Sunday 16 September 2012

Could football special trains make a serious comeback?

Supporters organisations and the British Transport Police have been looking carefully at bringing back Football Specials for some time. The balance between offering a comfortable and unthreatening environment for regular passengers and convenient transport for fans is creating tension and, frequently, arrests. 

In the 1970s and 1980s the dedicated matchday services were a commonplace method used to ferry fans to away games while attempting to contain hooliganism in a relatively controlled environment. 

At the height of hooliganism, spare carriages and redundant stocks of trains were used to transport huge numbers of fans to games. With firms such as the West Ham Inter City Firm and the Leeds Service Crew inciting violence on public trains, the more heavily policed football specials services evened out the balance of power between fans and authorities. But the specials became a hothouse for problems and were largely scrapped in the early 1990s as privatisation made organisation of services across the network harder. 

It came as a surprise then when then deputy chief constable Andy Trotter called for the regular re-introduction of chartered services in 2007. Trotter argued with the introduction of all ticket games, hooliganism is no longer the issue it once was for away travel. Afterall, why travel when you know you won’t be allowed in?

Intermittent meetings between BTP and representatives of Passenger Focus, Virgin Trains, the Association of Provincial Football Supporters Clubs, Network Rail, the Premier League and the Football Supporters’ Federation - collectively the Rail Football Forum (RFF) - since have resolved a partnership approach was needed to tackle the minority of disruptive fans. However, the round table discussions concluded that clubs needed to be involved in the services and agree to ban any fans misbehaving, a viewpoint which clubs appear reluctant to adopt.

There are some clubs who currently run irregular football specials including Arsenal, Chelsea, Bolton, Manchester United and Blackpool while the practice is commonplace on the public railway service in Germany. 
Passenger Focus’s rail director Ashwin Kumar the RFF is looking at group reservation systems and discouraging anti-social behaviour. “The difficulty in addressing some of the problems is the different perceptions of what is considered acceptable behaviour,” Kumar adds, saying even singing and chanting can be intimidating. 

RFF also looks to exchange information on problem gangs, highlight potential flashpoint fixtures and offer incentives such as special rail football tickets. 

Virgin Trains’ Train Chartering brochure reveals an upmarket option in football transport, complete with a “fillet of sea bass served on a provencale hash” for the peckish. Virgin has been working on a number of packages, including one with Chelsea offered via Thomas Cook Sport. Teams too are increasingly travelling via train to avoid onerous airport security.

Halfway measures, such as heavily policed services to the recent Johnstone's Paint Trophy final between Swindon and Chesterfield have also been welcomed by the Football Supporters' Federation. 
But, while there may be some enthusiasm from those in power, fans are more sceptical. Numerous anecdotes about being bombarded with abuse from home fans at stations and travelling on dilapidated rains are recounted in online forums.

Alcohol has become a critical issue in the debate. The Football Supporters Federation have lobbied train operators to clearly advertise when booze bans are in place well ahead of the fixture. If limited stocks of alcohol were introduced on board then specials may appeal.

Equally frustrating for fans is the fact that the cheapest, usually advance purchase, tickets have refund restrictions if the fixture is postponed. Increasing the flexibility of such tickets in exchange for individual fans signing up to a code of conduct is being considered by the RFF but train operators have shown little interest. 

Moreover, the idea that fans simply want to turn up to a game and be shepherded straight to the ground and back to the train is outdated. 

But there are bonuses, a good atmosphere can extend the experience beyond the ground and dedicated services offer a quick way to get home after the last regular train has left after night games. Moreover, opportunities to avoid the heavy traffic that dogs official coaches would be welcomed by fans.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board believes the network is under severe capacity constraints and big games such as cup finals offer the main avenue for specials. RSSB spokesman Matthew Clements says there are trains to hire from specialist operators but warns "this is an expensive business and the hirer, usually a football club or supporters body, has to carry the risk of a financial loss."

However the slow process of normalising specials again develops it is clear that it will take co-operation from rail operators, the police and football fans – something traditionally tough and complex to achieve.

Article originally appeared in Issue 303 of When Saturday Comes 

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