This is the busiest weekend of the winter for travellers by rail, road, ferry and air, but midwinter has brought some significant disruption – mainly because of the heavy rain and flooding in the south of England. And there are further problems for travellers heading for France and beyond. These are the key areas of advent adversity.
Friday was miserable for many rail travellers …
The main disarray was on the London-Gatwick-Brighton railway line – with hundreds of cancelled or heavily delayed trains because of flooding south of the airport. It also affected the M23 motorway, which turned into a linear lake.
Even when that was solved, the electricity supply failed at Gatwick’s railway station. Everything is now back to normal there. But today there are problems popping up elsewhere on the railways across the south of England.
In south and southwest London, there are problems at Mitcham and Epsom. In Kent, the Medway valley line between Strood and Maidstone is closed.
A landslip at Templecombe is causing disruption between Salisbury and Yeovil Junction. Weymouth and Dorchester are cut off until lunchtime at the earliest because of a lineside fire west of Wareham. In East Anglia there are problems on rural routes affecting lines to Sheringham in Norfolk and Felixstowe in Suffolk. And broken trains mean there’s a reduced service on the Isle of Wight, between Slough and Windsor and between Bletchley and Bedford.
Industrial action is also causing problems …
Yes, London Waterloo, the hub for South Western Railway, which runs trains to southwest London, Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and all counties to Devon, is normally the busiest station in Britain – except this month because it’s day 20 of a strike by members of the RMT union in a very long-long-running dispute over the role of guards.
It’s turned into a war of industrial attrition between the rail union and the train operator with more than a quarter of a million travellers a day caught in the middle. Only about half the normal timetable is operating, last trains of the evening will depart before 11pm, and there are no services at all on some parts of the network. The strike is set to continuing to early January, ending just as fares go up on the trains from here and everywhere else in Britain.
And north of the Thames at St Pancras International, Eurostar has cancelled four trains to and from Paris today and five tomorrow due to the continuing nationwide strikes in France – the cross-Channel operator also delayed its Friday night train to the French Alps by nearly 12 hours.
For anyone who reaches France, their problems could just be beginning as much of the public transport is shut down, including around two out of three TGV train services.
Meanwhile Network Rail staff are preparing for the now-traditional engineering work across the rail network …
Network Rail says “significantly fewer people travel over Christmas” and that “the vast majority of the network will be unaffected by upgrade work”. But today there’s disruption on the East Coast main line from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Yorkshire to London King’s Cross.
On Sunday links from London St Pancras to Sheffield, Nottingham and Leeds will be disrupted because of engineering work near Kettering. And if you’re planning to travel on the Great Western lines between South Wales, the West of England and London Paddington, then best get there by Monday because after that it closes down to next weekend.
On the roads …
The RAC predicts unusually heavy traffic today, particularly between 10am and 3pm, and says it will be worst southbound on the M40 between Banbury and Bicester.
Sunday is going to be worse – especially on the M1 between Flitwick in Bedfordshire and Daventry in Northamptonshire around lunchtime, with delays of over 90 minutes.
Further south, drivers can expect to dwell for nearly an hour on the M25 clockwise between the junctions for the M23 to Gatwick and M40 to Oxford.
But if you’re driving to one of the Channel ports, then beware. Forecast atrocious weather on the Western Channel and the Bay of Biscay has caused Brittany Ferries to cancel its Saturday night sailing from Plymouth to Roscoff and the Sunday sailing from Portsmouth to Bilbao.
Also it’s the busiest weekend of the winter sailing on the short sea crossings from Dover – the port says on average there’s a vehicle passing through every six seconds on average.
Motorists are being told by DFDS to get to the port two hours before their sailing – and that, if it’s still not long enough to get through, they will automatically be transferred to the next available departure.
And at the airports …
Friday was messy at Gatwick because of problems reaching the airport for passengers and staff. Today there’s just a dozen or so delays of an hour or more on easyJet.
Heathrow and Manchester got through a monumentally busy Friday with just a handful of long delays and cancellations. Today at Heathrow there’s a couple of early cancellations to Lisbon and one to Dublin from Heathrow, but the remaining top 10 airports are all looking smooth: Manchester, Stansted, Luton, Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast International.
Sunday is the peak winter date at Gatwick and Luton, and will be very busy at Manchester.
Passengers can help by not taking wrapped presents – or Christmas crackers – in hand luggage through the security checkpoint.
The wild fires in Australia could affect British visitors heading there for Christmas …
According to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service: “Catastrophic fire danger is forecast for the Greater Sydney, Illawarra/Shoalhaven and Southern Ranges areas on Saturday 21 December 2019, due to worsening weather conditions.
“Very high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity is forecast, making conditions extremely dangerous.”
Thousands of British travellers are flying to the Sydney area this weekend to be there by Christmas – and many are concerned about flying into what they perceive to be a danger zone.
The Foreign Office warns UK visitors to Australia: “Smoke generated by bushfires can result in poor air quality, which could provoke respiratory conditions. Smoke can often accumulate many kilometres from the fire, including in urban areas and major cities.”
But airlines are not at present allowing Australia-bound travellers to change or cancel their plans.
Elsewhere, the Foreign Office is warning of continuing disruption across France, and warns of “potentially violent protests” and road blocks on the French overseas territory of St Martin in the Caribbean.