Millions of U.K. commuters were told to stay at home today and thousands of people lost power as Britain’s worst storm in five years toppled trees that blocked train tracks and brought down overhead electricity cables.
Winds peaked at 99 miles per hour at 6 a.m. on the Isle of Wight, according to the Met Office, which issued amber warnings, the second-highest level, for six regions from Wales to the North Sea. London Heathrow airport halted 130 flights and the Environment Agency posted more than 140 flood alerts.
“Already this morning we have found and cleared more than 40 line blockages caused by falling trees and we expect to find more,” Robin Gisby, Network Rail managing director of network operations, said in a statement. Services won’t be allowed to run until engineers have been able to check lines for obstacles that could derail trains or cause to be trapped for hours.
The storm, which developed over the Atlantic and has been strengthened by a strong jet stream and warm air near Britain, was expected to produce 20 to 40 millimeters (0.8-1.6 inches) of rain within nine hours, with flooding exacerbated by wind-blown debris, the Met Office said on website. The system’s impact was also felt in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where warnings of hurricane-force winds prompted the idling of ferry services.
Stagecoach Plc’s South West Trains, Britain’s biggest commuter operator, scrapped at least 160 services because of the storm, named St. Jude after the patron saint of lost causes, whose feast day falls today.
SSE Plc said as many as 8,000 customers are without power across central and southern England. The utility sent 200 engineers and support staff to the area over the weekend to prepare for disruption, spokeswoman Morven Smith said by phone.
London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest aviation hub, scrapped about 20 percent of flights between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 10 percent between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., with cross-winds well in excess of the 30 mph that can hamper landings and takeoffs. The airport, which usually has close to 1,300 services a day, said about 5 percent of flights will be scrapped from 4 p.m. onwards.
“These cancellations are being made to give passengers more advance information about their flight and to allow airlines the opportunity to re-book customers on alternative flights as soon as possible,” Heathrow said in a statement.
Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports are advising passengers to check with their airlines on the status of flights. As of 6:30 a.m. there were a total of four cancellations out of 692 flights at Gatwick, though trains to and from the site weren’t due to run before 9 a.m. Multiple flights at London City Airport were also cancelled or delayed.
British Airways, which is based at Heathrow, said in a statement it was canceling services on European and domestic networks today, but that long-haul flights should operate as normal. The unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA said that all schedule changes will be posted on its website.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron held talks with government departments and agencies yesterday “to hear about all the plans to ensure people are protected,” he said. A spokeswoman for the London Stock Exchange said it would operate a normal trading session today.
While “a major storm for the U.K.,” the system’s winds weren’t expected to match those of the so-called Great Storm of 1987, when gusts of 115 mph brought down thousands of trees and 18 people died, Martin Young, the Met Office’s chief forecaster, said on the government agency’s website.
The center of the depression was just off the north coast of Norfolk at about 9 a.m., the Met Office said by e-mail.
“The winds are easing quickly as the storm moves away to the east,” it said, adding that winds should be “well down” by the time weather warnings expire at noon.
Still, even when train tracks have been cleared, many operators will run a reduced or altered service as speed restrictions remain in place, according to Network Rail.
Commuter operator Greater Anglia and the Stansted Express airport link, which had been due to resume service around 9 a.m., don’t now expect to expect to restart until midday, it said. Southern Trains and the Gatwick Express route likewise won’t resume until 10 a.m., rather than the planned 9 a.m., because of the risk of tree branches and debris on lines.
Transport for London said there would be no service on the capital’s Overground rail lines until 9 a.m., though Underground trains, largely protected from the weather, were due to run as normal. Eurostar Group Ltd. said it would be unable to run any cross-Channel rail services before 7 a.m. at least to allow the high-speed line to be inspected.
The Met’s amber alert is the middle category of a three- stage weather warning system for the public. The alert covers London, all of southern England, Wales, the West Midlands and parts of the East Midlands, the Met Office said. A less serious yellow alert was issued for eastern England, the northeast and northwest and Yorkshire and the Humber.
“This weather system is typical of what we expect to see in winter, but as it’s coming in during autumn — when trees are in leaf — and while the ground is fairly saturated, it does pose some risks,” The Met’s Young said.
The storm was also hit western France before spreading to Normandy and Nord-Pas de Calais later this morning, with gusts topping 80 mph on the coasts, according to Meteo France, the national weather forecaster.
About 75,000 homes in France were without electricity this morning because of the first major autumn storm, AFP reported, citing ERDF, the electrical system operator. Power outages were in the west and north of the country, mostly in Normandy and Brittany, AFP reported.
Weather services in Belgium and the Netherlands forecast high winds today, with gusts as high as 87 mph in northwest coastal areas of the Netherlands.
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