Lost transportation resiliency – and the ability to cope with any disruption

The concept of resiliency touches a number of important topics, but in this post I will focus on one timely aspect of it: transportation.

Somewhat unusually – but not exceptionally – cold and snowy weather has brought chaos to European traffic, particularly flights in the UK where snow has all but shut down the busiest international airport in the world, Heathrow, for days. Other airports in central Europe have suffered from similar closures, and the UK was left wondering how the Helsinki airport operates so well in snow. In a uniquely Finnish manner, news of this admiration from abroad probably got more coverage in Finnish media than elsewhere.

So how does the Helsinki airport manage to deal with snow? The answer is blindingly obvious: Finland has snow pretty much every winter, for much of the winter. They have to know how to deal with it, otherwise the airport would close down for months every year whereas events like this are relatively rare for Heathrow – thus the lack of preparation even though incidents like this are likely to increase in frequency as climate change advances. Much of this failure to prepare has to do with relentless drive towards cost-efficiency and optimization, leaving no room for any errors, unusual events or, as it seems, normal weather occurrences.

All this chaos from airport closures to crawling road traffic colliding with any moving or non-moving object, highlights the lack of resiliency in modern transportation. What’s worse, when it fails, it does not fail gracefully – so not only is it a fragile system, it’s a brittle system. Flights from Heathrow were not reduced by, say, 20% or 40% – they were all canceled.

On a much smaller scale but possibly even more bizarrely, the railroad company in Finland has warned that the trains around Christmastime are likely to be delayed. Not because of the weather, no – but because they are full. That’s right, the trains will be delayed because they are actually carrying passengers at capacity! What idiot designs a system so that it automatically fails when it’s operating near full capacity? Well, at least this failure is likely to lead “only” to delayed trains and possibly cascading delays, but to few if any outright cancellations. But still, sign of trying to optimize things to too narrow margins when you fail to achieve your targets even within entirely normal operating parameters.

The fact that we have next to no resiliency in the global transportation infrastructure is worrying enough, but that’s not all: it’s also the people.

How’s that, you may ask. While undoubtedly the traffic chaos causes countless of sad events, the following words, all used to describe the UK flight situation, seem quite out of proportion: “pure hell“, “miserable“, “desperate“, “panic“, “catastrophe” and so on. Those kinds of words should be used to describe actual catastrophes, not situations where, at worst, you won’t make it home for Christmas. To put it in the mildest possible way, I think that’s exaggerating the suffering just a bit.

Try, for example, telling the Haitians that your “hell” entails spending a night at the airport and he or she might help you put things into their proper perspective. So not only do the systems need to be designed with better resiliency, the people also need to suck it up and quit calling every minor event when the world doesn’t co-operate with your plans a “catastrophe”.

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