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Warning: Snow falls in winter!

The winter of 2013 might provide everyone with a highly unpredictable business environment, but one thing seems sure: a major snowfall over Budapest will result in traffic chaos. The Budapest Business Journal looks into what caused the disastrous traffic conditions in the capital on January 15.

There is a song in the movie The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert called Save The Best For Last, made famous by Vanessa Williams, the lyrics of which say “Sometimes the snow comes down in June, sometimes the Sun goes round the Moon.” Budapest public area maintenance company, FKF Zrt, clearly, wouldn’t wish for such miracles. It can be a harsh winter night in the middle of January when the snow starts falling over Budapest, and the one thing that seems certain is that it will inevitably take FKF by surprise.

While Budapesters like to joke about it, as with just about every other embarrassing or annoying aspect of their city it is always a joke that is at least half-serious.

In light of the above, the explanation from FKF chief Lajos Klug following the traffic turmoil caused by the heavy snow that fell in the early hours of January 15 sounds anything but surprising. At a press conference following a chaotic Monday morning all across Budapest he claimed that the “inconvenience” was caused by a faulty forecast from the National Weather Service (OMSz). “The actual amount of snow was multiple times the amount forecast by OMSz,” Klug was quoted as saying by news portal Index.

Which is, it turns out, not quite true, at least according to a weatherman at OMSz, who preferred to remain anonymous. He said that the 6cm forecast by the weather service “was not all that different” from the actual 10cm that fell, and the phrase “multiple times” is definitely an exaggeration. Especially as this 10cm, measured at OMSz’s Pestszentlőrinc station, was the highest amount, although other stations reported very similar quantities. It is also worth pointing out that other, free weather services including online weather sites Koponyeg.hu and Idokep.hu forecast around 20cm of snow for that specific night. OMSz also updated its forecast continuously (FKK pays a yearly amount of HUF 8.6 million to OMSz to receive four daily updates), and while the forecast of Sunday afternoon said the amount of snow would be 6cm, it had been raised to 10cm by late Sunday afternoon and to 10-15cm by that evening.

Klug, on the other hand, was rather pleased with his company’s performance: he said that despite the inaccurate forecast, 50 snowplows have started to clear Budapest’s roads at night, and by 4 am, 90 of the company’s 117 snowplows were operating (the snowfall started to become stronger around 6am, and the chaos peaked along with the usual Monday rush hour of 7-9am). Other officials, however, suggest that FKF’s tally was somewhat erroneous. Talking to business daily Napi Gazdaság, László Szaniszló, the chairman of Budapest Municipality’s Committee of Urban Developments and Environmental Protection said that by 6 am only 65 snowplows were on the roads. Panni Szűcs, spokeswoman of BKV Holding City Maintenance Center, later confirmed this number adding that by later that morning the entire staff of FKF was working full capacity to clear Budapest’s roads. “Snow related works rank sixth on FKF’s priority list, so around HUF 1-2 billion originally accrued in this area was rearranged in FKF’s budget in favor of other, more important tasks,” Szaniszló explained.

Despite FKF’s best efforts, the breakdown of Budapest’s traffic system was both inevitable and spectacular. News sites started to report traffic difficulties at around 6 am, claiming that normal journey times were doubled or even tripled within the city, Facebook and other social media outlets were soon flooded with user-submitted pictures of Budapest’s biggest roads and motorways, evidently untouched by FKF’s vehicles. And although FKF’s website swiftly followed the breakdown of the traffic system, remaining unavailable for the rest of the morning, the company managed to keep its audience updated via email and frequent reports in the public radio’s morning news program.

Budapest mayor István Tarlós announced that the city’s public transportation service would be free for the day, in order to encourage people to leave their cars at home, but the decision was of little help for those who live on the Buda side without direct access to its only subway line (M1), as many of the bus and tramway lines also got stuck either in the snow itself or in the traffic jam that followed.

“A day like January 15 costs FKF Zrt some HUF 80-100 million,” Szűcs told the Budapest Business Journal, adding that there is a rigorous script FKF has to follow in such cases. The document, titled The Winter Program Of FKF Zrt, prescribes the company’s conduct between November 15 and March 15 and it sets four categories of snowfall based on the severity of the situation (January 15 was a category III event, while category IV would mean 30 plus centimeters of snow). Category III is in effect when the operation of snowplows are necessary, and this is also the point at which FKF starts hiring temporary snow workers. On January 15, FKF hired 527 of them.

The highest priority of category III procedure is to clear Budapest’s 1,200 km main road system, with a particular focus on bridges, overpasses, the roads leading to the Liszt Ferenc International Airport (including Terminal II, which actually lies outside the city’s municipal borders), motorways M1, M3, M5, M6, M7 and highways 10 and 11, which serve as the main entry points to the city from the direction of the north Buda agglomeration.

These priorities are followed by the tracks of hillside autobus lines in Buda, roads leading to hospitals and other healthcare institutions, and to elementary logistic bases. Lower priority roads, of which Budapest has another 2,100 km, are only cleared when all the above work is complete. Snowplows in operation are continuously tracked via GPS devices from the FKF headquarters to ensure that optimal routes are taken.

While this whole scenario sounds very professional and well prepared, other, unexpected obstacles can also hinder the work of FKF. The Budapest Municipal Directorate General for Disaster Management said in a statement that throughout the morning it received 10 weather-related alarm-calls. Snowplows also got stuck in traffic jams, and many of the obstacles were not the immediate results of the snow, but rather traffic jams caused by stuck vehicles many of whom didn’t have the necessary equipment (winter tires or tire chains) appropriate for the dire weather conditions.