Planes, trains and too many automobiles

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The Independent Online

The first wave of the traditional Christmas traffic jams appeared last night as schools broke up for the festive holiday.

The first wave of the traditional Christmas traffic jams appeared last night as schools broke up for the festive holiday.

Major transport arteries around the country clogged up as holiday-makers attempted an early getaway ahead of next week's expected peak in motorway traffic.

Shopping centres throughout Britain are expecting to be besieged today and tomorrow, and motoring organisations predicted that worse is to come.

An RAC spokeswoman said: "We reckon the worst days next week will be Wednesday and Thursday, with traffic peaking on Thursday evening as many people head off for a long Christmas break without working on Christmas Eve."

The airports operator BAA said that two million people were expected to travel through its seven UK sites from 22 December to 28 December. The busiest day will be Tuesday 28 December, when nearly 400,000 people are due to travel through the BAA airports. About 190,000 passengers are expected to pass through Heathrow, 100,000 through Gatwick and 60,000 through Stansted. Tenerife, Geneva and Malaga are the top Christmas destinations favoured by Gatwick passengers, while Heathrow's most popular routes are New York, Dublin and Paris.

The low-fare carrier Ryanair says it will handle a record 1.35 million passengers - 100,000 up on last year.

A New Year's Eve strike on London Underground looked more likely as talks broke up without agreement. The result of a vote on industrial action by more than 300 signal workers is expected next week in a dispute over pay, jobs and hours.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Association (BMA) expected another surge in road casualty rates fuelled by alcohol. The BMA said that while another Christmas would pass with an unacceptably high drink-drive limit, there was still time to alter a Bill currently going through Parliament.

There was no provision to reduce the limit in the Road Safety Bill but it could be done during the its second reading in the Commons next month, it said. The BMA, which has been campaigning for a lower limit since 1990, urged the Government yesterday to "use this opportunity to save lives".

The BMA calculates that about 50 drink-drive-related deaths would be prevented every year if the limit was reduced from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg, which is the limit in a number of other European countries. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said: "It's too late to change the law for this Christmas but let's make future seasons of goodwill safer for everyone.

"While the BMA believes a further reduction in blood-alcohol concentration levels will prevent deaths and reduce the number of lives ruined, our overall message to drivers is 'don't drink when you drive'.

"Over the past few years deaths and serious injuries from drink-driving have increased. We need a new impetus to reduce the toll of death and injury."

Weather forecasters predicted yesterday that northern parts of Britain are the most likely to enjoy a white Christmas this year. With a week to go, the weather is expected to be unsettled in the run-up to the holiday period, with the possibility of snow next weekend. The likelihood of a white Christmas remains "in the balance" but had significantly increased.

CHRISTMAS HOTSPOTS

RAIL

25 and 26 December: No trains except the Heathrow Express, Eurostar, and a few South Eastern Trains services on Boxing Day. Coaches will replace the Gatwick Express on both days. A reduced Stansted Express is scheduled to run on Boxing Day.

27 to 31 December: Reduced service at Birmingham New Street. Buses replace trains between Stockport and Manchester Piccadilly. Virgin Cross Country will terminate at Manchester Victoria, and Virgin West Coast will terminate at Stockport. Services to South Wales diverted via Bath adding 20 minutes to the journey. Virgin Cross Country will also be subject to diversions.

24 to 28 December: Services between Newcastle and Edinburgh diverted via Carlisle until Tuesday morning. Buses between Edinburgh and Newcastle.

31 December: Added services on many routes from London from midnight to 2am, and on 1 January from 3am to 5am.

ROAD

Traffic expected to increase by about a quarter on the busiest days. Badly-hit areas include M25, particularly near Heathrow, where roadworks will continue, and near Gatwick airport. Other congested will include the M4, the M1 and A1, the M11, the M2, M20, M23, A23, A3 and M3, according to AA Roadwatch. Christmas Eve is expected to be worst.

TUBE

24 December: Tube closes early.

25 December: No Tube.

AIR

About 2 million passengers expected through main airports between 23 and 28 December, with 200,000 passengers passing through Heathrow on Monday alone. BAA warns fireworks and party poppers are banned and crackers must be in original packaging and stowed in the hold. All gifts should be carried unwrapped.

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