Millions of U.K. commuters were advised to stay at home today as the worst storm for five years forced rail operators across southern Britain to cancel morning rush-hour services.
The country braced overnight for hurricane-force winds and flooding caused by torrential rain after the Met Office issued an amber alert and warned of wind gusts in excess of 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour). The Environment Agency posted more than 140 flood alerts.
“We could see some uprooted trees or other damage from the winds, and there’s a chance of some surface-water flooding from the rainfall,” Martin Young, the Met’s chief forecaster, said on the agency’s website.
The storm, which developed over the Atlantic and has been strengthened by a strong jet stream and warm air close to the U.K., is forecast to hit London and the southeast around 7 a.m., according to forecasters.
Its impact will also be felt in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where weather services warned of high winds, especially along Channel coasts.
By 5:20 a.m. the U.K. Met Office said the strongest wind gust was 99 mph recorded at Needles Old Battery on the Isle of Wight, while winds were reported to have reached 61 mph over Plymouth. Gusts of 115 mph were recorded during the Great Storm of 1987, when 18 people died in the U.K.
The coastguard said the search for a 14-year-old boy who was swept into the sea at Newhaven, on the south coast, yesterday was called off last night.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron held talks with government departments and agencies yesterday “to hear about all the plans to ensure people are protected,” he said. A spokeswoman for the London Stock Exchange said it would operate a normal trading session today.
As well as the widespread disruption to rail services, London’s Heathrow Airport, Europe’s biggest aviation hub, has imposed a 20 percent reduction on flights before 11 a.m. today. Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports are advising passengers to check with their airlines on the status of flights.
“Passengers due to travel on Monday should check the status of their flight with their airline before traveling to the airport,” Heathrow said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday.
British Airways, which uses Heathrow as a base, said in a statement it was canceling services on its European and domestic networks today, but long-haul flights into and out of Heathrow were planned to operate as normal. The airline, part of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, said any changes to schedules will be on the website.
Most trains are not being allowed to run until the worst of the storm has passed and engineers have been able to check railway lines.
“The timing and trajectory of the storm means that services are unlikely to be able to start up until 9 a.m. on many routes in southeast England,” Network Rail said. Even when routes have been cleared as safe to run trains, many operators will be running a reduced or altered service as speed restrictions remain in place, it said.
Trains to and from Gatwick won’t be running until at least 9 a.m., the airport said in a statement on its website. The U.K.’s Network Rail said there would be no commuter trains into London before 9 a.m. from the south because of the risk of fallen power lines or trees and debris on the track from the expected hurricane force winds.
Southern Trains and the Gatwick Express airport service from London won’t run “until it has been declared safe to do so,” because of the risk of tree branches and debris on rail lines, owner Southern Railway Ltd. said on its website.
‘‘It is highly unlikely that trains will run before 0800 at the earliest and in some cases this could be considerably later,’’ South West said in a statement.
Transport for London said there will be no service on the capital’s overground rail lines until 9 a.m., while Eurostar said it would be unable to run any cross-Channel rail services before 7 a.m. to allow the high-speed train lines to be inspected.
Virgin Trains and London Midland will run a normal service today, according to National Rail. First Great Western trains between Guildford and Gatwick will not run before 9 a.m., it said on its Twitter feed.
On the roads, the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, which links the counties of Essex and Kent in southeast England, was being closed overnight owing to high winds, the Highways Agency said.
There is a ‘‘strong possibility’’ the closing will affect the early rush hour, the agency said on its website. It said the Dartford Tunnel would remain open
In the southwest, both crossings across the River Severn are closed to all traffic.
The Met’s amber alert is the middle category of a three-stage weather warning system for the public. The alert covers London, all of southern England, Wales, the West Midlands and parts of the East Midlands, the Met Office said. A less serious yellow alert has been issued for eastern England, the northeast and northwest and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The Met said the storm -- named after St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, whose feast day falls today -- would approach from the Atlantic on path across the southwest and southern Wales before moving north-eastwards across southern England.
‘‘This weather system is typical of what we expect to see in winter, but as it’s coming in during autumn -- when trees are in leaf -- and while the ground is fairly saturated, it does pose some risks,” The Met’s Young said.
The storm was also expected to hit western France before spreading to Normandy and Nord-Pas de Calais later this morning, with gusts topping 80 mph on the coasts, according to Meteo France, the national weather forecaster.
Weather services in Belgium and the Netherlands forecast high winds today, with gusts as high as 87 mph in northwest coastal areas of the Netherlands.
The U.K’s so-called Big Six energy companies, which supply more than 90 percent of British customers, made preparations ahead of the storm.
Scottish Power Ltd., owned by Iberdrola SA of Spain, canceled all non-essential maintenance work in North Wales and has engineers on standby, a spokesman said yesterday by phone. The company supplies energy to about 5.6 million customers in Britain.
RWE Npower Plc has four-wheel-drive vehicles in place to ensure employees can get to work in extreme weather, as well as beds and emergency rations at its stations so the company can generate power at all times, said Amy Rynn, a spokeswoman at the U.K. unit of German utility RWE AG.
SSE Plc tracked the weather for several days and started mobilizing staff on Oct. 25 from Scotland, where it is based in Perth, to the south of England, said Morven Smith, a spokeswoman for the company, which has about 10 million customer accounts for gas and power.
SSE has drafted in extra engineers and tree-cutting staff to central southern England, as well as additional employees in its customer service centers and support personnel, she said yesterday.
The powerful gusts may lead to shutdowns at turbines including those at the London Array, the world’s biggest offshore wind-power site, which automatically halt when wind speeds exceed 56 mph. Structurally, the turbines and offshore sub-stations are designed to withstand conditions “far in excess” of those forecast, Barrie Englishby, a production manager for the project east of London, said Oct. 25.
Ferry services have been canceled today between Plymouth and Roscoff, in France, and between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly.
“We are in the process of contacting all passengers booked on these sailings,” Brittany Ferries, which runs the Plymouth-Roscoff route, said on its website.
P&O Ferries said cross-Channel sailings between Dover and Calais are running 90 minutes late.
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