COMMUTER gridlock caused by an icy blast of winter weather has raised questions over how prepared the region is for a repeat spell.
On Wednesday, heavy snow showers and icy conditions led to motorists and buses being stuck in queues across the region as traffic ground to a halt.
But yesterday, councils across the North East insisted they were prepared and said workers were out gritting the roads before and during the snowfall.
North Tyneside Council said that since the cold weather started on October 26, the local authority had gritted the priority network 22 times, using around 865 tonnes of rock salt after starting with around 6,700 tonnes of rock salt, its largest stockpile ever.
Newcastle City Council and Gateshead Council both confirmed they had their fleets of gritters out on Tuesday night, 12 hours before heavy snow hit, and have been manning their primary and even secondary routes since.
However, Coun Henri Murison, cabinet member for quality of life, suggested grit crews had issues getting to problem areas due to traffic congestion and drivers not letting gritters pass.
“It would be helpful if people would let our gritters pass to get to problem spots,” he said. “They had already covered roads with grit before rush-hour, but were trying to do it again.”
Coun Murison said he had sympathy with residents having problems getting home, but commended the work of council staff who worked throughout the night to grit and clear major routes throughout the city.
He also assured residents the council would listen to feedback, although emphasised that the council had carried out its winter maintenance plan fully in the run up to the snow.
Motorists travelling on the A1 and A19 experienced severe tailbacks, but the Highways Agency, which covers those routes, said both had been gritted from the early hours of Wednesday and throughout the day.
In County Durham the council had all 38 of their gritters out from 2pm treating their priority network, which covers 45% of the county’s highways.
Terry Collins, corporate director for neighbourhood services at Durham County Council, said: “Durham County Council has not cut its winter maintenance budget and keeping the county’s strategic routes open remains a high priority.
“I would like to encourage residents to help their local communities by using the stocks in the salt bins which are regularly filled and to make sure they are familiar with the priority routes which are routinely treated during freezing temperatures.”
In Northumberland, the council recruited farmers to help them keep rural areas cleared along with 28 gritters out covering the priority routes first thing, and then secondary routes.
A spokesman for Northumberland County Council said: “We also employ farmers to assist with gritting in rural areas. We are in close contact with the emergency services and, where possible, we respond with extra gritting when needed.
“However, it is not possible to grit every single road in a large rural county.”
But suggestions have been made that councils across the North East need to consider an improved winter action plan to deal with blackspot areas which cause knock-on effects on major roads across the region.
Martin Harris, Go North East’s commercial director, said road conditions were not the issue on Wednesday night but queues and static traffic.
“Our buses could not get through the roads any further than other motorists and also our service was very much hindered by queues that built up,” he said.
“Our view on it is that once again councils are making a strategic effort to grit roads, but from our own view there were blackspots that cannot be reached that led to huge queues on strategic roads which delays traffic across the region.
“We wonder if there’s a way of being able to ensure there’s a management level to respond to changing conditions once gritters have gone out.
“I am sure they did try to get to those areas, but had some difficulties. I wonder if there’s a way of being flexible and developing a rapid response squad separate from routine gritters.
“The effect on traffic was disproportionate to conditions,” he said.
But more than 100 gritters and other vehicles worked to spread grit salt on the roads from Tuesday night throughout Wednesday and into Thursday.
Neighbourhood services manager at Gateshead Council Louise Hayward said staff had been operating a 24-hour shift pattern seven days a week from November 26 ready for the threat of snow this week, gritting 320 miles of Gateshead’s road network constantly since Tuesday.
She said: “Wednesday afternoon a heavy snowfall and a drop in temperature coincided with heavy traffic on the roads when people were collecting children from school and leaving work early.
“We can’t predict how and when snow will freeze, and the snow falling yesterday afternoon unfortunately froze on top of the grit leading to much more icy conditions. I don’t believe we could have prepared any more for Wednesday’s conditions.”
In Sunderland all gritters were out throughout the night treating all A and B routes. Coun James Blackburn, portfolio holder for City Services at Sunderland City Council, said: “In severe wintry conditions, Sunderland City Council concentrates its gritting resources upon the main strategic routes and public transport corridors.
“Treatments include gritters working round the clock. When we’re satisfied that we have done as much as needs to be done to keep traffic running on main routes, we switch gritters to treating secondary routes, including local roads.”