Rail strikes threatens Easter chaos on roads

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The Independent Online

Britain's Spring heatwave continued yesterday but dark clouds were gathering on the horizon as a rail strike and extensive track maintenance work brought chaos to the railway network and weather forecasters predicted a cold and wet weekend.

Britain's Spring heatwave continued yesterday but dark clouds were gathering on the horizon as a rail strike and extensive track maintenance work brought chaos to the railway network and weather forecasters predicted a cold and wet weekend.

As few as 10 per cent of trains were operating on some lines yesterday – and less than 60 per cent were running overall – after the one-day stoppage involving train guards.

And, to make life more difficult for holidaymakers, Network Rail has decided to take advantage of the Easter break to complete major maintenance work over the next four days which is likely to severely disrupt services.

"There's been disruption because of a strike, then there will be work Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday," a spokesman for the Strategic Rail Authority.

"People will say 'what the bloody hell is the rail industry playing at'. But we take the position that we have a lot of lines [to work on] and we have four days to work on them and really get things done and dusted, rather than do it gradually over months."

Paddington mainline station in London will be closed over the entire weekend for signalling work – meaning no Heathrow Express trains will be running. The work has become essential on the complex network of approach lines into the terminus after the Ladbroke Grove disaster in 1999 when 31 people were killed. A spokeswoman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said the areas worst affected by maintenance work will be in East Anglia, eastern England and some parts of Scotland.

All this means more congestion on the roads which are usually busy at Easter. The AA was predicting 18 million motorists would be on the roads this weekend – up 20 per cent on last year. Much of the congestion was expected to centre on routes to the coast. Delays on major routes such as the M3, M25 and M5 were already in evidence yesterday afternoon.

An AA spokeswoman said motorists should check their water and oil levels, and tyre pressure before heading out into the traffic jams in the heat. "We urge people to be patient and allow extra time for their travel," she said.

However, the Meteorological Office is warning that the glorious weather enjoyed by much of Britain – temperatures were in the mid-to-high 20s across the country yesterday – will tail off over the weekend.

Today is expected to remain warm, but temperatures tomorrow are likely to be back below 20C, with the coldest conditions in southern England. Showers and colder conditions will affect Sunday and Monday.

The only people with a chance of having a fine weekend throughout are those in Scotland, a Met Office weather forecaster, Frank Saunders, said. "It's not going to be like it's been," he said. "But, except for a few lucky people in the Scottish Highlands, more than half of the break will still be fantastic."

The change in temperature will be such that snow is possible in the highest parts of the Welsh mountains and the Pennines of central England.

By contrast, on Wednesday, temperatures in Cardiff hit 26.9C, while Mr Saunders said a recording of 27C, near the Isle of Skye in the west of Scotland yesterday, was believed to be the highest recorded April temperature in Scotland for 130 years.

The first of an estimated 1.8 million people travelling abroad for the Easter period left from airports and seaports yesterday. The Association of British Travel Agents said Spain and its islands were popular destinations for Britons travelling abroad this weekend. Domestic tourism chiefs said that around 2.6 million Britons were expected to take trips of one night or more within England over Easter, spending around £400m.

¿ Cut-price plane tickets went on sale yesterday as part of a bid by British Airways to stimulate the long-haul travel market which has been badly affected by the war in Iraq and other international events. Savings of up to 60 per cent were being offered on 1.5 million return tickets.

London to New York return flights were on sale for £199 with London to Miami return tickets going for £239. Nearly 60 long-haul destinations are covered by the deal.

Tiffany Hall, BA's head of sales and marketing, said: "There has been a downturn in bookings as a result of world events but we believe that the mood of the British public is now changing and that there is a growing desire to travel once again.

Other offers included flights to Boston from £209 return, San Francisco and Los Angeles from £239, Tampa from £269 and the Seychelles from £439. US destinations also included San Diego, Phoenix and Denver from £269, and Orlando from £279. The tickets are available for sale until 15 May for travel between 20 April and 10 December.

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