BOMB squads carried out three controlled explosions after a security alert during rush hour at a busy motorway service station.
A major security alert was declared at Hapsford services at junction 14 of the M56 between Ellesmere Port and Chester.
Cheshire Police and soldiers surrounded a van at 2.10pm after a member of the public had called to report the vehicle as suspicious.
Hundreds of motorists and staff were evacuated and the controlled explosions were carried out shortly before 5pm. At 8.15pm police ended the operation after officers searched the van and determined there was no bomb on board.
A Cheshire police spokesman said last night: "The bomb disposal unit have now concluded their examination of the vehicle and the area has been declared free.
"The owner of the vehicle has now been traced and there are no criminal offences disclosed in relation to the vehicle being left on the service area."
Two ambulances and a team of paramedics were on standby. At 4.40pm, the M56 was closed in both directions from junction 14 at Runcorn and junction 16 where the motorway ends at Dunkirk Interchange.
The motorway came to a standstill and queues spilled onto the M6 as commuters tried to find another way home.
Tailbacks went right back to junction 10 at Stretton, where some motorists had been queuing on the A49 for more than an hour.
It also had a huge knock-on effect on the approach to the Wallasey tunnel in Wirral, with long queues of traffic forming on the dual carriageway from the M53. The problem was compounded by the Birkenhead tunnel being closed to traffic from Wirral for safety work.
A spokesman for the AA said: "It has been a very, very busy area in all directions. People were waiting on the M53 where it joins with the M56 for more than an hour, because they did not know the road had been closed.
"There were problems all around the Ellesmere Port area and there were also major queues at the Stoke Interchange on the M53."
Lindsey Ikin, 50, who was travelling from work in Manchester to her home in Winsford, Cheshire, was caught in the chaos.
She said: "It took me two hours to get home. The traffic was going at snail's pace all along the M56. I thought I would be all right as I only needed to get to junction 10, but it was gridlocked. Some motorists got tired of waiting and drove along the hard shoulder to get to the slip road. I had to find an alternative way home because there were jams all along the A-roads connected to the A49."