The Great Christmas Travel Getaway is hit as floods, signal failures and animals on rail tracks cause chaos for holidaying Britons

Signalling problems west of London caused the cancellation of most long-distance and commuter services in and out of Paddington station during the morning rush hour

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The festive getaway degenerated into farce and fury as a combination of lineside fires and foul weather delayed hundreds of thousands of rail passengers.

Delays and cancellations are expected to continue over the weekend. With trains heavily booked between now and 24 December, when services run down, there were fears that some passengers may not make it to their Christmas destinations.

A substantial programme of engineering works begins today on the West Coast main line, which will disrupt journeys until the new year.

“Getaway Friday” – the busiest day of the Christmas season – began disastrously on lines in and out of Paddington station in London. A series of signalling problems between Southall and Slough, west of London, caused the cancellation of most long-distance and commuter services in and out of Paddington.

Hardest hit was the Heathrow Express. Normally eight fast trains, and four stopping services, run every hour between Paddington and Britain’s busiest airport. On a normal day, 16,000 passengers use the trains.

The chaos coincided with Heathrow’s busiest day. Over 100,000 passengers were expected to arrive at the airport, with 123,000 departures. Passengers trying to get to or from the airport were advised to travel by Underground, a tricky journey likely to take an hour or more – compared with 15 minutes for the Heathrow Express.

The root of the problem appears to be a fire involving trackside equipment, which disrupted signalling between Southall and Slough. This led to the closure of one of two pairs of lines, meaning both fast and slow services had to share the same tracks.

Michael Leyden, head of finance for Heathrow Express, said: “We’re very sorry to our customers for all the problems that are being caused. Our trains are ready to go, but we can’t get on the infrastructure.”

At one point during the day, it was rumoured – inaccurately – that one train had started, but then failed. The sports presenter, Gary Lineker, tweeted despairingly: “The Heathrow Express has now broken down in front of us. The End Of The World becomes more appealing by the minute.”

First Great Western reduced services to one train an hour to Bristol and another to Swansea via Cardiff. During the evening rush-hour, some of the trains that did run were 90 minutes late.

Dozens of trains on the London-Brighton line and along the South Coast were cancelled or delayed because of another lineside fire at Preston Park Brighton affecting signalling equipment. Travellers to and from Gatwick airport faced delays as the express service made additional calls.

In Lancashire, trains between Liverpool and Manchester were diverted because of a landslip near Warrington.  Many services were cancelled.

Rail services in East Midlands were delayed or curtailed by flooding near Long Eaton. In Cornwall, the Liskeard to Looe branch line was closed because of flooding.

In contrast to the trains, Britain’s airports were operating smoothly, with few delays. It was the busiest day of the festive season for Manchester; Gatwick’s heaviest passenger numbers are expected on Sunday.

Britain’s biggest passenger port, Dover, is expected to be at its busiest tomorrow for both departing and arriving travellers, but P&O Ferries said space was still available for last-minute sailings to Calais.