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Great getaway followed by big freeze

Britain's railway network was partially crippled yesterday as four days of Easter engineering work got under way and forecasters predicted a bitterly cold start to the Easter weekend.

Some of the busiest sections of both the east and west coast main lines were running less than one train every hour, as operators reverted to weekend services to make way for the huge £75m track-laying and bridge repair scheme.

But Good Friday did not turn out to be the day of travel chaos many had predicted. Traffic volumes on the nation's motorways peaked the night before, as travellers keen to make the most of their time off took to the roads as early as possible. A spokeswoman for the RAC said: "The roads were pretty busy last [Thursday] night as we predicted. People seem to have been desperately trying to get away, because it's such a short weekend."

While the predicted snow had yet to hit hard, with the first flurries in Aberdeen, high winds in the English Channel resulted in many passengers missing ferries from Dover, with police reporting three-mile queues at the port's eastern dock. The Channel Tunnel was also heavily clogged with road traffic. A yachtsman who chose to brave the force eight gales whipping the Solent had to be airlifted to hospital after he was tossed into the sea.

Although the country's airports were very busy – two million Britons were expected to head abroad for the weekend with around 482,000 flying out yesterday – BAA reported few significant delays or flight cancellations. Network Rail was quick to reassure passengers that services would resume on Tuesday. This year has proved an expensive one for the company, after a similar programme at New Year overran, landing it with a record £14m fine.

Iain Coucher, the company's chief executive, said: "We are very confident we can do all the work we have to do over these four days. It does cause disruption to passengers and we try to minimise that disruption – we pick bank holidays because there are fewer passengers than on a normal day."

Temperatures are due to drop below freezing in London tonight and forecasters confirmed that more snow was likely to fall over the weekend, with southern parts of Yorkshire and areas of the east Midlands most at risk.

Supermarkets appear to be one of the few beneficiaries of the unseasonable Easter weather with sales of winter comfort foods reportedly rising fast.