Storm Pia has unleashed Christmas travel chaos as major train line closures caused mass cancellations across the UK and flights were grounded by high winds – while a sudden French strike also forced the Eurotunnel to close.
There were chaotic scenes at London Euston and Kings Cross as damage to overhead wires between Watford and Milton Keynes disrupted the main route to Manchester, while a fallen tree near Doncaster also knocked out travel on the East Coast Main Line to Edinburgh.
At Heathrow Airport, British Airways cancelled dozens of flights between domestic and international destinations in Europe and the United States, while a shock French strike at the Eurotunnel left tens of thousands of passengers on 30 Eurostar trains from London, Paris and Brussels unable to travel.
The Eurostar cancellations spell terrible news for the thousands of people who were hoping to escape from London St Pancras to France, Belgium or beyond for Christmas.
Eurostar bookings for the next few days are heavy, meaning it may prove difficult to find space for everyone who needs to travel.
A Eurostar spokesperson said: “Due to a last-minute strike by Eurotunnel staff, no Channel Tunnel crossings have taken place since…midday.
“Unfortunately, this means 30 Eurostar trains have been cancelled out of London, Paris or Brussels until the end of the day.
“For passengers due to travel tomorrow, Eurostar will update them directly with any changes to services from 1900UK/2000CET (Central European Time).”
They added: “Customers who have been affected today have received direct communication about their journey and had the option to exchange their tickets free of charge or claim a refund.”
Meanwhile, swathes of the UK were subject to weather warnings on Thursday as gusts of up to 115mph were recorded in the Scottish and wind speeds hit around 80mph elsewhere in Scotland and northern England.
The roof was torn from several properties in Sheffield, while trees were uprooted across the country, causing a man to be hospitalised with what are understood to be non-life-threatening injuries after one fell onto his car on the A515 in Derbyshire.
As roads were closed in Derbyshire, workmen were also attempting to remove a tree which fell onto a house in the village of Stanley, and further south, a fallen tree blocked the train line between Ascot, Berkshire and Bagshot in Surrey.
And engineers were working to restore power to more than 40,000 households hit by outages in the North East, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, Northern Powergrid said, with thousands still unconnected as of 4pm.
That was despite the UK’s wind turbines generating a record amount of electricity on Thursday morning, with wind farms across Britain generating 21.8 gigawatts in the space of half an hour, and supplying 56 per cent of all the power used from the grid.
But the wind caused many to batten down the hatches on Thursday, as schools in Shetland were closed and Christmas markets in Sheffield and Liverpool were also shut down due to the conditions.
Trains were also disrupted between Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland after a trampoline blew onto the tracks, while both the East and West Coast Main Lines were shut down for hours – putting a dent in Christmas travel plans for thousands travelling between London, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Shortly after those lines were brought back up and running, Avanti West Coast warned at peak evening rush hour of further cancellations and delays after an object became caught on the overhead electric wires between Stockport and Macclesfield, forcing the line to close.
While a yellow warning for wind – stretching north from Birmingham to the Shetland Islands and including Northern Ireland – ended at 3pm, a fresh weather alert has been issued for snow and ice across Shetland from Thursday and into the weekend – with possible accumulations of 2-5cm of snow.
Residents in the affected areas – which stretch as far south as Aviemore between Friday and Saturday – are warned that icy patches are expected on untreated roads and pavements, bringing the risk of injury from slips and falls as well as travel disruption.
Storm Pia, which was named by the Danish Met Institute, is gradually moving towards mainland Europe where its impacts are expected to be more severe, the Met Office said in a statement.
The winds are due to ease for many across the UK on Thursday afternoon with wet weather likely to persist in western areas.
The Met Office predicted continued “unsettled” weather over the weekend and said a White Christmas – defined as a single snowflake falling on Christmas Day – is likely, particularly over high ground in the far north of Scotland.
Met Office deputy chief meteorologist Dave Hayter said: “It’ll be a particularly wet weekend in the north and west, with breezy conditions for many.
“While those further south will generally be drier, some sporadic showers could spread into the south west at times, as well as some more persistent rain for Wales on Sunday. Christmas Day will likely see a continuation of unsettled, mainly showery, weather in the north west, including Northern Ireland.
“While the day may start damp in southern and central areas, that rain should clear into the English Channel through the evening.”
Additional reporting by PA