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Why do so many football fans travel by car?

Former campaigner's picture
A recent 'football special' train from Blackpool to Arsenal - copyright Phill Heywood

7 December 2012: As part of our football travel project, West Ham supporter Peter Caton writes about the problems faced by fans when going to matches by public transport.

Back in the 1970s the majority of football supporters travelled to away games by coach or train. Clubs chartered transport and British Rail ran extra services to cater for travelling fans. Coaches still run but football special trains are now rare. Most fans now travel away by car, but why?

Improved roads, especially a more extensive motorway system, have generally made car journeys quicker, but it is the negative reasons why supporters decline to use public transport that cause concern.

Trains are perceived as expensive, especially when car travel is falsely costed solely on the basis of petrol used. Dates and kick off times of matches are changed at short notice for the benefit of TV, and by the time the fixture is fixed the cheapest Advance tickets have gone. Many fans have lost money after purchasing Advance tickets only to find that TV changes the kick off.

The Taylor Report in 1990, with its requirement for all-seating, led many clubs to move grounds. Most new stadia are on the edge of town, often by retail parks, with good road links but poor public transport. What used to be a short walk from the railway station now requires a bus ride through congested streets.

Policing is a deterrent to public transport. Fans travelling by car have freedom of movement when they arrive but those using the train are often escorted to designated pubs or straight to the ground. Coaches are frequently held by police and escorted to the ground, often at the last moment, with it not unusual for fans to miss the start of the match.

For many fans drinking is part of the football ritual. Other than the driver, those coming by car can drink on the way or call in at a convenient pub. Alcohol is banned on football coaches and most matchday trains are ‘dry’.

In many cases it is simply impossible to travel by train. Late night and overnight services have been reduced, giving no way to get home after evening matches. No longer are special trains run to get fans home. Traditionally local derbies were played at Christmas, New Year and Easter, but knowing they will get a bumper holiday crowd for any game, clubs ask to save local matches for other dates - more money for the clubs but harder for fans to travel, especially on Boxing Day when trains no longer run.

Football specials are remembered with nostalgia. They may have used the worst coaching stock, but they were cheap and convenient, travelling directly to the station closest the ground. There was camaraderie amongst those who used them. To charter a train is now complex and expensive. Clubs show little interest in subsidising travel and the primary concern of train operators is making money.

Both football and public transport have moved on (although whether for the better is a matter for debate) and it would be hard to reverse everything, but if the will is there changes could be made that would encourage supporters to travel by more sustainable ways.

Peter Caton is a West Ham supporter, member of the Football Supporters’ Federation and part time author. @petercatonbooks   www.petercatonbooks.co.uk

Help us tackle matchday travel - send us your stories about getting to football here: http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/football