Branson asks for final rethink
Virgin boss Richard Branson has asked the Football Association to "look again" at the timing of next month's FA Cup final.
Major maintenance work means rail travel, of which Virgin are the main providers, is likely to be severely disrupted over the Bank Holiday weekend - with Liverpool supporters travelling from the north-west to Wembley for a 5.15pm kick-off and back on May 5 expected to be affected.
However, the FA maintain adequate transport arrangements have been put in place with extra coaches being put on to cover that route.
"We have a strong relationship with Liverpool Football club and twice recently have worked with them and Network Rail to bring many fans to Wembley," said Branson in a letter emailed to the Liverpool Echo. "On this occasion we would ask the FA to look again at the timing of the game."
The FA did not respond to Branson's call for a rethink on the kick-off time but stressed they felt there would be enough coaches to ferry fans back and forth.
"In light of the disrupted rail service to London, The FA can confirm that National Express, a partner of Wembley Stadium, will provide dedicated services between Liverpool and Wembley for the FA Cup Final," said an FA spokesman.
"The dedicated coaches will depart Liverpool Coach Station at 10.15am on Saturday May 5 and travel direct to Wembley Stadium arriving at 2.30pm so fans can enjoy the pre-match build-up.
"Fans will be dropped outside Wembley Stadium with coaches not departing until the game has concluded after either 90 minutes or extra-time and penalties - meaning Liverpool fans will not miss a minute of this season's final.
"We went on record last year to state that the 2011-12 FA Cup final would have a later kick-off time while May 5 was announced almost 12 months ago to allow the Premier League to conclude in plenty of time for England to prepare for this summer's European Championships."
All but three of Virgin's Liverpool to London trains have been cancelled that day with the last return service leaving just after 8pm - meaning fans face being stranded in the capital.
Branson said had the FA been more flexible in their plans, and listened to the advice of the train company and Network Rail - responsible for the track work - the problems could have been lessened.
"The decision by the FA to schedule the cup final on a Bank Holiday weekend and start at 5.15pm rather than the traditional 3pm has been made for the FA's commercial reasons at the expense of the travelling football fan," added the Virgin boss.
"As is now customary on Bank Holiday weekends, the line is partly closed for improvement work.
"This is Network Rail's massive renewal programme, scheduled more than two years ago, which will improve reliability on the line.
"The FA were told of these plans and of the impacts of a late kick-off, but chose to ignore the advice of Virgin Trains and Network Rail.
"If the FA had engaged with the industry we could have worked out a range of options well ahead of time and timed the match to minimise the disruption."
Transport Secretary Justine Greening told the House Of Commons today: "The underlying problem that we are trying to solve is that the FA Cup starts later than it was originally planned to start.
"I have spoken to Network Rail (NR) and Virgin and Department for Culture Media and Sport.
"It is very difficult to change the NR work which is really important for maintenance and safety and has been planned for 18 months but Virgin have said that they are planning to put on longer trains on the Sunday so that we can make sure that fans have a good opportunity to get back."
Six MPs have signed an early day motion, calling on "all involved to take the action necessary to ensure disruption is minimised as much as possible".
Liverpool Walton MP Steve Rotheram called on ministers to "bang heads together" and make sure there were scheduled services from the capital back to the north-west.
"Will you get the relevant authorities, Virgin, Network Rail and the Football Association, round the table and bang their heads together until common sense prevails?" he said.