The wrong type of snow
"The wrong type of snow" or "the wrong kind of snow" is a phrase coined by the British media in 1991 after severe weather caused disruption to many of British Rail's services. A British Rail press release implied that management and its engineering staff were unaware of different types of snow. Henceforth in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses.
The phrase originated in an interview conducted by James Naughtie on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme on 11 February 1991. British Rail's Director of Operations, Terry Worrall, was asked to comment on the adverse effects of the unusually heavy 1991 snowfall on railway services that winter. Worral explained that "we are having particular problems with the type of snow, which is rare in the UK". Naughtie replied "Oh, I see, it was the wrong kind of snow," to which Worrall replied, "No, it was a different kind of snow". The exchange prompted a headline in the London Evening Standard saying "British Rail blames the wrong type of snow" which was swiftly taken up by the media and other papers.
The cold snap had been forecast and British Rail had claimed to be ready for the coming snow. However, the snow – which was not deep enough for snowploughs or snow blowers to be effective – was unusually soft and powdery, finding its way into electrical systems and causing short circuits and traction motor damage in trains. For traction motors with integral cooling fans and air intakes pointing downwards – the type that is still common on British electric multiple units – the problem was made worse as the air intakes sucked up the loose snow. Meanwhile, the snow also became packed into sliding door mechanisms and into points, causing them to fail. In addition, low temperatures resulted in problems with electric current collection from the third rail.
Many electric services had to be replaced by diesel haulage, and emergency timetables were introduced. Long delays were commonplace – up to eight hours in some cases. The disruption lasted over a week.
The phrase "the wrong type of snow", "the wrong kind of snow" and variants appear periodically in British media reports concerning railway incidents brought on by adverse weather, with an intended polemic effect of instilling disbelief in the reader. Since "the wrong type of snow" has entered British English phraseology, it has come to be regarded as an example of a snowclone, a type of re-usable cliché with many variants.
During the December 2009 European snowfall, several Eurostar trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, trapping 2,000 passengers in the dark; newspapers reported "wrong type of fluffy snow". Following the destruction of the coastal railway line at Dawlish, Devon during severe weather in 2014, the Daily Telegraph carried a cartoon by Matt with a notice reading, "Trains cancelled – Wrong sort of seaweed". On 12 January 2016, The Guardian reported on Southeastern train delays caused by "strong sunlight" and the low winter sun with the headline, "Wrong kind of sunlight delays Southeastern trains in London".
The emergence of the phrase "the wrong type of snow" came about during a period when the privatisation of British Rail was being widely debated in the media. Journalists frequently sourced anecdotal evidence to compose stories about failures in the performance of railway operators. Stock phrases involving "leaves on the line" and snow were used in headlines to ridicule seasonal disruption, to such an extent that they are now said to have passed into Britain's folklore and are considered to be established in the "collective British consciousness". Its popularity has been attributed to its expression of a national sense of disappointment with British infrastructure, along with a fading sense of national pride and romantic associations with railways. The phrase has been cited as an example of poor corporate communication and public relations. Its longevity and persistence in the public consciousness has been attributed to a highly effective but poorly chosen analogy that has "stuck" with its audience and is subject to interpretation in other contexts; what originated as a simplified explanation of a technical problem has become a popular code for a lame excuse. The "wrong kind of/type of" part of the phrase has itself been shown to exemplify semantic change, having undergone a process of grammaticalization to move from an impartial description of weather conditions to become a politically loaded signifier of failure.
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