Network Rail are stuck between commuter rock and football hard place over FA Cup travel chaos

The governing body has to consider rail companies as partners to help make journeys hassle-free for fans, writes Laura Lawrence.

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This time of year seems to come around so quickly: folks complaining about how you can’t say Easter anymore in a Christian country and how all chocolate eggs are now Halal. The joys of misinformation. It’s also a time where the rail network gets a bashing from football fans about its inability to get them to and from crucial matches at Wembley.

Their frustration is understandable. The FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Manchester City on April 16th is on the Saturday of Easter weekend. Network Rail, the organisation responsible for maintaining the infrastructure of the railway, had already announced planned closures between Milton Keynes and London Euston for this particular weekend.

The operative word here is ‘planned’. According to the joint statement from the regional mayors’ of Manchester and Liverpool, the engineering work has been planned since 2019 and the FA were made aware of this last autumn.

Ben Jones, freelance travel writer and former Rail magazine journalist, told me: “The big problem is that to function effectively the railway has to plan its timetables and line closures months, even years ahead. Football fixtures, especially cup matches, are often only decided a week or two in advance. That’s too late to cancel engineering works.”

Network Rail are stuck between a commuter rock and a football hard place. When is the best time to maintain infrastructure when the lines are used for passengers during the day and freight at night?

Jones said: “If it’s not a football match, it will be Chelsea Flower Show or rugby or any of the thousand other events that happen in London.”

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The answer — at least until the pandemic caused a seismic shift in travel patterns — was bank holiday weekends when passenger numbers were much lower. This, unfortunately, affects leisure users. However, Ben added: “There is a growing belief in the rail industry that leisure travel is the key to future success so they are working to find ways to accommodate more travelling fans at weekends.”

So how can this be done?

First and foremost, the FA has to consider Network Rail and the railway companies as partners and work towards making travel for fans as easy as possible.

Railway companies get some justified stick sometimes but for this there needs to be some clarity. When fixtures are moved for TV kick-off times and there are no late trains, that is not the railway’s fault. Better communication between all parties is essential. We know that late and early weekend kick-off times are here to stay. The global reach of TV fixtures is the primary focus of the football industry.

Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR

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