Icy blast for transport operators

Questions were being asked tonight about Britain's ability to cope with sub-zero conditions after much of the transport network shuddered to a halt.

Thousands of people were left high and dry after rail operators cancelled services, four major airports closed their doors and motorists faced chaos on the roads.

Some 7,000 schools turned children away from lessons while around two in five people failed to turn up for work, dealing a huge blow to the economy in the crucial run-up to Christmas.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, who has announced a review of how transport operators have coped, was forced to defend himself in the Commons after Labour's Maria Eagle told him to "get a grip".

The shadow transport secretary said: "The country is in chaos with passengers forced to sleep at stations, stuck freezing all night in broken-down trains and trapped in their cars - all at a cost to the economy of up to £1.2 billion a day."

Mr Hammond replied: "When there's extremely high snow and extremely low temperatures, there will be disruption to the transport system."

But the Confederation of British Industry said more needed to be done to ensure the country could function in cold weather.

Welcoming Mr Hammond's review, Neil Bentley, CBI Director of Business Environment, said: "Businesses and their staff are doing what they can to keep Britain open for business in these difficult weather conditions.

"Given the critical economic importance of the transport network, this review is as welcome as it is timely."

But he added: "It is important that transport providers work with the Government to improve the ability of the network to cope with adverse weather conditions."

Heavy criticism has been heaped on rail bosses after 300 passengers found themselves stranded overnight on a Southern train in West Sussex where snow caused a series of line failures around Three Bridges station.

Passenger Rebecca Forsey told the BBC: "It was an absolute nightmare. We had to wait around for several hours in the cold on a freezing platform. We finally got something to eat at 4am."

Rail magazine managing editor Nigel Harris said: "I think it's outrageous and disgraceful in the 21st century that we can have people stuck all night on trains in built-up areas in southern England.

"It's not as if the people were stuck in Outer Mongolia. These were ridiculous and shameful failures. Being involved in the rail business, these incidents make me angry and embarrassed."

The Rail Maritime and Transport union called on ministers to strip train operator Southeastern of its franchise after its services ground to a total halt.

The Government was also urged to suspend planned rail fare increases next month.

General secretary Bob Crow said: "In light of the horrific experiences of travellers on the railways during this cold snap, it would be nothing short of a scandal if the private train operators were allowed to jack up fares by up to 13% in a few weeks' time."

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said problems were caused by the "sheer volume" of snow and by "ice and snow building up on electric conductor rails".

Atoc chief executive Michael Roberts added: "We apologise to all those people who have struggled to get to where they want to go. We understand that that this kind of disruption is incredibly frustrating."

Meanwhile, many of those hoping to travel from Gatwick, Edinburgh, Southampton and London City Airport airports saw their plans thrown into disarray.

Officials said Gatwick would not reopen until at least 6am tomorrow.

On the roads, the AA said it had attended 10,500 breakdowns, with calls coming in at 1,150 every hour.

In Hampshire, a gritting lorry only added to the traffic problems after it overturned as it cleared the A3, near Petersfield.

Meanwhile, motorists were warned of hazardous driving conditions and advised to make only essential journeys.

A survey of almost 1,000 employers by employment law firm Peninsula found 38% of workers could not get to their workplace this morning and a further 43% were late arriving.

Forecasters said around 15 inches (38cm) of snow had fallen in Redesdale, Northumberland, while another 10 inches (25cm) carpeted Charlwood, west Sussex.

Temperatures - which struggled to climb above zero during the day and fell to minus 17.9C in Kinbrace, in Scotland - are expected to plummet further tonight, possibly dipping below minus 12C in London and the South East.

Billy Payne, of MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "Tonight will be the coldest night of the season so far for much of England and Wales.

"We don't often see such a cold snowy spell so early in the season. It's quite remarkable - it isn't something that happens very often so early in the winter."