Big freeze gridlock 'costs £1.2 billion a day '

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The Independent Online

Transport industry criticism of the efforts to keep Britain "open" during the cold spell grew today as it emerged the gridlock could cost the economy as much as £1.2 billion a day.

The AA said there had been a failure to deal with the problem of jammed motorways and major roads.

And breakdown service Green Flag said local authorities had not spread enough grit on minor roads.

With Gatwick airport shut all day, David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight Global magazine, said transport infrastructure suffered in the winter in Britain as there was not enough bad weather to justify spending "big bucks" on measures to counter it.

Train companies said they had been "working flat out" to get as many trains running as possible.

But a number of services had to be axed today and there were delays to others.

The £1.2 billion estimation of the hit the economy would take daily from the gridlock came from insurance company RSA.

RSA director David Greaves said: "This cold front couldn't come at a worse time for the UK.

"Bad weather in the run up to Christmas will have a major impact on the UK's economy and could lead to significant losses for already struggling businesses."

He went on: "We're due to see a rush of sales in December ahead of the VAT rise in the new year, and many retailers are relying on these sales to see them through the traditionally quiet post-January sales period.

"If we lose just one fifth of our daily GDP through companies not being able to open and people cancelling spending plans on events and shopping we're looking at about £1.2 billion every working day.

"If the weather continues for the next two weeks, as the Met Office is predicting, this figure will quickly spiral to more than £12 billion, dwarfing the hit we took in January this year."

Paul Watters, head of roads policy for the AA, said there needed to be better planning to allow gritters through when traffic was heavy and roads were blocked.

He said there was chaos in spite of Highways Agency patrols and hundreds of new gritters.

He went on: "The fact is that Britain has lost tens of millions of pounds over the last few days due to road stagnation. We may well have got some extra salt stocks in place but there is almost no point if gritters are not out and are not able to distribute it.

"We have had people trapped on motorways for hours on end and that is unacceptable. In the 21st century we should not have people stuck on the motorway all night.

"We need operational plans for gritters which do not see them stuck in traffic or unable to get to the problem areas."

Mr Watters added that there should be "smarter thinking" about preventing people continuing to join motorways once they were gridlocked.

He said: "Traffic should not be allowed to join a motorway when it is locked up - you must take traffic off, there is no point whatsoever in sending people on to a motorway that is blocked a few miles up. It should be virtually guaranteed to drivers that it won't be allowed to happen.

"They might even have to close motorways earlier to get people off rather than let them into the road to nowhere."

Gary Amos, head of Green Flag's rescue network, said: "One of the main problems drivers are facing is poor road conditions due to a lack of grit being spread by local authorities.

"The spreader trucks have now started to go out on main roads, but this is too little too late for drivers who have had trouble over the last 24 hours."

Mr Learmount said that there had been particularly heavy snowfall at Gatwick, where all flights have been cancelled today.

But he went on: "The fact is that we just don't get enough of this really bad weather to justify chucking big bucks at the problem.

"We don't get the bad weather long enough to justify having massive amounts of extremely expensive equipment lying around for most of the time. That's been the story on the railways, and on the roads with the gritting, and at airports. It's the same old story every year."

Ashwin Kumar, director of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "It is unacceptable and worrying that some passengers were stuck in trains for a number of hours.

"In the last year we have had repeated inquiries into winter disruption and some efforts have been made to improve the situation, but yet again passengers are stuck on trains and cold platforms unable to get home.

"Once again a lack of information was a serious problem. Staff on the ground are doing their best but the industry must get better at telling staff and passengers what's going on when delays happen.

"The rail industry must examine the circumstances of these incidents so we can find out what went wrong and take immediate action."

Mr Kumar said it was "very disappointing to see online journey planners failing to show emergency timetables".

He continued: "Passengers checking National Rail Enquiries have to click through to the small print to discover general information about altered timetables but nothing specific about how long their train will take.

"When the weather is bad, it can sometimes be justifiable to run fewer trains to a slower timetable, but passengers must be able to find out what's going on without difficulty."