Gas pains: Petrol protests crippling U.K.


NEW YORK -- Widespread protests over rising fuel prices crippled traffic in Great Britain, where blockades of refineries by truckers, farmers and taxi drivers resulted in fuel shortages and long lines at filling stations.

The U.K. blockades followed the now-resolved fuel protests that brought France to its knees earlier this month, when 80% of the country's gas stations were empty.

Protest actions against fuel costs also were affecting other European countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands.

In Britain, where taxes account for about 75% of the price of fuel, a gallon of gas costs around $4.50.

An estimated 1,000 gas stations in Britain were closed on Sept. 12 due to a lack of fuel. Wales, Scotland and northern England were feeling the greatest effects from the shortages; London was reported to be approaching a critical lack of fuel as well.

Major escorted operators did not report problems, but on the car rental front, Imad Khalidi, president of Auto Europe in Portland, Maine, said his company was advising clients in the U.K. to take trains for longer trips, even in places where rental cars had a full tank of gas.

Auto Europe was giving refunds to clients who were stranded.

Gasoline outlets in Newcastle and Plymouth, England, were out of fuel on Sept. 12, Khalidi said.

Avis said it had enough fuel reserves at its rental station tanks in the U.K. to keep its cars full through the coming weekend.

Gerard Quirk, vice president of international sales and marketing for Avis, said that some U.K. locations had to get their cars from outlets that might have better reserves, which could lead to customer waits.

"But if the customer wants to leave right away, we just give him the car with the gas it has and deduct from the rental price accordingly," he said.

He acknowledged that customers are going to have to pay a lot more, as they would in the states, for refueling at the car rental station rather than at a nearby gas station.

A spokeswoman for Hertz said the fuel supply for the firm's outlets in major U.K. gateways was sufficient, but she added, "As of now, cars are being rented with half a tank [of gas]."

For renters who cannot find gas on the road and therefore cannot return their car to the original rental location, "we are urging them to return the car to the most convenient location and there will be no drop-off fee," she said.

The spokeswoman said she was not sure how outlets in tertiary locations were set for fuel.

"We are advising customers to call our international reservations number, (800) 654-3001, to find out what the situation is at their pick-up location."

The British Tourist Authority in London issued an advice to its overseas offices, urging the use of public transportation by tourists.

A spokeswoman for the BTA noted that Britain's extensive rail network provides an option to traveling by car.

"We were just talking with our tourism director for the Cumbria region and she is reminding people that you can fly into Manchester and take a train direct to the Lake District, for instance," she said, adding that the fuel crisis is having a greater impact on British commuters than on foreign tourists.

Indeed, one beneficiary of the fuel crisis in Britain might be the railroads.

According to Tim Roebuck, president of BritRail, the firm's call center in Sheffield [England] is "going crazy with calls from people in the U.S. and in Britain. These are people who are trying to find out what the alternatives are to cars."

The BTA spokeswoman said that London hotels were working together to hire local minibuses for transporting guests within London and to area airports.

A spokeswoman for the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley Tourist Board in Scotland said local car rental companies were having difficulties, as tourists were unenthusiastic about going ahead with bookings.

"Tourists are much less inclined to queue up [in lines] at [gas] stations," she said. The spokeswoman added that the fuel situation reached crisis level in the Glasgow area on Sept. 12, but it was too soon to know the full impact on tourists.

Local motorcoach operators, however, were continuing to run tours and honor existing bookings.

"Those drivers obviously will queue for fuel," she said.

At Eurotunnel headquarters, in Folkstone, England, a spokeswoman said there were no discernable increases or decreases in vehicle traffic through the Channel Tunnel as a result of Britain's fuel crisis.

"Lots of trucks are going through to fill up their tanks in France. There's fuel to be had there if you can get to Folkstone," the entry point to the tunnel in Southern England, she said.

And no, there are no discounts being offered to customers who simply want to traverse the Chunnel, fill up and return.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was granted emergency powers to deal with the crisis, giving him the option of using military troops to end the refinery blockades.

Elsewhere in Europe, truckers blocked a refinery in Brussels, Belgium, on Sept. 11 and 12, causing gridlock in the city center. They also set up roadblocks in two southern Belgium cities, Charleroi and Nivelles, according to published reports.

And truckers in Germany, and Italy were threatening to blockade refineries, news reports said, while truck drivers blocked roads into Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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