Heavy snow showers and freezing winds sweeping across Britain will usher in one of the coldest Easters on record, adding to the disruption faced by millions of people braving rail closures and congested roads as they try to get away this weekend.
Forecasters warned last night of "generally miserable" conditions for the next four days as northerly winds deliver a wintry blast to much of the country. The Met Office said there was a "high risk" of up to 10cm of snow falling early tomorrow across eastern England and the Midlands, bringing chaos to roads and railways.
However, since Easter is falling on the earliest date in the calendar since 1913, two thirds of schools have not yet broken up for their two-week holiday and the numbers of families travelling should be reduced.
The wintry weather will peak tomorrow, when snow flurries and sleet are predicted to reach as far south as London and East Anglia. Rain is forecast for Easter Day and temperatures will struggle to rise above 10C (55F) all weekend. Paul Fox-Hughes, from the Met Office in London, said: "Scotland will see significant snowfall but it will also reach areas where many would not necessarily expect it at this time of the year. By Saturday morning, it could be piling up from Yorkshire southwards, with obvious knock-on effects for transport networks.
"It will be much colder than recent Easters but you have to remember that, even in the 1970s, Easter snowfall was pretty normal."
Large sections of the rail network will be closed, including parts of the west coast and east coast main lines, as Network Rail tackles 30 major engineering projects at a cost of £75m.
The most disruptive closures will be at Rugby on the west coast line, between Swindon and Reading on the Great Western route and between York and Doncaster on the east coast route. The millions of people still expected to travel by train will face diversions and replacement buses.
Network Rail advised passengers to check before they travel, insisting it was doing everything possible to minimise disruption. It is under pressure to avoid a repeat of the overruns that hit its engineering programme over the new year and resulted in a record £14m fine by rail regulators.
A spokesman said: "Snow does not present too much of a problem but our priority is to carry out the works safely and, if there are high winds, we could face difficulties. We appreciate the impact the improvement programme has on passengers but we need to invest for the long term."
Virgin Trains, the company worst-hit by the new year chaos, said journeys on the west coast main line would be delayed by up to an hour today and advised passengers to use alternative routes for the rest of the weekend. A spokesman said: "Easter has always been a quieter period and a lot of people have learnt to travel the day or so before engineering works but there are going to be some people who will have chosen to take the car instead."
The AA estimated that 6.5 million motorists would be on the roads but said the bad weather and later school holidays meant main routes would be only moderately busier than usual.
The heaviest traffic is expected to accumulate on the M25 near Heathrow west of London and on the M6 in the West Midlands. A spokesman for AA Roadwatch added: "It is likely that most of us will be having our Easter eggs at home."
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