Virgin Trains apologises to Preston North End fans for 'embarrassing' cancellations

Richard Branson's rail company sponsors the League One Playoff finalists

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The Independent Online

It’s arguable that, without the help of Virgin Trains, Preston North End might never have got to the League One Play Off Final, yet the team’s fans will now have to do exactly that.

Despite being the official shirt sponsor of the Lancashire club, Virgin Trains is, it appears, unable to do anything about planned engineering works on the West Coast mainline that will make it extremely difficult for the expected 30,000 fans to make it to Wembley on 24 May.

Also, the planned 5.30pm Bank Holiday Sunday kick-off is likely to make it impossible for anyone to return by train if the match goes to extra-time.

Virgin had hoped to provide extra trains from Preston but track maintenance makes it impossible. Fans will now have to connect via Manchester, but the last service departs London Euston at 8.40pm, and the match won’t finish before 7.30pm at the very earliest.

Sir Richard Branson’s company, which also advertises heavily at Preston’s ground, Deepdale, has apologised.

A spokeswoman admitted it was “slightly embarrassing” but there was nothing they could do. “The dates for maintenance were decided well in advance by Network Rail,” she said. “There was no way this could have been foreseen. We explored lots of other avenues but ... our hands were tied. It’s unfortunate timing – and slightly embarrassing for us, bearing in mind our connections with Preston.

“We don’t have the option on the Sunday evening to put any further trains on, other than the one which is scheduled to come back to Manchester and that won’t accommodate all the 3,000 or so fans we expect to want to travel by rail.”

It may come as consolation that their rival Swindon fans also face train difficulties – it is a Bank Holiday after all. On 24 May there are no direct First Great Western services from Swindon to Paddington, so fans will have to change twice and face an additional travel time of at least 38 minutes.

Swindon fan Chris Woolston, 21, who lives in the town and works for a building society, said he had hoped to travel by rail but has now joined other supporters in hiring a minibus for the journey to Wembley.

“We’ve got this minibus and hired a driver for the day and there’s 16 of us,” he said. “A lot of people  ... will have to take to the road. It’s all a bit unfair and the late kick-off time is terrible for the Preston fans.”

A Network Rail spokesman said: “We’d like to apologise to any passengers whose plans are affected by our improvement work, but hope they will understand that this is a quieter time on the railway and we want to minimise the overall impact of these vital projects on passengers.”