What if?

by Suw on May 13, 2003

They dropped two planes on Hounslow tonight. I wonder if any of the three houses I used to live in there were hit.

I know Hounslow pretty well and remember only too clearly the howling whine of the jumbos as they?d hurtle right over my house, seeming scarily low some times. You could often smell the aviation fuel, when planes jettisoned it in a dark smudge scraped out across the sky behind them. The planes were a permanent presence, there in your subconscious all the time whether you realised it or not.

I know Heathrow pretty well too – I worked at briefly BAA and spent a lot of lunchtimes over in Terminals, soaking up the atmosphere and excitement – people going on holiday, travelling on business, coming back from the trip of a lifetime maybe.

I have a soft-spot for Heathrow and I hate to say it, but I retain some small fondness for Hounslow too, in a strangely masochistic way. So the docu-drama The Day Britain Stopped held particular interest for me.

The premise is this – a rail and tube strike, combined with heavy pre-Christmas traffic and a couple of accidents on the M25 result in gridlock affecting the majority of the country. (You don?t need to stretch the imagination to see how that might happen. Two inches of snow in January left people trapped in their cars overnight, remember, and all because some idiot couldn?t manage to send the gritters out in time.)

The knock on effects of this kind of travel mayhem could easily cause air traffic control staff to be late, and tired, overworked controllers working an already overloaded and flawed system end up as scapegoats for a mid-air collision over Hounslow.

There was nothing in the programme I?ve just watched that I couldn?t see happening. There were no fantastical leaps of faith that needed to be made, no moments of ?Oh, that would never happen?, no need to suspend my disbelief. All of it looked far to close to the truth to be comfortable.

But despite the fact that the programme makers did their research and came up with an utterly plausible scenario in order to highlight the pathetic state of the UK?s travel network, will anyone who needs to listen actually take any note? I doubt it.

?What if?? is becoming an oft-asked question these days. I?ve mentioned Flood before, the ?what if? book that sends a high tide and storm surge up the Thames estuary together to overwhelm the Thames barrier and flood central London up to the 10m mark, and then follows that closely with a major conflagration.

I?m fond of London too, and I know for a fact that the flat I used to inhabit in Rotherhithe would have been flooded. I would certainly have had to have evacuated but, with little or no high ground nearby, I probably would have drowned. Several of the offices I used to work in would also have been deathtraps. At least one of my friends would have been flooded out badly – and I?m not talking just a bit of seepage here but a raging wall of water sweeping aside everything in its path.

Plus there was the smallpox ?what if? docu-drama last year, the weak reflections of which we are seeing now with SARS as life thankfully fails to imitate art. In ?Smallpox 2002? 60 million people die worldwide, but SARS is nowhere near that potent.

That?s luck, though. No judgement involved. We should be thankful that SARS isn?t more contagious because bad as it has been, it could have been a lot worse. Still, it has seriously put the wind up a lot of people who needed their butts kicking into line a long time ago so maybe the next novel disease might be contained long before it spreads worldwide.

Yet the one thing that runs through all three fictional scenarios as drawn out by programme makers and authors alike is the same thing that is at the core of the SARS problem – the ugly echoes of governmental incompetence when faced with a looming major disaster.

The warning signs are out there. Sometimes they come in the form of real events, sometimes they are from people from whose research can be drawn some frightening conclusions. But how seriously will anyone in government take these warnings? Will anyone bother to sit down and assess the evidence and draw up some sort of contingency plan, just in case?

We all know the transport in the UK is shot to shit because we suffer from it daily. Well, ok, I don?t because my daily commute is about 30s up the stairs, but I did. Two hours to get from here to Farringdon at one point, just after Hatfield. Work then til 7.30pm, say, and another two hours to get home. Or maybe an hour and a half if I was lucky.

The examples of travel mayhem are endless, pretty much like the government?s ability to weasel their way out of any kind of worthwhile commitment to doing what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a serious amount of investment not only in the pathetic public transport system, but also in roads. I?m as green as the next person, but an efficient and effective road network is a lot more ?green? than people sitting in traffic jams for hours.

As for the ineffectiveness of the Thames barrier, the figures given by author Richard Doyle are nothing short of terrifying:

The Thames Barrier was built to a risk level of 1 in 1000. Slightly worse odds than contracting fatal cancer (1 in 3000) and much worse odds than of dying in a traffic accident (1 in 10,000).

Of course, one can always say that this is all nothing more than scaremongering, but surely if there?s a serious risk (and I think 1 in 1000 is serious) then someone really ought to be looking into the situation.

I suspect, however, that the civil servants (who don?t seem to be much in the line of serving anyone these days, if indeed they ever did, nor of being overly civil) with their cushty little numbers will be too busy discussing Eastenders to think beyond the ends of their snotty little noses.

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