages. More than 50 vessels were driven ashore by the wind with severe loss of life.

Although many rail lines were blocked because the cuttings were full of snow, a determined attempt was made to get the Norwich mail train through. Eight steam engines were fixed to it but only made half a mile before being halted in 3-metre deep drifts at Elsenham, Essex.

The railway company refused to be defeated and brought in a team of 260 men to dig their way through. Eventually with the aid of the pushing power of another two engines, making a total of 10 in all, the train got through. A thaw set in the next day.


Paul Brown

The GuardianTramp

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