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Researching Resilience: Workington after the flood

On November 20th 2009, while the eyes of the media were focussed on the flooding upstream at Cockermouth, Workington suffered a different kind of disaster. All its bridges, apart from the railway bridge, were destroyed or so badly damaged they had to be closed. The collapse of Northside Bridge, carrying the A597, claimed the life of PC Bill Barker as he directed traffic away from danger.

The loss of two road bridges and two footbridges radically altered the geography of the area, requiring a detour of 18 miles and heavy congestion to cross from one side of the river to the other. Within a fortnight, a temporary foot bridge had been installed by the army to the east of the town, a temporary railway station built to serve the villages and suburbs north of the river and a free shuttle train service from Maryport started.  Yet, it would be five months before road connections would be restored.

broken bridge fallen into riverAs a transport researcher, my interest lay in whether walking, cycling and train travel would become more popular in a situation where they had time and cost advantages over car travel. Unfortunately, I had to wait until after the temporary road bridge had been opened for an opportunity to investigate how people adapted to the new travel situation. Cumbria County Council had also been curious about the impacts, but waited until the emergency had been dealt with before commissioning the research. Our household survey and interviews with stakeholders and residents generated some useful insights about people’s and institutions’ coping mechanisms.

The household survey showed that the number of trips fell drastically between October 2009 (before the flooding) and March and then rose again in May, once the temporary road bridge was in place, but not to pre-flood levels. It was also clear that social and leisure trips were most affected. One reason for this was that utility trips took so much longer, that there was little time left for leisure and social activities and travel. Budgets were also stretched by the extra fuel and repairs from driving on flood-damaged roads. There were a number of ways that people adjusted: changing their destination especially for shopping trips, but also for social and leisure trips.

train at temporary stationThose who continued to commute by car had to allow much more time to reach the closest bridge and because of the congestion, this usually meant setting off earlier and returning later, which often disrupted household routines, especially with children. Grandparents, friends and neighbours often stepped in to help. Those who left their cars seemed to have appreciated the new ways of travel, one wrote ‘more people walking and more social feel to the town’ and another commented ‘Used free shuttle which was a boon’.

Employers and service providers also adapted. Those with sites both sides of the river often arranged for employees to transfer to the site most accessible from their home, some granted employees extra travel time and services such as surgeries, a supermarket, banks were quickly provided on the north side of the river for people no longer within walking distance of facilities. Both the Ambulance and Fire Services had to over-ride their area-wide automated systems for allocating crews, incapable of adjusting to the new geography, to prevent teams incurring unnecessary delays by crossing the river.

Tesco temporary shopHowever, there were losses for people. A few respondents reported that they had lost their job or paid hours because of the difficulty of travelling ‘My wife lost her job due to health issues and stress of trying to use Public Transport. She had to walk or face a 36 mile round trip by car’. The most mentioned regret about the time without the road bridge was not being able to visit friends and relations, particularly elderly relations. ‘My mother was in residential care near Whitehaven- couldn't visit her as often as normal. All our children /grandchildren live on the other side of the river. When the footbridge was up we walked or used the train to go and see them. We hardly saw them at all until December.’

Although several people reported that they now continue to walk or cycle, train users were deeply disappointed that the normal service was not enhanced to keep the new passengers. The service reverted to the irregular and unreliable one or two carriage trains which were unable to accommodate all of the passengers and the temporary station was closed. ‘During the floods my train travel improved due to two carriages on the peak trains. … but my train travel has got worse and very dangerous due to cuts by Northern Rail back to a single carriage.’

plaque on new bridgeIn 2010, I also investigated the volcanic ash cloud and the impacts of the severe winter weather experienced at the end of the year. What struck me from these studies is the flexibility and resourcefulness of the people affected and also the help given by social networks of friends and family and often friends of friends and relations. This contrasted with the rigidity of some institutions, such as employers hanging on for an official alert before allowing employees to get home in blizzard conditions or insisting that employees came into work even when there were no customers or their work could have been done from home. Other institutions however demonstrated more flexibility and generosity, for example waiving fees at long-stay car parks or honouring rail tickets past their use-date to help people caught up in the volcanic ash crisis.

Institutions seem primed to return to normal, whereas more individuals appear to reflect on the experience of being caught up in an abnormal situation and to consider how it will affect their behaviour in the future. Although our respondents were extremely grateful for all the efforts of Cumbria County Council and other agencies to restore communications, several questioned why they did not seize the opportunity of the change in travel habits to encourage more train travel, walking and cycling. The local rail operator cannot increase their rolling stock on a line designated for ‘no growth’. It seems sad that the co-operation, creativity and energy which got a station built in six days, a new foot bridge in two weeks and a supermarket in four weeks could not be harnessed for longer, but maybe that is the nature of crises.

It is clear that major unpredicted changes to our lives are upsetting; we need to rethink our own values and dig into our reserves to re-establish some sort of equilibrium. The rethinking can be positive; clearly many of those affected  ‘re-valued’  their ties and contacts with friends and family. Many too found they had unexpected reserves in the form of social networks of neighbours, friends and family as well as the wider community, all ready to help in the emergency. It is also a reminder that those reserves need replenishing in times outside of times of crisis.

Pictures: Northside Bridge 2009, Rail shuttle and new Workington station, temporary Tesco store, new Northside Bridge all creative commons

Jo Guiver is a researcher with the Institute of Transport and Tourism at the University of Central Lancashire. Her research focuses on the potential and barriers to changing modes from car travel to public transport and active travel with a emphasis on leisure travel. In 2010 the Institute launched an on-line survey of people caught up in the volcanic ash crisis and was later commissioned by Cumbria County Council to research the changes in behaviour and attitudes of people in Workington following the loss and then restoration of road bridges after the floods of November 2009.


Caroline Jackson's picture

Thanks for this assessment of

Thanks for this assessment of resilience in the Workington flood and aftermath.  It reminded me powerfully of the time of foot and mouth, when farmers were trapped for months on isolated farms, their children stayed in town for weeks at a time and associated workers like local milkmen were severely affected.  I remember the school receptionist used to ring round each Monday to find out how the farms were doing, to arrange work to be sent or communications from children in school sent via the school bus and farm gate, how we created a whole new group of free school meal children and what problems that caused for the LEA.  The resilience and flexibility of family and friend networks, as well as local institutions is fascinating and something Transition needs to explore further.