Christmas Road, Rail And Air Chaos As UK Grinds To A Halt

(Guardian) – BRITONS were last night steeling themselves for one of the most fraught Christmas getaways in years, as bad weather and snow closed major airports, paralysed roads and disrupted train services.

As the UK again found itself struggling to cope with a winter snap, transport operators warned that the backlog caused by cancellations of flights and train services could threaten the travel plans of many more people in the coming days.

Already, anyone holding a Eurostar ticket to travel to France today will not be able to go before Christmas Eve, as the company struggles to process the backlog of passengers after the three-day suspension of service caused by the wrong sort of snow in northern France.

Though the shuttle between London and the rest of Europe was set to reopen at 7.30am today, only those with tickets for the weekend will be allowed to board.

Snow caused numerous delays in air travel as Gatwick airport’s runway was shut for a number of hours and Luton suspended flights yesterday. Many flights bound for both airports were diverted to East Midlands, causing a knock-on effect as planes were left overnight at the wrong airport. Cancellations were also reported at Stansted, Aberdeen and Bristol.

British Airways cancelled all European and UK domestic flights out of Heathrow after 7pm, and services from London City and Gatwick were “significantly disrupted”.

A spokesman for easyJet said that all flights from Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Milan would be grounded this morning. He added that the airline could not guarantee that everyone trying to travel before Christmas would be able to. “I don’t think any transport provider could be confident everyone will be able to get to where they want to go.”

The AA reported its busiest day for breakdowns in a decade yesterday. Some 16,000 breakdowns were recorded by mid-afternoon, compared with the winter average of 10,000 a day.

The AA’s president, Edmund King, advised drivers not to expect rescue services to reach them if they ignored warnings and ventured out in the worst affected areas.

“Whenever there is bad weather, authorities always warn people not to undertake non-essential journeys, and usually I would take that with a pinch of salt. But on this occasion, I really would warn people that if they choose to travel they must remember rescue vehicles may well be unable to reach them,” King said. He said Basingstoke and Reading were totally cut off for a time yesterday as major roads were gridlocked by the bad weather.

“Ring roads turned into ice rinks, and councils either didn’t seem to be gritting in time, or didn’t use enough grit and salt. In Basingstoke, the council didn’t seem to start gritting until 2:30pm, by which point it had been snowing for an hour and a half.”

The weather onslaught has come at the worst time for rail companies, which have reported a surge in domestic passenger demand this Christmas, fuelled by fear of airline disruption. The Association of Train Operating Companies said 814,000 advance tickets were sold in the first 10 days of December, 12.5% up on last year.

Network Rail is carrying out £100m of investment and 730,000 man-hours of engineering work over Christmas, markedly less than in recent years when mainline services were beset by delays after Christmas. There will be 8,000 more trains and 44% fewer replacement bus services than last year. Engineering works likely to cause most rail disruption are on the line between Bristol and Newport.

The cold weather is expected to continue for the rest of the week, with daytime temperatures rarely above 3C (37F) or 4C, and with temperatures of –5C to -7C common at night, said the Met Office. Heavy snow warnings have been issued for today in many parts of the Midlands and southern England.

Tomorrow and Thursday there will be sunny spells with showers falling as rain or snow, but not as heavy as in recent days. Christmas Day is likely to start sunny before a front moves in from the west, bringing rain or snow.

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