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.

Councils Able To Bring In More 20mph Speed Limits

(Telegraph) – NEW PROPOSALS to allow local councils to bring in more 20mph speed-limit areas have been announced by the Government.

Up until now, councils wanting to introduce 20mph limits on groups of roads have to do so in speed zones which require traffic-calming measures such as speed humps.

The proposals, announced by Road Safety Minister Paul Clark, do away with the need for the schemes to be accompanied by humps or other measures.

The Government is encouraging councils to introduce the 20mph schemes into residential streets and other roads where cycle and pedestrian traffic is high, such as around schools, shops and parks.

The ”no-humps” plan follows a successful citywide trial, where early indications are that casualties have dipped by 15%.

The Government also renewed its call to local councils to review speed limits on rural roads by 2011.

The Government wants councils to consider reducing the 60mph speed limit – possibly to 50mph – on the most accident-prone single-carriageway A and B roads.

Mr Clark said: ”The number of people killed and seriously injured on Britain’s roads has fallen by 40% since the mid-1990s and Britain now has the joint safest roads in the world. But too many pedestrians and cyclists – including many children – are still being killed or hurt on the roads around their homes and schools.

”We have seen that 20mph zones with traffic calming measures can make a real difference to the safety of local roads. But we’ve also looked at the latest research and listened to councils and residents who want to introduce 20mph limits on a series of roads where physical traffic calming measures aren’t possible or practical.”

The Government proposals were given a cautious welcome today by motoring groups.

Edmund King, the AA president, said: ”We need to introduce a broad degree of common sense when dealing with speed restrictions.

”What we don’t want to see is local authorities adopting an overzealous approach. We’re certainly not keen on blanket reductions but the AA and its members back the idea of targeted reductions.

”We also support 20mph zones where they are needed. But we would like to see more varied speed limits. A 20mph restriction around a school is fine at 8.50 in the morning but not so good at 2am at night.

”Local authorities must remember that we need roads for movement. They must be careful not to introduce limits that lead to drivers getting impatient and trying to overtake all the time.”

Last week a report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed that the introduction of 20mph speed zones in London had reduced road injuries by more than 40 per cent over the period 1986 to 2006.

It found the benefits were most marked in young-child accident rates, with deaths or serious injuries to children reduced by half.

The report also said pedestrian injuries were reduced by just under a third and cycling casualties by 16.9 per cent.

Fuel Duty To Rise From Midnight

(BBC) – A TWO PENCE RISE IN FUEL DUTY will come into effect from midnight, the third increase in nine months.

Stephen Glaister, director of road users pressure group RAC Foundation, told the BBC the government’s latest rise ‘will hit everybody hard.’

When VAT is included, the increase will actually total 2.3p. The average price of petrol across the UK is about 105p per litre.

The government says the extra duty is needed to help fund public investment.

AA president Edmund King said the timing of the rise was ‘pretty dire,’ at a time when the UK economy was trying to exit recession.

Mr King said its members were already having to cut back on car journeys due to the high price of fuel, and that this would only increase following the latest rise, meaning the government’s revenues will not actually rise.

The Petrol Retailers Association pointed out that the price of fuel would increase again when VAT increases from 15% to 17.5% at the end of the year.

‘It would have been preferable for the government to defer this increase until 2010,’ its spokesman said.

Jo Tanner, director of communications at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), said existing high fuel prices were already having a ‘huge affect’ on its members.

She said the freight transport sector had already seen its fuel bills rise by £800m since last December, at the same time as a 50% increase in insolvencies.

Richard George, a road and climate campaigner at the Campaign for Better Transport, said the government should be spending the duty increase on public transport, and not just putting it into the government’s general budget.

‘If the money was going into public transport, drivers would be better off as there would be less cars on the road, less congestion for them,’ he said.

Supermarket group Morrisons said it would not be increasing the cost of fuel at its forecourts until 6 September.