Shetland Islands Council has defended its road-gritting efforts following a spate of accidents and treacherous driving conditions this morning caused by sheet ice.
Hundreds of school children and commuters were delayed or prevented from travelling due to the problems, which included buses, lorries and even a gritter sliding off the road.
The local authority denied accusations that the problems were caused by its cutbacks to the road treatment service, which came into effect earlier this month. Instead it blamed exceptional circumstances caused by rain washing off the previous evening’s salt then freezing to cause black ice.
Infrastructure director Phil Crossland said conditions like those of this morning happened “regularly” in other places but were relatively rare in Shetland. He said no roads authority could treat for all climatic conditions.
“Gritters were out again this morning at 6am. However, even on our most heavily used routes the salt took some time to work. There have also been showers across the north of Shetland this morning with rain freezing on contact with cold roads, which has compounded the problems being experienced.”
A school bus heading to Aith Junior High was reported to have gone off the road in the West Side while another bus was off between Voe and Mossbank.
Council vehicles were off the road too. A gritter slipped across the single-track road in Aith while at Catfirth a refuse lorry skidded and blocked the main road out of South Nesting until it was recovered.
One of the worst hit areas was the roads through Voe where long tailbacks developed and a number of accidents occurred.
One of the owners of the shop at Tagon in Voe said it took 50 minutes for him to get to work from Mulla, just a few hundred metres away, because a bus and a lorry were stuck on the main road at the bottom of the hill. As other vehicles slowly passed it they were hitting problems on the ice themselves.
The rush-hour traffic from the north eventually made its way to Lerwick behind a gritter.
The police issued a warning shortly after 8am about the ice on the main road at Voe. They said the road was partially blocked due to minor accidents and was only passable with extreme care. All main roads and side roads in the Voe area were described by the police as “treacherous” while roads elsewhere in Shetland required drivers to exercise caution.
Many travellers were unable to get in or out of Muckle Roe. Bus drivers in the North Mainland reported “terrible” conditions on some of the side roads.
“It’s just a nightmare,” said one driver who had been in several side roads with buses.
A number of people were furious about the problems. On Facebook people were warning about the lives of children and workers being put at risk by poor gritting in some areas.
Some have been quick to blame the council cutbacks which are intended to save £418,000 from the £1.4 million winter roads maintenance budget.
Responding to the criticisms today Mr Crossland said: “The problems are not associated with the recent decision following the winter maintenance review. It also needs to be borne in mind that we are still treating a larger proportion of our roads then the Scottish average.”
He continued: “Our teams pre-salted roads as normal between three and six pm yesterday evening as a result of the weather forecast. But overnight rain appears to have dispersed the salt. Temperatures dropped rapidly, and standing water froze quickly, producing black ice.”
The new policy, which took effect on 12th November, is not meant to affect main roads and loop roads during the week where gritting gets under way at 6am. But loop roads, Lerwick, Scalloway and side roads will not be pre-salted the previous evening.