Community rail has quietly contributed to the social and economic regeneration of British communities for over 20 years. Freelance journalist Cecilia Keating investigates to find out how the grassroots movement became so successful and whether it could become part of the mainstream.
‘Community rail is an incredibly widespread grassroots movement that most people don’t know about,’ says Jools Townsend, chief executive officer of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP), an umbrella group that represents more than 1,000 station groups and around 70 community rail partnerships in the UK.
Station groups zero in on improvements and upkeep of a particular station, while community rail partnerships focus on a particular section of the railway network.
The movement was formed in the early 1990s, as rail privatisation loomed and community groups rallied around their local lines and stations, fearful of a fresh onslaught of Beeching-style closures.
It has since snowballed; in 2018 more than 8,500 volunteers, as well as a handful of paid officers and staff, participated in community rail initiatives across England, Scotland and Wales.
These range from nurturing station garden plots, making platforms more accessible, running train travel workshops with school students, and transforming unloved, dilapidated station buildings into cafes, bookshops and art galleries that employ local people.
‘Community rail impact goes beyond the station boundaries or the railway itself,’ explained Townsend. ‘It delivers a much broader benefit for local communities and in some cases, influences much wider change and regeneration across local areas.’
Community rail efforts have a knock-on effect on passenger numbers. A recent survey by ACoRP demonstrated that community rail lines saw a 42% increase in ridership between 2008 and 2018, above the national average of 35%.
The increased footfall boosts tourism in rural towns and in certain cases has encouraged train operators to improve the frequency or quality of local train services – thus expanding railway commuters’ employment radius.
Community rail, according to Townsend, ‘provides a bridge between local community groups, the rail industry, local governments and other partners. Members often act as consultees, and they are often proactively identifying and making the case for opportunities that are really valuable on a local level, but might otherwise be overlooked in the grand scheme of things.’
Community rail receives funding from a variety of sources, including train operators, local authorities (although austerity and cutbacks has stymied this pot, one source told New Start), non-rail local partners, and through joint Network Rail, ACORP, and the Department of Transport (DfT) grant schemes.
In some cases, an entrepreneurial non-profit ‘rail development company’ administers local community rail projects, re-investing profits made by community-rail ventures into fresh projects and activities.
The DfT lauded the movement as having a ‘leading role in the government’s vision for civil society’ in the latest iteration of its community rail strategy in November 2018.
The strategy urges Network Rail, which owns all national railway infrastructure, to proffer unused station buildings to non-profit community organisations ‘on peppercorn rents’ where possible.
Station rejuvenation and repurposing is central to community rail. In Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, plans are underway to transform a derelict Grade II station building into a community hub of business start-ups and artist studios.
At Llandovery station in central Wales, a community-run café doubles as a party venue, art exhibition space and a work experience destination for young people with learning disabilities. And the development company of the scenic Settle-Carlisle train line that stretches between Cumbria and Lancashire runs a café at Skipton station and plans to open another in Settle in the spring of 2020.
Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company general manager Drew Haley estimates that the group employs 26 people in total, while supporting 70 more jobs through local sourcing of goods and services.
‘People think community rail is purely volunteering groups,’ he said. ‘But lots of small businesses make up our communities, and our sourcing is completely local. Community rail supports the sustainability of the community.’
The group sources local Cumbrian cakes and biscuits for the train trolley and produces a timetable on behalf of the train operator that includes vouchers for local businesses. It also successfully encouraged the rail operator to provide a discount railcard, which the SCRDC manages, to local residents.
David Edwards, development officer on the Heart of Wales Line Development Company, hopes that Network Rail adopts a policy where the implementation, sourcing and delivery of railway projects are devolved to community-rail groups.
‘Network Rail is a multi-layered, systems-driven organisation,’ he said. ‘Meanwhile, we can use local resources, employ local people and do it at a more cost-effective, local rate, instead of bringing in contractors for hundreds of miles away,’ he said.
He pointed to a community ‘hub’ made out of Welsh timber at Llandeilo station as a working example of successful local project delivery. The hub, which was erected in 2016, is currently used by local food companies. The hope is that vegetable boxes of local produce will eventually be dispatched to customers by train.
Community land trusts
In the past, the Heart of Wales Development Company has considered the possibility of collaborating with community-run housing activists to explore the potential of reclaiming disused railway land for a community land trust (CLT).
Asked about the potential for collaboration between community housing development groups and community rail organisations, ACoRP’s Townsend said that it was very much development area.
‘There’s an appetite amongst our members to engage more with housing development.’ she said.
‘It’s quite plain to see that there are some real opportunities there for community rail to bring its expertise and its insights into the picture. New housing developments aren’t always connected that well with public transport. There’s an opportunity for community rail to be more plugged into new housing developments and provide advice.’
Regardless of political instability, Townsend is positive for the future.
‘Whatever changes take place over the coming months and years, we hope that the growing understanding of the importance of community rail, and more broadly of engaging communities in local sustainable transport provision. to inclusion, sustainability, health and wellbeing, will stand us in good stead to keep doing this important work.’
Photo Credit – Community Rail