Hundreds stranded as snow chaos closes M8

HUNDREDS of motorists were stranded in their cars in freezing temperatures for more than 12 hours last night on Scotland's motorway network as heavy snow plunged the country into chaos.

• Nose-to-tail traffic on the M8 at the Baillieston Interchange Picture: Robert Perry

The Met Office has come under fire for failing to predict the scale of the snowstorm that hit the Central Belt, as schools were closed just hours after opening and the army was brought in to take patients to hospitals.

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Travel ground to a halt as motorways were brought to a standstill, with an 11-mile tailback eastbound on the M8, while the M80, the A80 and the M9 were also blocked.

Last night, motorists were forced to abandon their cars on the M8 to try to walk to the nearest town after two jack-knifed lorries blocked the motorway at Harthill and Hermiston Gait, near Edinburgh.

Some motorists were forced to eat snow for hydration, while members of the public living next to the M8 rushed to their aid, providing drinks and food.

The police came under fire for failing to come to the aid of the stricken drivers, as motorists faced the prospect of spending the whole night stuck in their cars.

Police estimated there were 500 stranded motorists on the M8 and a similar number on the M90.

Glasgow office worker Mustafa Fazani, stranded outside Livingston, said: "This is a disaster. There is no help coming and people are running out of petrol. There are no police. There are families in cars with children.There are pregnant women who have been stuck here for hours.

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"Food and water is running out, and I've seen people actually getting out and getting snow just to get some hydration."

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As police attempted to get the road reopened last night, an emergency meeting of the Scottish Government's Resilience Committee was convened to co-ordinate a rescue attempt for stricken drivers.

Lothian and Borders Police said there were "numerous" problems that brought traffic to a standstill.

A spokesman said: "We are trying to remove vehicles from the road and get people that have been stuck off it. We are also looking to put gritters and snowploughs out to clear the carriageway.

"We would ask anyone who is stuck to remain with their vehicles, as obviously we are looking to clear the road, and abandoning your vehicle makes it more difficult for us to do that."

Last night, Frank Crawford, a motorist stuck on the M8, reported that people from East Whitburn were bringing tea and crisps to stranded motorists.

Some motorists said they were getting ready to spend the night in their cars.

Vincent Fryars, from Glasgow, spoke to The Scotsman at 10:30pm, after spending more than 12 hours on the M8.

"I don't actually know where I am. I think I'm about two miles short of Harthill," he said.

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"The traffic is moving so sporadically it is hard to guage. It would be nice if they would send some police along to tell us what's going on."

Mr Fryars said he had been frustrated by the lack of information passed to motorists. "I have been trying to get hold of people to find out what's going on, but nobody seems to know."

Forecasters had issued Scotland with an "orange" level warning on Sunday night - saying only that the country should "be prepared" for wintry weather. Experts had predicted fairly light snow showers, which would move across Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Lothians during the afternoon.

In East Lothian, East Dunbartonshire and Fife, hundreds of schools were opened first thing yesterday morning, but later closed after heavy snowstorms lingered over the Central Belt for more than three hours.

In Glasgow, schools shut their doors in the early afternoon as the bad weather set in, while some Edinburgh schools closed and others asked parents to pick up their children a couple of hours early.

Parents were left searching for childcare after the unexpected snow caused major delays as they rushed back from work to pick their children up from school.

Lothian Buses suspended its services for what is thought to be the first time in 25 years, and a number of airports closed their runways. Rail commuters faced yet another day of chaos, with many routes cancelled or subject to lengthy delays.

The army was brought in to provide 4x4 vehicles to take patients to hospitals across the Central Belt as ambulance crews struggled to cope.

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Scottish Ambulance Service chief executive Pauline Howie said: "Ambulance crews are battling through horrendous conditions across the Central Belt and the additional 4x4 vehicles from the military provides valuable operational assistance."

But the Met Office yesterday insisted its predictions had been accurate, saying they had warned the public there would be more snow in Scotland.

A spokeswoman for Fife Council said janitors had been working throughout the weekend to prepare schools to open on Monday - but by 9am the snow had become so heavy that schools had to begin phoning parents to tell them their children had to stay at home.

She said: "The weather forecast for Fife was for two to three centimetres of snow - and that was meant to be on higher ground. We weren't expecting this at all. It has just been a nightmare."

East Lothian Council said its staff had been in close contact with weather forecasters, but had not been aware that the conditions were set to take a turn for the worse yesterday.

But a spokesman for the Met Office insisted: "We did issue a weather warning for central Scotland on Sunday night. We said there would be a band of snow which would move south through Scotland."

The organisation's official online weather map suggested only that Scotland should "be prepared", rather than the more serious warnings for bad weather.

The internet map is colour-coded green for "no severe weather", yellow for "be aware", orange for "be prepared" and red for "take action".

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Last night, there was a "severe" weather warning in place for southern Scotland - but the map remained orange.