MOTORISTS criticised the response of transport chiefs after firebombs were hurled at the M3 from a motorway bridge.

Hundreds of football fans were among the furious motorists stranded during the incident, which happened on the southbound carriageway of the M3.

Winchester teenager Nicholas Elger threw device, closing the motorway for 11 hours with people unable to get to work, go shopping or carry out their usual Saturday activities.

Rob Welling, prosecuting, said at a sentencing hearing yesterday that the incident had lost the local economy millions of pounds with many routes gridlocked.

Responding, Hampshire County Council lead for environment and transport Rob Humby said: “Reports of the enormous loss to the local economy while this major Highways England route was out of action for just one day clearly show how fragile transport systems and infrastructure are when they are already operating close to capacity.

“We continue to press the Government for investment in infrastructure.”

Mark Baulch, head of policy and representation at Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, added: “Any event that prevents businesses from functioning can have a huge impact on the local economy, as shown by the figure of £40 million being quoted.

“While this was hopefully a unique situation, the delays around junction 9 of the M3 continue to cost business a substantial sum of money every day.”

However, transport chiefs came under fire for the way the situation was handled. Warnings were issued by Highways England, but motorists caught up in the chaos described the organisation’s response to the incident as “too little, too late”.

A Highways England spokesman said: “This was a serious incident and it was important that the police were able to conduct a thorough investigation.We believe we did everything we could do in the circumstances.”

Many said they were already approaching the Winchester section of the M3 when they learned that the road ahead was shut. By then it was too late to leave the motorway.

To pass the time, drivers were photographed playing golf and doing handstands in the carriageway, while Manchester United fans trying to get to Southampton left their coach and walked the two-mile journey to Winchester railway station.

Winchester district commander Chief Inspector Mark Lynch said at the time: “We fully understand and acknowledge that due to this closure there was significant disruption to both those using the motorway and to those living and working in the Winchester area.

“But hopefully everyone will appreciate, bearing in mind the nature of what we were dealing with at the time, this was done to maintain public safety.”

Winchester city centre was one of the most affected areas as drivers snarled up the one-way system.

However, Winchester Business Improvement District (BID) executive director Catherine Turness said footfall actually increased on the day.

Ms Turness said that as people were struggling to get around, about 4,000 more people were in the city centre than on a usual Saturday in September, although it was more likely to be residents unable to get out of the city rather than shoppers coming in.

It is not sure whether shops and cafe benefitted as a result and business owners had not flagged it as a particularly good or bad day, Ms Turness added.