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Bad weather set to hit travellers

Millions of festive travellers could face major disruption to their Christmas travel plans tomorrow as the UK prepares for severe gales and heavy rainfall capable of bringing the transport network to its knees.

The Met Office has issued a severe weather warning from dawn on December 23, with the threat of gusts of up to 80mph and localised flooding in pockets of the UK, just in time for the big getaway.

Motorists have been braced to prepare for delays, particularly those heading to the south-west of England and parts of Scotland, while train operators and bus firms have made contingency plans.

Many operators removed limits on day tickets in an effort to dissuade customers travelling at their height of the weather problems, when 50mph speed restrictions are likely to be in place on train services.

Robin Gisby, for Network Rail, said: "Our fundamental concern over the next 48 hours is to get everyone where they want to be for Christmas. It won't be an easy task given the forecast conditions and disruption is likely - but I want to be very clear that our priority is running as many trains as we can safely, rather than worrying about hitting the timetable bang on.

"Hundreds of engineers and other staff will be across the network over the next two days, ready to react quickly to any problems, removing debris and fixing equipment where necessary.

"We will also be monitoring our system of more than 200 weather stations across the network to ensure we can respond to conditions on the ground rather than simply relying on forecasts."

Calum MacColl, forecaster with the Met Office, said those looking to travel home for Christmas ought to prepare for problems on the roads and rails.

He said: "There is scope for very heavy rain, potentially some localised flooding, and strong winds in some areas so there is a risk of travel disruption.

"We have got a depression in the Atlantic pushing towards us from tomorrow morning itself.

"The day will start quite nicely in some places, but there will soon be heavy outbreaks of rain in the south-west of England and south Wales.

"That will quickly move into the North East, and it will bring gales with it."

Mr MacColl said winds of 50-60mph were likely as a weather system sweeps across the country, with isolated gusts of up to 80mph in some places.

He said: "Once the weather sets in, it will be staying all day."

The worst of the weather is expected to clear by the end of Christmas Eve.

A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, which speaks on behalf of the rail industry, said: "Many rail staff will be working throughout the night to monitor the weather and to keep passengers safe and informed.

"Some operators are lifting restrictions to allow people with tickets for travel on Monday to travel today. Customers should check National Rail Enquiries or speak to their train company."

Those looking to make an early getaway before the worst of the weather sets in have been hit by minor problems, with some ferries between England and France delayed due to poor weather.

And train companies have already looked ahead to tomorrow, advising customers to plan their journeys around the heavy winds to avoid the risk of disruption.

A First Capital Connect spokesman said: "Due to the severe weather expected from Monday until Tuesday, Network Rail are going to implement speed restrictions on all our routes and we will be running a reduced timetable on both days.

"We are advising customers to try and get home early on Monday and wherever possible not to travel on Monday evening and Tuesday morning. Services are likely to remain disrupted until the close of service on Christmas Eve."

Virgin Trains said t ickets dated for travel on Sunday or Monday will be accepted for travel on any train on either day.

East Midlands Trains have planned alterations to some services to take the weather into account.

A travel notice said: "At present, it is not known the exact level of service which will be provided, but it is anticipated that approximately two trains per hour will run between Sheffield/Derby/Nottingham and all other stations to/from London St Pancras International from 12:00.

"East Midlands Trains are advising passengers with tickets dated for Monday, December 23 that they may travel today. Advance purchase ticket holders may also travel on services earlier than the time specified on the ticket."

The Cumbria Coast railway line that runs between Carlisle and Barrow is closed at Harrington, Workington, due to a landslide. The line is expected to remain closed today while repair work is carried out.

The Environment Agency said p eople are urged to stay away from promenades along the south coast on Monday and Tuesday because of the wet and windy conditions.

David Jordan, Environment Agency director of operations, said: " Unsettled weather is set to continue throughout the Christmas period, with heavy rain and wind affecting many parts of England, so people should check the flood forecast on the Environment Agency website to help plan - and sign up to flood warnings."

Darron Burness, head of the AA's flood rescue team, said: " Three-quarters of cars that get stuck are written off as it only takes a tiny amount of ingested water to wreck the engine. You're also putting yourself at risk as flood water can mask all manner of hazards, for example open manholes, and just one foot or 30 centimetres of moving water can float your car.

"Moving flood water, particularly, is powerful, relentless and deceptively dangerous, so just stay out."

Police in Cumbria have urged people to be prepared over the next few days, with continued road disruptions and localised flooding.

A spokeswoman said: "Yesterday, the county's roads were affected by standing water which resulted in some roads being heavily affected or closed as well as some areas being flooded.

"The Met Office has advised that more heavy rain is due to hit Cumbria again on Monday and high winds on Tuesday, therefore police want to take this opportunity advise people to take care and be prepared. "

The Cumbria Coast railway line, which runs between Carlisle and Barrow, is closed at Harrington, Workington, due to a landslide. The line is expected to remain closed today while repair work is carried out.

Visitor attractions, too, have had to put in contingency plans due to the weather.

The Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, central London, will close tomorrow.

A spokesman said: " Due to the severe weather conditions of high winds and extreme rain predicted for London tomorrow, PWR Events and The Royal Parks have taken the decision to close Hyde Park Winter Wonderland on Monday for the day.

"All ticket holders for the Lycamobile Ice Rink, Zippos Circus, Magical Ice Kingdom and the Giant Observation Wheel will be refunded for Monday.

"We are very sorry for the inconvenience caused, but Hyde Park Winter Wonderland will be open as usual again on Tuesday at 10am. For further updates please follow us @hydeparkwinter."

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