Millions of festive travellers could face major disruption to their Christmas travel plans 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 those looking to make an early getaway across the seas have already faced some disruption to services as a result of the adverse weather.
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 areas will likely be the south-west of England, particularly on higher ground.
“There will certainly be a legacy of rainfall from previous days, so there will be scope for localised flooding.
“Forecasts are painting a very wet and windy picture.”
The worst of the weather is expected to clear by the end of Christmas Eve.
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 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.
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.
Virgin Trains said s trong winds were expected from Monday afternoon and that delays are “likely”.
A spokesman said: “If you are due to travel in the afternoon or evening on Monday, you are advised to travel today or on Monday morning.
“Tickets dated for travel on Sunday or Monday will be accepted for travel on any train on either day.
“All peak travel restrictions until close of play on Tuesday 24 are lifted.”
Some speed restrictions will also be put in place.
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.”
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.”
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: “Tragically people die because they’ve taken risks and attempted to drive through flood water just to save a few minutes.
“Flood water is dangerous. If there is widespread flooding in your area then don’t travel and if a road is closed then turn around and make a detour. Your journey could take you a little longer but making the right decision could ultimately save your life.
“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.”