Snow brings travel chaos for millions

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SNOWSTORMS and ice caused more chaos across Scotland yesterday, as travellers' Christmas getaway plans were disrupted.

• Gridlock hit the M8 near Harthill yesterday as fresh snow caused more disruption to travel across the country. Picture: Getty Images

Heavy downfalls of snow across the Central Belt brought road and rail networks to a standstill, while dozens of flights in and out of Scottish airports were cancelled.

Temperatures plunged to –16C, leaving commuters, Christmas shoppers and people setting off for festive breaks facing treacherous conditions.

A Ryanair plane from Dublin, with 129 people on board, slid on to a grass verge after hitting a patch of ice at Prestwick airport in Ayrshire. No-one was injured, but the runway was closed for more than two hours.

Two women were killed and 47 people injured when a coach skidded off an ungritted road in south-west England.

The casualties, named last night as Irene Spencer, 78, and Patricia Pryor, 70, both from Camborne, Cornwall, were among a party of 48 on a trip to see Christmas lights when their coach overturned at about 10:15pm on Tuesday night.

The first police car to arrive at the scene, in Townshend, near Penzance, also lost control and smashed into the coach's undercarriage, while passengers were still inside.

It was also revealed that a man died on Monday at a reservoir near Bolton, Lancashire, when he fell through ice while trying to rescue his dog.

The atrocious conditions – with snow up to 18in deep in places and overnight temperatures plunging to –16C in parts of the Highlands – disrupted air, rail and road travel throughout the UK, as millions headed home for Christmas or tried to get a flight abroad.

And forecasters said the cold snap would continue – but they don't expect any more blizzards.

The luckiest travellers in Britain were the 123 passengers and six crew on board the Ryanair jet that slid off the main runway at Prestwick after hitting a patch of ice. The aircraft came to a halt only 30 yards from the airport's perimeter fence and the busy A79 dual carriageway.

The Boeing 737-800 flight from Dublin had landed shortly before 9am, and the incident happened as the plane taxied towards the terminal building in sub-zero temperatures.

A spokesman for the airline said: "After a normal landing was completed and while taxiing from the runway, the aircraft encountered ice and slid just off the runway on to the grass verge."

Shaken passengers praised the pilot.

Philip O'Reilly, 50, from Castlebar, County Mayo, said: "We landed on the tarmac. The plane was moving very fast, and I realised it wasn't going to stop in time. The pilot, as far as I know, reversed the thrusters and either steered off the runway or accidentally came off, I don't know which. It just came to a sudden stop and the front wheels plunged into the grass verge. All I can say is it was very skilful. He did a great job."

Another passenger, Alex Paton, said: "Everyone was pretty shocked. It wasn't until we were off that we realised how deep the wheels had gone into the field.

"You could hardly walk on the runway. It was just a block of ice. It was exceptionally slidey. So how anyone expects to stop a plane on that I'll never know."

As temperatures remained below zero in many parts of the country and significant snowfalls continued, flights were disrupted at Luton, Gatwick, Heathrow, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where the airport was closed for most of yesterday morning.

On the railways, frozen points caused a number of delays and cancellations, and road-gritting crews again battled around the clock to try to keep main routes open.

As many as 12 million people across Britain had been expected to travel to see family and friends between yesterday and today, but police urged motorists in many parts of a snow-blanketed Britain to drive only if their journeys were absolutely necessary.

Fresh overnight snow caused problems on many roads, particularly in the Lothians, Fife and Tayside.

Traffic on the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow was severely disrupted during the morning rush-hour, and traffic joining the M9 at the Newbridge roundabout on the outskirts of Edinburgh was backed up for more than eight miles at one stage.

Yesterday afternoon, a Pegasus Travel single-deck bus travelling on the Dunning to Auchterarder road in Perthshire overturned, blocking the road.

A spokeswoman for Tayside Police said: "There were four passengers and the driver on board the Mercedes bus at the time.

"All are described as walking wounded, with one man receiving treatment for a cut to his head. No other vehicles were involved."

Even the official unveiling of Dundee United boss Craig Levein, as the new Scotland manager was affected by the weather. A planned media conference in Glasgow had to be postponed until last night because he was snowbound at his home in Fife.

However, the extreme conditions were welcomed by the operators of Scotland's five ski centres, with "great snow cover" reported in some places. At Cairngorm, 18in of fresh snow fell overnight.

The Nevis Range, Glenshee, Cairngorm and the Lecht all had enough snow for skiers, although road conditions meant the Lecht was storm-bound. Glencoe hopes to open for skiers soon.

The Met Office said the weather would remain cold and wintry for the next few days, with plunging night-time temperatures creating hazardous conditions. However, there should be no return of the blizzards of the past few days.