Roads and railways brought to a standstill

Transport
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The Independent Online

Trains

Trains

Ferocious storms and critical safety work undertaken by Railtrack combined to bring much of Britain's rail network to a standstill yesterday.

The violent winds and torrential rain had a much bigger impact on Britain's rail services than the hurricane force blasts of 1987, according to Railtrack.

While most train operators were managing to provide a skeleton service last night, it was after a day in which a dozen companies or more were forced to stop the vast majority of their trains.

"Nearly all operators south of Manchester copped it," according to a spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies. Among the operators which brought most of their trains to a standstill were Connex, Central Trains, Virgin, Great North Eastern, Eurostar, West Anglia Great Northern, C2C, First Great Western, Silverlink, Thames Trains, Gatwick Express and Midland Mainline. Only a trickle of trains were managing to get through to London stations by mid-morning.

All the operators were hoping to provide most of their services today, although high-speed lines in particular will still be subject to emergency timetables and speed restrictions in the wake of the Hatfield train crash in which four people were killed.

The advice for travellers throughout most of southern Britain yesterday was to stay at home and train operators were urging their passengers to check what trains are running today. However, the national rail inquiry service failed to cope with calls from travellers and most heard recorded messages directing them to the website www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Obstacles blown on to the track around the country included a warehouse roof near Peterborough, a portable cabin at Skegness and a garden shed near Hull. The line was blocked at Tilehurst, west of Reading, when a 150ft oak tree fell on it.

It is estimated that over half the rail network was severely affected by the storms. A Railtrack spokesman said: "The network has been worse affected than in the storms of 1987 which, although more severe,, were more localised in the south of England."

Trains in south Wales which normally take thousands of commuters from the valleys to Cardiff were severely disrupted. Rush hour services were stopped in their tracks by flood water and debris piled up by the storms. Later, a few trains were able to crawl the 30-odd miles to the Welsh capital.

In London, a six carriage Piccadilly Line underground train struck a tree between Osterley and Boston Manor. The driver of the train, which had just left a depot and was not carrying passengers, suffered leg and back injuries and had to be cut from his cab, said a London Fire Service spokesman. The train was extensively damaged.

Services on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow airport were suspended and Heathrow Express services from Paddington were also halted after overhead cables came down at Acton.

* The start of the public inquiry into rail safety in the wake of the Southall, Paddington and Hatfield disasters was cancelled yesterday as transport chaos stopped lawyers and witnesses travelling to the capital. The session was postponed until 10am today.

Roads

Much of the motorway system was disrupted by closures and massive traffic jams yesterday as the storm swept across southern Britain. Three motorists have died on the roads in the bout of bad weather.

Scores of minor roads were also shut, blocked by floods and fallen trees. Miles of traffic jams were reported on main roads into the big cities as rail closures forced commuters into their cars.

The AA was taking 2,000 calls an hour, double the usual number, as engines became waterlogged. A spokesman said hundreds of motorists had abandoned journeys - and sometimes their cars - on the way to work after roads were closed. The cost of the clean-up will be huge and it could be days before roads are back to normal, the organisation warned.

While South-east England bore the brunt of the storms, some northerly roads were affected by blizzards.

In south London a man was killed when his car hit surface water and skidded, hitting a parked car and then a bus. Richard Clark, 31, a computer technician from Tooting, was driving along Reigate Avenue in Sutton when the accident happened on Sunday night.

One man died yesterday after his motorbike was thought to have hit a tree on the A387 at Wrantage, near Taunton, Somerset. Another person was killed and two were seriously injured when a tree fell on two vehicles on the A3 near Hindhead, Surrey. A taxi driver was in a serious condition in hospital with head and leg injuries after a tree fell on his cab in Brentwood, Essex. In Norfolk, police said two people were released uninjured by firefighters after being trapped when trees fell on their cars.

Parked cars were also damaged by falling branches, and the RAC reported a "huge" number of minor accidents.

The worst affected areas were Surrey, East and West Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Berkshire, Essex and central London. Long sections of the M25, M23 and M4 motorways were closed because drainage could not clear the heavy rain. Three lorries were blown over on the M1 in the East Midlands,and rush-hour traffic was crawling on the approaches to London. The M48 bridge over the Severn was shut due to high winds. Scores of roads in south-east Wales were closed by flood water and debris. Gwent police advised people not to drive.

More northerly parts of England did not escape the storms. Ten major roads in Yorkshire and the North-east were shut, together with 30 in Lancashire.

An AA Roadwatch spokeswoman in Scotland said the position was much better there. "We're basking in sunshine.There's been absolutely nothing to suggest the volume of traffic is higher and the road conditions are fine. It looks like people hoping for trains going south are opting for flights or just staying put."

Air and sea

More than 100 passenger flights out of Heathrow and Gatwick airports were cancelled yesterday, and some incoming services were diverted to regional airports.

Airlines said the position had improved by later yesterday, but some disruption was expected to continue because many aircraft and crew would be in the wrong place.

A spokeswoman for British Airways said the cancellations yesterday were caused by potentially dangerous winds at both major London airports.Flight crews had also hit trouble in trying to get to work.

At Heathrow 73 BA short-haul flights were cancelled, about one-third of the scheduled total. Two long-haul flights were cancelled. At Gatwick, 27 short-haul services were scrapped but intercontinental services were not affected.

Nine of BA's inbound flights to Heathrow and six to Gatwick were diverted to regional airports at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Prestwick, Manchester and Cardiff.

The BA spokeswoman saidsome further disruption could be expected today, but nothing on the scale of yesterday.

Passengers trying to get to Heathrow airport were affected by the closure of the Piccadilly Line after an accident, and of the Heathrow Express service from Paddington.

People travelling to Stansted airport in Essex were faced with the closure of the Stansted Express from Liverpool Street station, which was replaced by a half-hourly bus service. There were no flight cancellations at the airport.

At one point yesterday six ferries carrying more than 6,000 passengers were forced to wait off the Kent coast after P&O Stena directed the vessels to a calm natural bay area known as the Downs. The ferries were held there until it was safe for them to dock at Dover, which had been closed because of the storm.

Later a spokesman for the ferry line said the winds had abated and Dover was managing to provide a "skeleton" service. If the weather continues to improve, shipping lines hope to get back to their normal timetables today.

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