Loco motion

wsc303Alex Lawson on the role of train travel in football

In the 1970s and 80s Football Specials were used to ferry fans to away games by rail in a bid to contain hooliganism. Supporters’ organisations and the British Transport Police have been investigating the idea of restoring the services in the wake of frequent arrests of fans travelling on regular trains. At the height of hooliganism, spare carriages and redundant trains were used to transport huge numbers of fans. But the Specials became a focus for problems and were largely scrapped in the early 1990s as privatisation made organising services across the networks more difficult.

So it came as a surprise when Andy Trotter, who is now the chief constable of the transport police, called for the regular reintroduction of chartered services in 2007. Trotter argued that, with the arrival of all-ticket games, hooliganism is no longer the issue it once was. After all, why would fans travel to games when they know they will not be allowed in?  

Intermittent meetings between the police, train companies, the football authorities and Rail Football Forum (RFF), a coalition of supporters’ groups, have discussed ways of dealing with the minority of disruptive fans. The conclusion, that clubs need to be involved in the services and agree to ban any misbehaving fans, has not been greeted with enthusiasm. Some clubs currently run irregular football train services, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Bolton, Manchester United and Blackpool, while the practice is common on the public railway service in Germany.
Ashwin Kumar, rail director of the government-created watchdog Passenger Focus, says the RFF is looking at group-reservation systems and ways of discouraging anti-social behaviour. “The difficulty is the different perception of what is considered acceptable behaviour,” says Kumar, who adds that even singing and chanting can be thought of as intimidating by some passengers. RFF also looks to exchange information on hooligan groups, highlight potential flashpoint fixtures and offer incentives, such as special rail football tickets. Virgin has been working on a number of packages, including one with Chelsea that is offered through Thomas Cook Sport. Teams are increasingly travelling by train to avoid onerous airport security.

Halfway measures, such as the heavily policed services to the recent Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final between Swindon Town and Chesterfield, have also been welcomed by the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF). Although the authorities seem keen, fans remain sceptical. Numerous anecdotes about being bombarded with abuse from home fans at stations and travelling on dilapidated trains are recounted in online forums.

Alcohol has become a critical issue in the debate. The FSF have lobbied train operators to advertise clearly when bans are in place well ahead of the fixture. If limited stocks of alcohol were introduced on board, Football Specials may seem more appealing. 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 tickets in exchange for 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 train travel has its advantages. A good atmosphere can extend the experience beyond the ground. Dedicated services offer a quick way to get home after the last regular train has left after night games. Opportunities to avoid the heavy traffic that holds up official coaches would also be welcomed by fans.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board believes the network is under severe capacity constraints. Big games, such as Cup finals, offer the main avenue for Specials. There are trains available for hire from specialist operators. However, this comes with a warning: “This is an expensive business and the hirer, usually a football club or supporters’ body, has to carry the risk of a financial loss.” For Football Specials to be brought back, it is clear that rail operators, the police and fans will have to work together – a combination that is traditionally difficult to achieve.

From WSC 303 May 2012