Driving home for Christmas: 18m take to the roads as rail and Heathrow still struggle



An estimated 18m cars are expected to hit the road today as Britons take advantage of the temporary thaw to drive home for Christmas and pick up last-minute presents.

Breakdown services are preparing for a record-breaking day as shoppers and holidaymakers combine on the roads after days of snow prevented travel in many parts of the country.

But it is not just the roads that are expected to see chaos today, some rail operators are reducing services by up to 25 per cent in an attempt to minimise weather-related delays and Heathrow Airport is still not fully operational.

Queues: Further traffic problems are expected today, the main day of the Christmas getaway with 18m cars expected on the roads

Queues: Further traffic problems are expected today, the main day of the Christmas getaway with 18m cars expected on the roads

After five days of chaos at Britain's busiest airport, 91 per cent of flights are due to operate today.

Disruptions are due to 'crew displacement' and problems at European airports, a Heathrow spokesperson told TravelMail.

Colin Matthews, chief executive of operator BAA, has said that he will not accept his annual bonus this year due to Heathrow's inability to cope with the heavy snow which fell on Saturday.

His announcement comes as a war of words has broken out between airlines and BAA after it was claimed help was offered to clear snow but rejected on 'health and safety' grounds.

A spokesman for Lufthansa said: 'There was not enough manpower available. We were surprised at how long it took to get things operational.

'We were not allowed to clear stands for health and safety reasons.'

Edward Welsh, director of corporate affairs at the Association of Train Operating Companies said some operators would be reducing services today by up to 25 per cent.

Gridlock expected: The combination of last-minute shopping and holiday travel in icy conditions will cause delays

Gridlock expected: The combination of last-minute shopping and holiday travel in icy conditions will cause delays

Flight pain: Passengers queue outside Terminal 3 yesterday as the backlog begins to clear

Flight pain: Passengers queue outside Terminal 3 yesterday as the backlog begins to clear

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'Some train companies are running reduced services in some cases. Three train companies have quite significant reductions in their timetables, others are more minor.'

Pressed on how significant the reductions would be, he replied: 'It could be around the figure of 25 per cent.'

He added: 'As of now, all routes are open, except for a small number of lines in Scotland.'

Mr Welsh said he understood passengers' frustrations at yesterday's delays but said most services had got through: 'There definitely were delays and cancellations and we understand people's frustrations, but actually the majority of services got through and most of them arrived on time.'

He said the timetable reductions meant the remaining services could run more reliably.

Passenger backlogs at airports have begun to ease, but critics are rounding on the UK's inability to cope with wintry weather.

Working again: A Turkish Airlines plane prepares to land at Heathrow yesterday after both runways were opened for the first time in days

Working again: A Turkish Airlines plane prepares to land at Heathrow yesterday after both runways were opened for the first time in days

Much of the country saw temperatures fall below zero overnight, prompting widespread warnings for icy roads.

Up to 75 councils out of a total of 205 are still waiting for orders of salt after a government report suggested the country may run out later this winter if cold conditions continue.

The majority of the UK should stay dry but cold today, with slight snow showers in northern and eastern parts of the country.

The AA's Paul Watters said: 'We are building up for a problematic day on the roads.'

'With a third of drivers looking to travel more than 100 miles, it really would pay for people to keep abreast of the weather and travel reports, be flexible and adapt their travel plans accordingly,' said an AA spokesman.

BAA is facing a race against time to get travellers to their destinations before Christmas and warned it could not guarantee to clear the backlog of passengers at Heathrow.

After reopening its second runway on Tuesday, the gateway fulfilled two-thirds of its business yesterday but stressed passengers should not expect an immediate return to normality.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson said operator BAA had 'very serious lessons' to learn from the chaos.

Feeling blue: Sheep were dyed a bright colour so farmers could spot them in the hills of County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Feeling blue: Sheep were dyed so farmers could spot them in the hills of County Antrim, Northern Ireland

BMI chief executive Wolfgang Prock-Schauer also claimed the airport 'did not have enough de-icing fluid' - something a Heathrow spokesman strenuously denied.

'It is categorically untrue that we have either run out of de-icer, failed to order enough de-icer or accepted de-icer supplies from the Government,' the spokesman said.

And after cancelling more than 2,000 flights, British Airways said it hoped today and Christmas Eve would see it operate a full long-haul departure schedule from Heathrow. It will also operate a normal schedule at Gatwick and London City airports.

All airports continued to tell customers to check with their airline if their flight was operating.

Festive fun: Children enjoy a snowball fight at the Ironbridge World Heritage Site in Ironbridge, Telford

Festive fun: Children enjoy a snowball fight at the Ironbridge World Heritage Site in Ironbridge, Telford

Sean Tipton of the Association of British Travel Agents said: 'The travel industry is very pleased that both Heathrow and Gatwick are returning to normal service.

However, there will still be some delays and cancellations due to the many aircraft being out of position.

'Many package holidaymakers whose flights were cancelled over the weekend will now be jetting off on holiday due to their flights being rescheduled.'

After the Eurostar was crippled, a company spokesman said it was running 90 per cent of its service.

The travel improvement coincided with weather forecasters predicting relatively mild weather in the run up to Christmas Day.

Coach firm National Express has laid on an extra 200 services a day to help up to 50,000 passengers who are said to have abandoned rail travel.

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