Warnings as Europe's heatwave heads our way

A HEATWAVE which has spread across Europe to Britain has slowed the railways to a crawl and prompted warnings from health campaigners worried at the effect of record-breaking temperatures on the young and elderly.

As the UK prepares for a week of unbroken sunshine, the hot dry weather is sweeping other parts of Europe, with fires destroying large forest areas in France and Portugal, a nuclear power station overheating and important crops failing.

In Britain, rail speed restrictions have been put in place as UK temperatures edge towards record levels.

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Network Rail imposed the restrictions on many of Britain’s busiest lines, amid fears of rails buckling in temperatures of up to 33C.

The speed restrictions will bring trains which normally travel at up to 110mph down to 60mph. They will be introduced on the main London to Glasgow line, London to Norwich, across the Southern England commuter network and in the Midlands.

The worst delays - of up to an hour - will be on Virgin trains services between London, Manchester and Glasgow.

Peter Rayner, an expert in railway operations and safety, said: "They are saying there is a chance of a buckled rail so we will impose speed restrictions, which is commendable.

"What does need to be answered, however, is how the railway network has been able to get into the condition where such action is necessary."

Britain’s heatwave is set to intensify this week, with forecasters predicting record temperatures of up to 37.2C (99F).

After a weekend bathed in sunshine, some parts of the country were thought to be even hotter than Barbados, the Caribbean island where Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is holidaying with his family.

Britain has already seen the third warmest June and July of the last century. And the hottest temperature of the year - 33.6C (91F), recorded at Wisley, Surrey, on 15 July - is among the first of many records expected to be surpassed over the coming days.

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A PA WeatherCentre forecaster said: "It’s possible that on Wednesday we could have the highest temperature ever recorded in Britain."

In Scotland, temperatures were forecast to nudge 30C (86F), with an outside chance of beating the record temperature north of the Border, which is 32.8C (90F), set in Dumfries on 2 July, 1908.

William Hill has reduced its odds from 12/1 to 5/1 for bets that the temperature in Britain will reach 100F.

The soaring UK temperatures prompted a warning from health campaigners, however. Cancer Research has dispatched teams of advisers to city centres to distribute free sun tan lotion and advice to bathers.

The charity will warn workers that one hour in the fierce midday sun without protection could be as damaging as several hours in the sun at other times.

The heatwave and strong winds have stoked forest fires that have been raging through Portugal and Spain. In Portugal, the government was preparing to declare a state of public emergency today as almost 3,000 firemen struggled to contain more than 70 wildfires raging across the country.

Jos Duro Barroso, the prime minister, said his cabinet would hold an emergency meeting to discuss measures aimed at tackling the country’s worst forest fires in decades, which have killed nine people.

A similar operation has been taking place in southern Spain, where 500 people have been evacuated from their homes. Authorities there said two out of three active fires were under control yesterday.

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In France, the heat is causing havoc with a nuclear power plant in Fessenheim, near Strasbourg. Technicians had to douse the building in cold water after the mercury soared to 48.5C, 2C short of the emergency shut-down point.

Joseph Sanchez, the assistant director at the site, said attempts to cool the reactor had been going on since Friday but it was not known if the technique had been successful. Utility officials say the 50C limit is simply a safety measure, and insist the plant can withstand much higher temperatures.

The French heatwave has also left Europe’s biggest truffle-growing region, parched for months and there are fears the coming truffle harvest will be disastrous. Perigord truffles - "black diamonds" - were 203 a kilo last winter, down from a peak of 353 two years ago when cold weather spoiled the harvest. More than half of France’s 95 departments have introduced water rationing.

In the Cotes-du-Rhone, vineyards that only a month ago were predicting a bumper vintage have begun reporting that grapes are "burning" on the vine, while the vital Provence lavender harvest is likely to be 50 per cent down, with a disastrous knock-on effect on industries as diverse as soap-makers and honey-producers.

An Alpine gondola near Mont Blanc in the French Alps was shut down for two days amid fears that an ice tunnel it passes through would collapse. And the French weather service has forecast no respite from the heat wave in the coming days.