Floods, roadworks, strikes, cancellations: get ready for the bank holiday from hell

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The Independent Online

After the soggiest August in nearly half a century, a catalogue of threatened industrial disputes and a flurry of sicknotes bringing chaos to Britain's busiest airport, the nation should at last be looking forward to a few days' respite this bank holiday weekend.

After the soggiest August in nearly half a century, a catalogue of threatened industrial disputes and a flurry of sicknotes bringing chaos to Britain's busiest airport, the nation should at last be looking forward to a few days' respite this bank holiday weekend.

Think again. Although meteorologists promised "just a few showers", institutions from the railways to the organisers of the Reading music festival warned yesterday of a set of obstacles that threaten to ensure the summer ends not so much with a bang, but a traffic-choked, strike-bound squelch.

More than 15 million people are expected to head for the coast this weekend while a further 1.85 million will head overseas during the holiday period.

But to get to their destinations, they will have to contend with nearly 30 separate sets of railway engineering works, some 42 congestion "hot-spots" on the roads, squally showers and the 12 directors of British Airways patrolling Heathrow to "help and consult" customers after a week of cancelled flights and long queues.

Tourism chiefs last night insisted that the range of attractions over the next three days - from the Notting Hill festival in London to the sedan-chair racing in Tunbridge Wells - will help to reverse a reported dip in takings caused by the inclement weather of recent weeks.

The Blackpool Private Hotels Association this week warned that hoteliers could go out of business after rain hit occupancy rates, while B&B owners in the Yorkshire Dales compared levels of trade to the foot-and-mouth disease crisis.

Organisers of the Reading music festival, where some 50,000 people will gather to hear bands such as the Darkness and the White Stripes, warned fans to prepare for flooding and a two-mile walk or bus ride from the nearest parking facility at Reading football club.

A spokesman said: "Much of the car park has been part of the river Thames this week so we are having to use edge-of-town park-and-ride schemes. We've had about 10 times as much rain as this time last year."

The Highways Agency said that across the country road works on a number of major routes had been suspended in an effort to reduce traffic jams. But the cones will not be removed at a number of notorious choke points, including the M25 around Heathrow, the meeting point of the M4 and M5 at Almondsbury and Spaghetti Junction on the M6.

To add to complications, engineers announced yesterday that a £10m project to resurface the Aston Expressway, a major link road in Birmingham, will overrun after torrential rain cost more than 10 days' work.

Weary drivers are prepared for the worst. A survey by an insurance company found that nearly 60 per cent of motorists expected to be delayed by at least half an hour, while a particularly pessimistic 10 per cent are preparing to spend an extra five hours to reach their destination this weekend.

Those seeking to swap the roads for the train will gain little respite, with engineering works scheduled to shut 26 parts of the rail network, including the entire Great Western main line between Slough and Reading, for the weekend, and the West Coast main line at two separate points for a week.

Network Rail insisted that the fact that large parts of the railway network will be out of action is a source of long-term good news for everyone but its maintenance staff.

Iain Coucher, deputy chief executive of the infrastructure company, said: "While for most people it is a weekend of rest, thousands of track workers will be working hard over the long weekend to upgrade and maintain the railway."

Eurostar was equally bullish about the threat of disruption to its 140,000 customers due to travel to the Continent from a strike on Saturday by 160 station staff who are members of the RMT union. The company said it did not expect the industrial action to disrupt schedules.

British Airways, which had hoped for a trouble-free bank holiday after averting a bank holiday strike until a sudden dearth of staff led to the cancellation of more than 30 flights, could not be so optimistic.

The airline said it was cancelling eight Heathrow flights to and from New York and Phoenix during the weekend to ensure the rest of its schedule runs smoothly. Overseeing the operation will be BA's chief executive, Rod Eddington, and his 11 other directors, who have vowed to work at Heathrow to placate customers.

One BA insider said: "I'm not sure if they're going to be wearing high-visibility vests. If I was a BA executive, I'd want to keep my head down."

Meanwhile, weather forecasters could only offer scant grounds for celebration. The Met Office said that the deluges that have helped to make this August the wettest since 1956 are unlikely to reappear.

Instead, there will be drier weather on Saturday and Sunday with showers moving from Scotland and northern England towards the South-east.

As a result, the only event organiser with reason to look forward to this weekend yesterday was Gordon Green, overseer of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwrtyd, Powys.

Mr Green said: "Put it like this, we're not worried about the bog drying up."

WHERE TO AVOID...

Railways

* Great Western main line closed between Slough and Reading all weekend. and no Thameslink cross-river service all weekend.

* West Coast main line closed between Hemel Hempstead and Lichfield and Manchester Piccadilly and Stockport until 5 September. No trains from London Euston from Saturday to Monday.

* Industrial action by Eurostar station staff at London Waterloo and Ashford.

Roads

* M6 "Spaghetti Junction", 24-hour closure.

* M25 Jct 12 to 15, 40mph speed limit.

* M60 Jct 5 to 8, Manchester, total closure of clockwise carriageway for widening work.

Air

* British Airways has cancelled BA115/114 to and from New York JFK on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and BA289/288 to Phoenix, Arizona, on Saturday and Monday.

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