A game of two halves and not many trains

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The Independent Online

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium is a rare thing: a new sporting arena built only a goal kick's distance from a major railway station.

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium is a rare thing: a new sporting arena built only a goal kick's distance from a major railway station.

But this triumph of planning was lost on most of the 72,000 football fans travelling to yesterday's FA cup final between Liverpool and Arsenal because they went by car. The days of the "football special" are dead and buried.

So, instead of enjoying a leisurely journey to the doorstep of the stadium, 60,000 fans dragged themselves out of bed at sunrise and then spent four hours or more sweltering in traffic jams on one of the hottest days of the year. The police estimate that 14,000 extra cars tried to squeeze into central Cardiff, alongside hundreds of coaches and mini-buses. Some fans even chartered planes.

Only 12,000 supporters took the train ­ a form of transport that once carried three times that number of football fans to away games every Saturday.

First Great Western put on 10 additional trains from Paddington, while Wales and West doubled three of its trains in length in an attempt to accommodate fans. But this was the maximum that either firm could manage.

The first problem is that there is no room on the system for extra trains: British Rail responded to years of chronic under-investment by ripping out all spare track and signals, leaving only the bare minimum of either.

As a result the national railway can scarcely cope with normal weekly traffic, let alone the extra trains needed for popular sports events.

Then, even if Railtrack meets its promises to invest in the lines and increase capacity, the train operating companies would find there are no spare locomotives or carriages available. In the past, British Rail kept old rolling stock specially for the purpose, but the lean days of privatisation mean that nothing is kept in reserve.

"We haven't got any more trains that we can run and still be able to cater for our normal customers elsewhere," said a spokesman for Wales and West. With every single carriage costing £1m or more, no one is willing to keep such valuable assets locked away in train sheds.

Both Liverpool and Arsenal fans have recent experience of this "efficiency". The London-based fans found that Virgin was unable to run any extra trains from Euston to Manchester for the FA cup semi-final.

Liverpool fans meanwhile found themselves taking up to eight hours to get into Cardiff for February's Worthington Cup final where the kick-off had to be delayed to let late-comers in.

For Norman Langley from Liverpool, the experience was so miserable he was determined to get up at the crack of dawn for yesterday's game, so that he could take the back roads rather than the motorways where, last time, he was caught in gridlocked traffic. "Last time it was disgusting. A lot of people would rather use the back-roads than the motorway," he said.

Meanwhile 200 Arsenal fans booked their own form of football special on the Orient Express from London, paying £200 for breakfast, an evening meal and more luxurious conditions than the back of a minibus.

Alex Bell of Walton-on-Thames said: "We went to the semi-final, and spent seven hours in a car getting home from Manchester, and having heard what happened with Liverpool and Birmingham in the Worthington Cup, we thought we would travel in style."

There is one spark of hope for the future: the arrival of new Virgin trains should free up dozens of the ageing Intercity 125s for days just like yesterday when, for a change, thousands want to quit the roads and take advantage of the railway. But maintaining surplus stock is expensive and train companies live on wafer-thin margins. So unless the new Transport Secretary makes a commitment to keeping a few of the 125s in reserve, the prospect of football specials or any other type of special remains as bleak as ever.