Big freeze brings chaos to Britain's roads and railways

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Motorists bore the brunt of the arctic snap yesterday as frozen slush transformed roads in parts of Britain to the equivalent of an ice rink.

Motorists bore the brunt of the arctic snap yesterday as frozen slush transformed roads in parts of Britain to the equivalent of an ice rink.

The most chaotic scenes were in the Midlands, where black ice all but halted traffic during the morning rush-hour. To add insult to injury, some commuters, who had abandoned their cars after long delays on Wednesday, returned to find they had received parking tickets. Birmingham City Council was forced to close all of its schools because of continuing traffic problems and in neighbouring Staffordshire nearly 200 were closed.

North of the border, all schools in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Orkney and Shetland were closed, and motorists were advised to attempt only essential journeys after northern Scotland had overnight snowfalls of up to 5cm (2ins) in places.

An elderly man collapsed and died in the Scottish Borders, after trying to push his wife's car, which was stuck in snow. Council gritter drivers, who arrived at the scene, tried in vain to resuscitate him.

Rail services were affected across the country. Passengers using South Eastern Trains were warned of the most acute freezing conditions for more than 20 years and one train was evacuated after its undercarriage caught fire. The company said the incident was caused by the train drawing more power than usual from the icy rails. Many other train services suffered delays and cancellations.

Some overground sections of the London Underground had no services for the second morning running. The Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines had no trains on sections of their outer London tracks, while a number of other lines had morning rush-hour delays. Anthony Singer, a spokesman for the London Transport Users Committee, said: "Despite having a full week's notice of the weather forecast, preparations by operators were simply not good enough. Passengers will be annoyed, but not surprised, at the latest failure."

There were dozens of collisions on the roads and the AA was taking 1,500 calls an hour - more than double the number of normal breakdown call-outs. The organisation drafted in about 100 extra patrols but there were still difficulties reaching motorists stranded in outlying areas. It reported widespread poor conditions in the Midlands, roads closed in Scotland and north-west England, black ice in south-east England and icy roads in Wales.

Dorset and Hampshire were severely affected by snow and black ice, and a number of accidents - including a lorry jackknifing - were reported by police. Vehicle breakdown services in Scotland were responding to a call every second.

An AA spokeswoman said: "We are still seeing a small number of motorists driving too fast for the conditions, risking their lives and the lives of others. Many motorists are driving blind, as they are not clearing their car windows properly before setting off."

In Chelmsford, Essex, a pregnant woman caught in traffic during a snowstorm was forced to give birth in the back of her car. Lisa Wetherell delivered the 7lb 9oz baby girl in freezing conditions on the rear seat of a Volkswagen Sharan.

Stuart Gaskill, another motorist, told how his usual 45-minute journey home took him seven-and-a-half hours on Wednesday night. He left Coventry at 4pm, abandoned his car at 10pm and arrived home on foot at 11.30pm. In Coleford, Gloucestershire, a 74-year-old pedestrian was killed in a collision with a Mitsubishi 4x4, an accident blamed on Wednesday's atrocious weather conditions.

Forecasters believe the worst of the weather is over and employers were hoping last night that staff would not use the remaining ice and snow as an excuse to take today off and give themselves a long weekend.