British transport system unable to cope with Christmas getaway

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The Independent Online

Millions of Britons taking to the air, railways and roads over the festive period face an unprecedented level of delays, cancellations and disruption including the threatened closure of all major airports as the nation's creaking transport infrastructure suffers the effects of a seasonal flurry of engineering works and industrial action.

Union leaders last night raised the prospect of bringing Heathrow, the world's busiest airport, and six other key airports including Gatwick and Stansted to a grinding halt over the new year with a strike over a move by the Spanish-owned British Airports Authority (BAA) to close its final salary pension fund to new employees.

Unite, the recently-merged super union, and two other unions are expected to announce today that 5,000 members employed by BAA, including large numbers of vital security and maintenance staff, have voted to go on strike. The unions claimed that the loss of so many security screening staff as well as key personnel including firefighters and administrative staff would force the closure of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted in London as well as the airports at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Southampton and Aberdeen.

Up to three million Britons are due to fly abroad for the festive season and the first stoppage could come as soon as 29 or 30 December. A spokeswoman for the Transport and General Workers Union section of Unite said: "You simply cannot run an airport without, for example, security staff."

The threat of major disruption at airports is just one element of a potentially chaotic Christmas and new year across the transport network, with two major rail arteries closed for at least part of the next 10 days, creating misery for passengers and also for 18 million motorists.

A strike at Heathrow and the other London airports would lead to the cancellation of hundreds of flights and spell financial disaster for BAA, which last year made a 607m profit but is saddled with debt following its 10bn takeover by Grupo Ferrovial. BAA declined to comment, saying only that it considered the actions "unnecessary".

In a separate dispute, 3,000 cabin crew with Virgin announced two 48-hour stoppages on 9 and 16 January after voting to strike over a rejected pay deal. The action will almost certainly result in cancellations of flights.

The turmoil in the aviation industry will offer little solace to rail passengers seeking alternative means of travel due to heavy delays and disruption caused by a programme of engineering works which will see the partial closure of both the west coast and east coast main lines, as well as the 10-day closure of Liverpool Street station in London.

Passenger watchdogs expressed their dismay after Network Rail, the company in charge of rail infrastructure, announced that its works from 27 to 30 December on the west coast main line will overrun by a day.

Virgin, the rail company, said the extension to New Year's Eve of the closure at Rugby, which will add an hour to passengers' journeys by requiring them to take a bus between Birmingham International and Northampton, would affect at least 50,000 people. Under the terms of its contract, Network Rail is obliged to give at least 12 weeks' notice of line closures but it only revealed the 24-hour extension on Wednesday. Anthony Smith, chief executive of the rail watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "This is unbelievable. Thousands of people have booked or planned new year travel in good faith."

Rail industry sources confirmed that the quantity of engineering work was "substantially above" what is normal. Up to four million people are expected to use trains today and Saturday as the festive getaway begins, with a further 18 million taking to the roads. Most of the railway closures begin on Sunday, thus causing massive disruption to passengers trying to travel on Christmas Eve.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) described as "completely baseless" claims that its members were restricting the number of discounted tickets to maximise their profits. The TSSA rail union claimed cheaper deals make up only 10 per cent of sales on busy routes and were often snapped up weeks in advance of travel during peak periods.

Network Rail defended its decision to close large sections of the railway by saying it expected most people to travel before Sunday and had deliberately chosen the festive season because beyond pressure points this weekend and around the new year it was one of the quietest periods of the year.

Despite a move by the Highways Agency to alleviate traffic jams by completing or suspending two-thirds of its road works on motorways and A roads in England by today, motoring organisations warned of congestion throughout the weekend at hot spots including the M25 and parts of the M1, M6 and M62.

Transport campaigners said the seasonal travel misery was a symptom of the pressure being put on Britain's stretched infrastructure by chronic under-investment. Jason Torrance, of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: "We are seeing our infrastructure going in the wrong direction from what is necessary. Over the last decade we have seen road traffic increase and a diminishment of government funding going into our rail infrastructure which will result in people paying more for their rail fares."

They do things differently on the Continent

France

More than 1.5 million people will leave Paris railway stations over the next three days but scores of extra trains have been scheduled and no delays are expected.

The threat of a renewed French railway strike has been averted. The state-owned railway company, the SNCF, will run 1,787 trains from Paris stations before Monday evening. The most popular Christmas destinations are the Alps, for the start of the ski season, and the Mediterranean coast.

A strike by ground staff forced the cancellation of 40 Air France domestic flights at Orly airport south of Paris yesterday. But it is notexpected to disrupt flights over the Christmas weekend.

John Lichfield

Italy

Italy is bracing for the mother of all holiday jams as the motoring organisations predict that 15 million cars will be piling on to the motorways between today and Boxing Day. The most critical days are predicted to be today and tomorrow, with Sunday not far behind.

Recent strikes involving every form of transport from Airbuses to articulated lorries and hearses have acclimatised Italians to travelling misery, but with the highest per capita car ownership in the world behind the US, vast holiday jams are as traditional at Christmas as panettone and ravioli. Nor do train travellers escape: the high-speed network will soon span the whole country, but in the meantime poor maintenance and other problems routinely cause massive delays to supposedly high-speed journeys.

Peter Popham

Spain

Spaniards were expected to make up to 18 million journeys during the Christmas holidays from today to 7 January. With heavy rains expected to lash parts of the country and many people attending parties or returning to see relatives, drivers were warned to take extra care. More than 8,000 extra police will be deployed, some working in helicopters, and 990 speed cameras will keep an eye on anyone putting their foot down. Last year, 114 people were killed on the roads. In an effort to cut this year's death toll, a television advertising campaign warned drivers: "In your car you can live it all or lose it all. You decide." Major airports including Madrid Barajas, Barcelona, Malaga and Tenerife were expected to be very busy with travellers asked to turn up in plenty of time.

Graham Keeley

Germany

Christmas and New Year travel in Germany is likely to be chaotic on the roads as schools in nearly all 16 federal states break up today. There will be more traffic jams on autobahns on the weekend of 5-6 January with school starting again on Monday 7 January.

Extra trains and buses run on New Year's Eve and into New Year's Day, but commuters face no services after 7 January if Germany's train drivers go ahead with their threatened pay strike . Several airlines, including British Airways and easyJet, are offering no services to Germany on Christmas Day.

Tony Paterson

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