Snow batters Europe and Britain grinds to halt
Fresh snowfalls swept northern Europe Thursday, causing misery for travellers as airports remain closed, roads were blocked and Eurostar international rail services were cancelled.
The unseasonable cold snap, which has lasted nearly a week, has caused Britain to grind to a halt, with thousands of schools closed and commuters stranded as rail services were cancelled and icy roads deemed unsafe.
Gatwick Airport, Britain's second busiest airport after Heathrow, closed for a second consecutive day, while Edinburgh Airport was also shut, sparking outrage at the nation's apparent inability to cope with the cold.
Ministers have promised a review of how the transport network is coping, as newspapers warned Britain had become a "laughing stock" abroad, but pointed out that the rest of Europe was also faring badly as temperatures plummeted.
Eurostar, which runs trains between London and Paris and Brussels, cancelled more than 20 trains Thursday and advised customers to postpone their journeys. Those that do travel could be subject to delays of up to 90 minutes, it said.
Geneva international airport only reopened Thursday morning after heavy snow caused it to close for a day and a half, but its schedule was still subject to heavy delays.
Dozens of flights were cancelled or delayed Thursday at airports in Paris, Prague and Frankfurt -- one of Europe's key air hubs.
The freezing weather has claimed 28 lives across central Europe this week, including 18 deaths, mostly of homeless men, since Tuesday in Poland, where temperatures plunged to minus 33 degrees Celsius (minus 27.5 Fahrenheit).
Snow storms that have swept the continent in recent days intensified in many places Thursday, including in London, where the first proper falls of the season left landmarks such as the British Museum covered in a layer of white.
But the pretty pictures belied the misery felt by many commuters stuck as services into the capital failed, a situation condemned as "unacceptable" by Jo deBank, communications officer for rail passenger watchdog London TravelWatch.
"After severe disruption in the last two years, we were assured that lessons had been learnt and contingency plans put in place, so we are bitterly disappointed at the delays and cancellations suffered by passengers," she said.
Many people gave up -- one survey suggested that two in five staff across Britain were not able to get to work on Thursday morning, while a similar number were late arriving.
Insurer RSA estimated that the bad weather could cost the British economy up to 1.2 billion pounds (1.9 billion dollars, 2.3 billion euros) a day.
Others who braved it had trouble getting home, and hundreds of passengers were forced to bed down for the night in a freezing train which failed amid heavy snow at a station in Sussex, southeast England.
"It was an absolute nightmare. We had to wait around for several hours in the cold on a freezing platform. We finally got something to eat at 4:00 am," passenger Rebecca Forsey told the BBC.
In Germany, Berlin woke up to more than ten centimetres (four inches) of snow, while almost 40 centimetres fell in Gera in the southeast, causing disruptions on train services and the closure of numerous roads.
Forecasters warned temperatures were likely to fall even further overnight Thursday, plunging to as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius in Brandenburg, the region surrounding the German capital.
In the northern French region of Normandy, snow measured 60 centimetres near the city of Cherbourg, the biggest snowfall in more than 40 years.
Snow caused transport difficulties in northern areas, while one in five high-speed TGV trains between Paris and the southern Riviera were cancelled.
In the western Balkans, heavy rain caused flooding in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, with more than 1,000 people evacuated from their homes, local media said.
While most of Europe shivered, residents of the Bulgarian capital Sofia enjoyed a seasonal heatwave with temperatures topping 20 degrees Celsius, while unseasonably high temperatures were also recorded in Greece.
"A record -- 21.3 degrees -- was established Thursday, the highest temperature for the month of December ever since measurements began in Sofia over 100 years ago," Krasimir Stoev from Bulgaria's national institute of meteorology told AFP.
© 2010 AFP