Despite five days of severe weather warnings, transport bosses still appeared to have been completely caught out as up to a foot of snow fell across the country, bringing rail, air and road networks to a halt.
They faced a growing public backlash as one in five workers was left stranded at home, at an estimated cost to the economy of £1.2billion.
In London, all bus services were cancelled for the first time in living memory, as a network which had carried on running during the Blitz – and during much worse conditions in 1963 – proved unable to deal with six inches of snow. Cancelled Tube trains added to the chaos in the capital.
Heathrow, Gatwick, London City, Luton, Stansted, Southampton and Birmingham airports were closed for all or part of the day, causing knock-on delays at most regional airports. At Heathrow, a Cyprus Air passenger jet skidded off the taxiway, coming to rest with its front wheel on the grass.
Debates in the Houses of Parliament finished early while some parts of the building did not open as staff could not get in. As hundreds of train services and flights were stopped and drivers faced treacherous conditions on ungritted roads, angry commuters demanded to know why the severe weather warnings had not been properly heeded.
Nigel Humphries, of the Association of British Drivers, said there could be no excuse for the failure of transport authorities to prepare for “entirely predictable weather conditions”.
The British Chambers of Commerce said a “clear lack of preparation” had cost business dearly.
With more snow predicted today and further flurries expected later in the week, Britain’s battered economy could suffer up to £3billion in lost productivity by the end of the week.Snowstorms which swept the country overnight and during the day had first been forecast by the Met Office last Wednesday, when it issued a severe weather warning accurately predicting the blizzards.
Yet local councils and transport authorities were still accused of failing to put adequate plans in place to deal with the weather.
The nature of the response was summed up in London, where main roads had been gritted by Transport for London, keeping them clear, but suburban roads leading to bus depots had not been gritted, stranding the city’s entire bus fleet, which is used by six million people a day.Tens of thousands of commuters braved the cold to walk to work instead, with some even skiing through the capital.
The Highways Agency and local councils were also heavily criticised by motorists for failing to put down enough grit on major roads, including the M25, where a 53-mile tailback built up yesterday morning between junction 19 at Watford and junction 8 at Reigate.
At one stage, it was estimated that there were 1,000 miles of tailbacks across the country.
The Local Government Association said councils had been overwhelmed by the relentless snowfalls, which had covered roads as quickly as they could be cleared, meaning the grit had less impact.
The Highways Agency blamed lorry drivers for clogging up major routes after ignoring advice to stay off the roads.
But David Frost, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the collapse of the transport network was unacceptable.
He said: “People of my generation saw much worse winters than this in the 1960s and 1970s, yet things kept going. Why can’t we cope now?
“This weather was forecast five days ago – it’s not as if we suddenly woke up to find six inches of snow outside, and it’s clear that not enough preparation has been done.”
Susie Squire, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance pressure group, said the excuses simply wouldn’t wash with the public.
“Recent conditions do not merit total shutdown, and rail companies, councils and other authorities should have been able to cope,” she said.
“Many other first-world countries keep going in much worse conditions. People see their fares go up and up, and yet services seem to remain at the same sub-standard level.”
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, blamed “some of the most challenging weather conditions” for two decades for the disruption.
He said: “The difficulty really has been that the volume of snow has been so huge that you can put down the grit but then it simply snows over it again and you run the risk of unleashing a 12-ton bus on to heavily packed snow or ice and turning it into a lethal weapon.”
But his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, said Londoners had a right to ask why buses had stopped running and 10 of the 11 Tube lines had been crippled. “Boris should have been on the phone from Thursday, when the warnings first started, making sure everyone was prepared for the snowfall,” he said.
“Every few years in the early 1980s we had chaos with the weather but the buses always came out. It’s quite clear the borough councils, either because they wouldn’t pay overtime on a Sunday or because they have cut everything back to the bone, didn’t grit properly, even though there was plenty of advance warning.”
Two brothers died on Snowdon in North Wales after becoming stranded on the mountain as the weather closed in on Sunday night. They are thought to have fallen 700ft. Motoring organisations, meanwhile, said accidents on the roads were “too numerous” to catalogue.
Emergency services were so stretched by the number of road accidents and weather-related emergencies that London Ambulance service said it could only deal with life-threatening incidents.
More than 2,000 schools closed nationwide, operations had to be cancelled at hospitals and many courts and other public buildings shut down. The Federation of Small Businesses estimated that six million people – a fifth of the workforce – had stayed home, costing the economy £1.2 billion in wages and lost sales.
Conditions are unlikely to improve before the weekend, as temperatures are expected to remain below freezing in most parts of the country, turning snow and slush to ice, with yet more snow expected during the rest of the week.
The AA is telling drivers to keep warm clothes in their cars in case of breakdowns. A spokesman said attendants had seen stranded motorists “flirting with hypothermia” by going out unprepared.