Storm Barbara cuts power on busiest day for Christmas travel

High winds leave thousands of people in Scotland without electricity as millions take to the roads amid rail engineering works

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>A tourist visiting the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland

A tourist visiting the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland watches the stormy seas as storm Barbara approaches the UK.
Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

More than 15,000 homes have been left without power by storm Barbara as millions took to the roads to avoid rail engineering works and make it home for Christmas.

Severe weather warnings remained in place for Christmas Eve, with a Met Office warning of wind, snow and ice for northern parts of the country.

Winds of 60-70mph were expected across the west and north-west of Scotland, with gusts up to 120mph recorded on the summit of Cairn Gorm on Friday. Properties in Aberdeenshire, Moray and on the Western Isles lost power.

Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks confirmed its engineers had restored power to 14,855 homes, while they were working to help a further 445 customers in the north of Scotland.

The worst of the storm conditions were forecast to be in the far north of the country and the Western and Northern Isles, but disruption to power supplies and travel was expected to be felt across the UK.

The Met Office issued yellow warnings of snow and ice for parts of Scotland and flood alerts are in place for the Highlands and Western Isles, as well as Skye and the Scottish Borders.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>A wave splashing onto a train track.

Strong winds have disturbed travel in some parts of the UK. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

The AA warned motorists to be “very savvy” when driving in a “nasty cocktail of potential road disruption”, and Cumbria police warned of high winds and rain, urging people to drive slowly and only if necessary.

More travel misery in the north is expected on Boxing Day, with a further amber alert for Storm Conor now being issued for the far north of the country.

Amber “be prepared” wind warnings are in place for northern and western parts of Scotland for Friday afternoon, evening and overnight into Christmas Eve. The Met Office warned about potential structural damage – more likely across the north-west of the warning area – as well as disruption to power supplies and travel, with restrictions on bridges and disruption to ferries.

Brent Walker, the Met Office’s deputy chief meteorologist, said: “Storm Barbara is crossing the Atlantic and will pass close to the north-west of the UK during Friday, bringing the potential for some disruption to power supplies and travel, and possibly structural damage.”

The Local Government Association, which represents hundreds of councils in England and Wales, said it was issuing renewed advice on how to deal with flash floods and had stockpiled more than 1m tonnes of salt to grit roads.

Rail disruption is expected to cause more trouble for holidaymakers, with a number of lines closed for an extended period as Network Rail carries out up to 200 improvement projects costing £103m.

The company defended the scheduling. Network Rail’s chief executive, Mark Carne, told BBC Breakfast: “The reality is, this is the best time of the year for us to do this sort of huge engineering project because the numbers of people travelling by train is about half of what it is on a normal weekend or a normal day.”

No trains will operate to or from London Paddington between Christmas Eve and Thursday because of work to build Crossrail. As a result, Heathrow Express services will be suspended for six days and Great Western Railway trains will terminate at Ealing Broadway.

Southern rail warned passengers to expect a severely reduced and disrupted service between 31 December and 2 January owing to a strike by conductors. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union has confirmed the three-day action will go ahead.

Engineering work will also affect passengers travelling in Manchester and Cardiff.

The annual festive shutdown means no trains will run on Christmas Day and only limited services on Boxing Day. That could push more travellers into cars; the AA predicted up to 12m cars would be on the roads on Friday.

The AA’s John Snowling said: “It’s likely to be very busy at peak times on the major routes as the Christmas getaway coincides with commuter traffic. With Christmas falling on a weekend, many people will start their break from Friday, but almost a third of our members will be making their journey on Saturday and more than a fifth will be travelling on Christmas Day to visit friends and family.”

Highways England said 448 miles of roadworks on motorways and major roads had been suspended or completed, leaving 98% of roads free of works until 3 January.

The roadside rescue firm Green Flag estimated that almost 500,000 people would break down between 15 December and 15 January – equivalent to one every 11 minutes.

The coach operator National Express reported last month that its bookings for Christmas Day were up by more than a third compared with last year, and demand for seats on Boxing Day had risen by almost a fifth. It is running its biggest Christmas service, with 50% more coaches on 25 December than last year.

The travel association Abta said Friday was expected to be the busiest day for airports as people left to spend Christmas overseas. More than 4.5 million people will be heading abroad from the UK between 18 December and 2 January.

Heathrow said the most popular day for flights in the week leading up to Christmas would be Friday, with more than 118,000 departing passengers.

Planned strikes by British Airways cabin crew on Christmas Day and Boxing Day have been suspended, the Unite union confirmed.

Members of the Unite union were to walk out in a row over pay and conditions, but after talks at conciliation service Acas, a revised offer will be put to a ballot of union members.

Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, said: “It will be for our members now to decide if British Airways has done enough to meet their concerns.”