| 10.1°C Dublin

Government 'asleep' for big freeze

THE big freeze is to continue this week as hundreds of thousands return to work and schools re-open, but there was growing anger at the lack of management of the crisis, with the Government accused of "being asleep at the wheel".

As the public and transport services struggled to deal with the coldest winter conditions since 1963, there were fears that local authorities would run out of grit and salt supplies -- which could lead to major road closures, with no gritting carried out on many secondary roads and footpaths.

Met Eireann warned that it will be very cold throughout the week, mostly dry with some snow, with temperatures as low as -10 degrees, bringing widespread frost.

Weathermen said that apart from isolated snow showers near northern and western coasts, tonight will be dry but very cold with very severe frost and the risk of freezing fog patches inland.

Tomorrow will be mainly dry also but very cold, with frost persisting for most of the day and roads and pavements staying icy. Tuesday will be dry in most places, but it'll be very cold and snow showers will affect coastal areas while during Wednesday there will be an increasing risk of longer spells of sleet and snow.

Gardai, meanwhile, issued a fresh traffic alert, warning all motorists to reduce their speed, to plan their journeys and to be extra careful on all roads.

Gardai said: "The first week in 2010 is set to be bitterly cold. Heavy snow showers are likely and very severe frosts.

"Daytime temperatures are predicted just above freezing and icy conditions persisting all day in many areas and night-time temperatures will fall from -5 to -10 in some parts of the country.

"These weather conditions will make travelling treacherous and dangerous for all road users."

Meanwhile, Fine Gael transport spokesman Fergus O'Dowd said the Government seemed to have gone to sleep and was showing no leadership. He said while the main roads in the country appeared to be alright, secondary and minor roads and roads into housing estates and paths were not being gritted and people could not get out of their homes.

He understood that local authorities were using up to three times the normal amount of grit already this year and he suspected it was a lack of resources but he said it was their job to plan for such situations while people were getting increasingly angry at the situation.

Accusing the Government of being "asleep at the wheel" he said there was now a fear that roads could be closed. He said the Government needed to keep the main transport corridors open.

The Department of the Environment claimed that city and county councils had adequate supplies of salt.

But the National Roads Authority said while national routes were covered, salt supplies were running "dangerously low" and this could lead to road closures.

Authorities in Co Donegal were said to have exhausted their estimated supply for the whole winter while other areas had used up a two-month supply in 12 days.

Fingal County Council is gritting roads twice a day and said it had sufficient amounts of salt while Dublin City Council said that heavy snowfall meant some gritting had to be redone.

In Wexford, the main roads were gritted but housing estates and secondary roads were not, a pattern repeated in other parts of the country.

Back roads around Galway city were said to be extremely hazardous while gardai again advised against any unnecessary travel in most areas. In Cork, the county council was gritting all primary roads and accident black spots, not other roads because of budgetary constraints. Cork city council, meanwhile, was borrowing salt from the county council and footpaths in the city were being gritted.

Transport services were improved somewhat yesterday, with most Dublin Bus services running, though some were operating only on a restricted basis. The company said there were still poor conditions in housing estates and it was monitoring weather conditions closely. A spokes-person said the Nitelink was also operating.

In response to complaints that some customers were left standing at bus stops on Friday night when buses were pulled off early and that there was poor communication about the move, a Dublin Bus spokesperson said there would be inspectors on the ground to answer questions and she urged people to check with the Dublin Bus website before travelling.

Bus Eireann said all of its services were operating with some delays, apart from Dublin to Rosslare which was terminating at Gorey. But road conditions were worsening on the east and south-east coastal areas and some services were cancelled or in doubt.

Iarnrod Eireann services were operating but earlier the company said services between Limerick and Ennis were suspended due to flooding on the line and bus transfers were in operation. Dublin Airport said it was operating normally, as were Cork and Shannon.

Tomorrow is set to be the busiest day of the year for roadside assistance calls from stranded motorists. Flat batteries are expected to be the biggest cause, according to one of Ireland's biggest roadside assistance companies, Mondial Assistance Ireland, which is a member of the Allianz Group. It is expecting a massive 80 per cent increase in calls from stranded motorists compared with a typical Monday.

Martin Lyons, director and general manager, said: "The highest number of call-outs on Monday morning will probably be to a customer's home.

"Even if you didn't use your car over the Christmas break, try and start it a few times today and take it for a short driver if you can.

"If you haven't got roadside assistance cover, plan an alternative route to work on Monday using the bus, train, Luas or Dart."

Sunday Independent