“The Wrong Type of Snow”
British Rail's Contribution to the English Language!
Gyan C. A. Fernando
Cartoon by N Senthilkumaran
In the winter of 1990-1991, when I was residing in Britain, there was a sudden cold snap. A few inches of snow fell and the temperature dropped well below zero. Nothing unusual but good old British Rail came to a grinding halt. (More: Click link at bottom)
At this point, on the 11th of February 1991, British Rail's Director of Operations Terry Worrall made the famous comment that "we are having particular problems with the type of snow".
Despite common knowledge that snow manifests itself in various forms, a British Rail press release implied that this fact was hitherto unknown to BR management and engineering staff.
“British Rail blames the Wrong Type of Snow!”
The London Evening Standard, a venerable London newspaper, picked up the story and ran the headline saying “British Rail blames the Wrong Type of Snow!” Since then, in the United Kingdom, the phrase has become a byword for euphemistic and lame excuses.
The British satirical magazine Private Eye ran a spoof article in which they showed pictures of the “normal” kind of snow and the “wrong” kind. This they did merely by printing two small photo-sized blank white boxes labelled “Normal kind of snow” and “Wrong kind of snow”!
The cold snap had been forecast and British Rail had claimed to be ready for the coming snow.
Normally, in Britain, the temperatures hovers around zero when it snows and the snow is of a “wet” type and sticks together, the type of snow ideal for making snowballs and snowmen! But that year, because of a sharp drop in temperature, the snow was powdery and loose, and flew around like polystyrene beads.
As the snow was not deep, snow ploughs were ineffective.
On electric trains with integral motor cooling fans and downwards pointing air intakes, the snow got sucked in, melted and short circuited the motors, bringing the trains to a halt. The disruption lasted over a week.
Many electric services had to be replaced by diesel haulage. Diesel electrics, which have a central motor cooling blower with intakes placed well above the rails, were not prone to this problem.
History Repeats Itself
During the December 2009 European snowfall, several Eurostar trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, trapping 2000 passengers in the dark; newspapers gleefully reported it as the "wrong type of fluffy snow".
Footnote: Sadly, British Rail, which provided a lot of amusement of this type over the years, is no more. It was privatised in stages between 1994 and 1997.
First published in the Lanka Railway Digest
Copyright Gyan C A Fernando 2012