From Eurostar to Heathrow, snowy Europe struggles to move

Much of Western Europe has come to a halt as governments, airports like Heathrow, and train operators like Eurostar appeared unprepared for fast-moving winter storms.

Steve Parsons/PA/AP
Workers try to clear the snow at London's Heathrow Airport, after all flights at the airport were grounded on Dec. 18. Heavy snow and frigid temperatures caused further disruption across northern Europe – travelers have been stranded for days.

A thick blanket of snow has left thousands of travelers across Western Europe stranded and wondering if they will make it home for Christmas.

While the view outdoors couldn’t be more seasonal – children playing in fluffy snowflakes more often seen in snow globes than under the street lights – for many this Dickensian Christmas means canceled flight, delayed trains, road closures, and plenty of aggravation. Travelers have been stranded for days at Heathrow airport.

Britain and Ireland are the worst affected but snow has carpeted France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, too. Snow appears to be the deepest in Germany with about 15 inches and England saw an average of 4 inches.

But it doesn't seem to be the depth that was so troubling. Snows arrived quickly and caught many airports and municipal authorities off guard. Over the weekend in Britain, as much as 5 inches fell in some areas within an hour. What's more, according to local news reports, accompanying ice led to air travel delays that appeared to only worsen as they rippled across Europe.

The snowy standstill may also have an economic component to it. Under a banner headline reading, “Rule of austerity causes winter chaos,” the German edition of the Financial Times said the problem was the weak economy.

German railways have buckled under the pressure from having too many passengers since many Germans have given up their cars, the newspaper quotes Karl-Peter Naumann of the rail passengers’ association Pro Bahn saying.

Ireland has virtually run out of salt to put on the roads. Early this afternoon, workers in Dublin were advised to go home, but many roads were impassable, trains were delayed, and buses were curtailed. Shipments totaling 15,000 metric tons of salt are expected over the Christmas period.

But while Europe's belt-tightening may be contributing to its wintry woes, many say governments simply failed to respond effectively.

Airport aggravation

Flights across the continent have been canceled with unhappy travelers left sleeping in airport terminals. The channel tunnel train service between Britain and France is averaging five-hour delays and operator Eurostar is urging passengers to take refunds rather than turn up and add to the waiting time.

Airlines in Germany are encouraging their passengers to travel by train instead, but rail operators, fearing worse overcrowding, have urged passengers to stay at home, Reuters reports.

London’s Heathrow airport is one of the worst affected, with some passengers already stranded for up to three days. Flights have resumed but will remain on a restricted basis until Thursday.

“Given on-going weather problems affecting airports across Europe, we keep the situation under constant review,” says Malcolm Robertson, Heathrow’s director of communications.

The airport’s chief executive, Colin Matthews, apologized to passengers, saying the company overestimated how quickly they could reestablish service.

“We were hit by snow which we haven’t seen in Heathrow, certainly in my lifetime,” he told the BBC.

'Continent defeated by some snow'

The snow has brought out a sense of resignation and grim determination among the British.

Amanda Brown who lives in Kent in southern England says the country is baffled by the problems the weather have created.

“No one in Britain can understand how a smattering of snow could bring us all to such a screeching halt right before Christmas." She points to media reports that Christmas packages aren't being delivered in the UK's north.

"Formerly smug Internet shoppers in Scotland have had orders refused by big shippers such as Amazon, due to the backlog of deliveries still filtering through from the last big freeze [two weeks ago],” she says. “Most British people are keeping calm and not panicking – but almost all of them are crappy drivers in the snow,” she adds.

Things in Scotland have become so bad that transport minister Stewart Stevenson resigned Dec. 11 in the face of mounting criticism over the country’s failure to manage the snow.

“I deeply regret that and for that reason I feel I should step down,” he said at the time.

Many feel, however, that constant government advice to not travel is unreasonable.

TJ Laverty, a college lecturer in Cornwall in southwest England says authorities are overreacting. “I went to work last Friday and there was a tiny smattering of snow but they were sending students back home,” he says.

Business has been hurt by the big-freeze, with shops in particular reporting reduced sales – something they can scarcely afford in the midst of an ongoing economic squeeze.

A spokesperson for the Confederation of British Industry said businesses that could were allowing staff to take the day off.

“Employers take a common sense approach to staff not coming into work or, where appropriate, working remotely from home, when bad weather such as snow makes traveling too difficult or dangerous,” he said.

Some areas have seen a thaw but forecasters are predicting more snow and ice.

French weather service, Meteo France, says “while the snow has left the north, rain and winds [are] getting stronger in the south.” Irish service Met Éireann is expecting freezing temperatures though the weekend.

The reopening of some airports may not be enough for travelers.

Paris-based author Gerry Feehily, says the snow has melted in the city but fears his plans to spend Christmas with his family in Ireland will be disrupted.

“Continent defeated by some snow,” he says. “The weather is extraordinary, but the chaotic response is completely barmy.”

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