22 December 2000

Traffic jam warning as travellers shun trains

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Motorway traffic levels this weekend are likely to be at least 10 per cent higher than last Christmas because of the public's lack of faith in train services, motoring organisations forecast yesterday.

As long-distance rail operators admitted that only a small proportion of pre-Christmas trains had sold out, rival coach companies reported bookings up 20 per cent and airlines said domestic flights were carrying up to 30 per cent more passengers than normal.

The AA said that motorway congestion was expected to be very heavy from this afternoon through to Christmas Eve. A survey of motorists' intentions had shown that long journeys were likely to be spread evenly over the three days. Some drivers aimed to set off after work today, while last-chance shopping would delay others until Saturday evening or Sunday.

The organisation said the shift of travellers from rail would inflate traffic volumes by at least a tenth. In a separate but similar assessment, the RAC estimated that an extra one million cars would be on the roads, including 250,000 on the motorways.

A full programme of premiership and league soccer fixtures is expected to add to the congestion on Saturday. An AA official said: "We are not looking at guaranteed gridlock, but wherever accidents occur motorists face the risk of extremely long delays."

Despite a reduction in frequencies on most routes, only two of the five inter-city train companies reported that any services were fully booked. Virgin, Midland Mainline and Anglia said there were ample seats on most trains, and First Great Western said it had stopped taking bookings for only about a quarter of services on Saturday.

GNER, which has had to cut services by more than half because of Railtrack's speed restrictions, is largely booked on Saturday, but still has about a third of seats left for other days.

An Anglia spokesman said: "It looks like bookings are down this year, which is largely because some people have been put off rail travel by all the disruption that occurred in the wake of the Hatfield crash."

National Express, the largest coach operator, said business was 20 per cent higher than last year with "many hundreds" of additional coaches brought into service to meet demand. Economy and advance-booking fares have been withdrawn.

Bryan Bannister, a senior manager, said: "Many of our routes and times are already very busy, and customers will need to book both their outward and return journeys as soon as possible to ensure we can accommodate them."

British Airways said it was providing 12,000 additional seats on domestic routes to meet demand, mostly by replacing 130-seat Boeing 737s with 250-seat 767s. Demand for British Midland flights between London and Manchester is up 32 per cent on last Christmas. Budget airlines also reported rises of more than 30 per cent on Anglo-Scottish routes.