500,000 firms to close for great festive shutdown
Cash-strapped employers send staff home for longest Christmas break in 16 years as financial crisis bites
An estimated 16 million motorists will take to the roads over the festive season, while Heathrow marked the start of the Christmas getaway yesterday with its second busiest day this year.
But motorways and airports are predicted to be quieter than previous years as the credit crunch convinces many people to spend Christmas at home. It is estimated that there will be 2 million fewer motorists on the road than last year, and airport operator BAA expects some respite in its usually crowded terminals, with 373,000 fewer people travelling compared with last year.
The Christmas break will also be the longest for 16 years for thousands of workers sent home by cash-strapped employers, with some staff not returning to work until 19 January. Car workers will be among those facing a month's enforced holiday, with Ford, Aston Martin and Vauxhall sending staff home early after closing down plants temporarily. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that about 500,000 firms will close from Monday until 5 January: the longest hiatus since 1992.
"About 500,000 businesses, which includes consultants and the self-employed, will not work over that period," said Stephen Alambritis, the FSB's chief spokesman. "The motivation is to save money from fuel, heating and not incurring work-related costs such as taxi bills."
Cutbacks at car factories are expected to be matched by a reduction in car journeys this Christmas. The AA estimates a third of motorists will cut back on driving as the economic downturn limits the appetite for long trips.
"We feel it will be quieter over the Christmas period because 33% of people are cutting back on driving to save costs," said Edmund King, AA president. "Whereas in normal years a family might make two or three long journeys it seems that they are cutting back on those."
The Highways Agency is suspending or completing more than two-thirds of its roadworks on motorways and A roads over the period, although there will be speed restrictions and delays on parts of the M25 between junctions 26 and 27 near Epping, on the M4 between junctions 5 and 7 near Slough and on the M6, M40 and M42 near Birmingham.
The airline business is also facing a lean Christmas. BAA, Britain's biggest airport operator and the owner of Heathrow, expects a 4.5% drop in passengers, with 7.9 million people using its seven airports between 15 December and 5 January - down from nearly 8.3 million last year.
The least stressful wait for a flight could be at Gatwick, where there will be 9% fewer passengers this Christmas after the collapse of airlines including XL Airways and Zoom. The busiest airport will be Heathrow again, with New York and Dublin the top destinations, but passenger numbers will be down by 77,000.
A BAA spokesman said despite the decline in passenger numbers, some terminals would still be busy, with more than 1 million passengers travelling through terminal five. Yesterday was Heathrow's busiest day of the festive period as 207,000 people used the airport, a few thousand short of its heaviest day for traffic during the peak holiday season in July.
Train operators expect to buck the downward trend with an estimated 22 million passengers using services up to Christmas day - approximately 1 million more than last year. The railways will be subject to fewer closures and diversions between Christmas and the new year after Network Rail implemented a scaled-down engineering programme.
The owner of Britain's rail infrastructure was criticised by passengers, politicians and train companies this year after new year engineering work on the west coast line, the East Anglia line and a junction outside Glasgow overran by days.
Network Rail said the 2008 festive season work programme was smaller this year, although major lines such as the west coast line and parts of the Great Western route would be closed some days. "The scale of this year's programme is significantly down on last year's and there has been a quantum change in the amount of planning and securing of resources, in order to ensure that the Christmas holiday period goes smoothly."
Virgin Trains, one of the biggest victims of the new year delays this year, said it had received a record 250,000 advance bookings between today and 2 January following the completion of the west coast line upgrade and the launch of a timetable that schedules 30 more services a day. Virgin expects up to 100,000 people to use the line on Christmas Eve and is issuing boarding passes to passengers who have not reserved seats to eliminate overcrowding.
Eurostar expects 420,000 passengers to travel between London, Paris and Brussels from today until 5 January, which the cross-channel operator said is the same number as last year, despite a reduced timetable after a fire in the Channel tunnel in September. The train operator said the strong euro had cancelled out any loss of traffic from the UK side of the Channel as more continental tourists travel to Britain to take advantage of the weak pound.
Anyone hoping for a white Christmas will be better off taking Eurostar and hunting for snow in the colder parts of the continent. The Met Office said Christmas was likely to be marked by fog and frost.