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On track: how communities are working to defend their rail services
This series of articles by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2008
Trains on the Penistone line from Huddersfield to Barnsley and Sheffield make their wandering way through the Yorkshire countryside, stopping at small stations in places like Berry Brown, Honley, Brockholes and Denby Dale. It's a pleasant journey at the best of times, but pick the right train and the train carriages become something else – a moving community centre, where a local band may be performing or a children's art project in full swing.
It's the most obvious sign of the now well-established Penistone Line community partnership, which has seen local people living close to the railway come together with the train operating company Northern to make something special of their rail link. Almost any opportunity gets seized upon: Burns Night this year was the occasion for some lusty bagpiping, St Patrick's Day was celebrated with on-board Irish stew, and St George's Day too saw a band on board one of the evening trains on the line. Even US Independence Day and Munich 's Oktoberfest are used as occasions for a little more music-making and celebrating.
The community rail partnership idea isn't confined just to this part of Yorkshire : throughout the country, around forty of so community rail partnerships are now established, each focused on supporting and cherishing a particular branch line. Stations, too, are getting some TLC. Once tatty facilities and overgrown gardens are being spruced up by volunteer ‘friends', through an innovative station adopter scheme.
It's an initiative which, not surprisingly, the government is keen to support. The Department for Transport has produced a Community Rail Development Strategy, with the aim of putting local and rural railways on a sustainable basis for the long term. The idea is to help railways contribute more to their local economy – and to increase the use which is made of them, reducing costs and increasing revenue so that ultimately less public money is needed to subsidise them. Building community involvement in these railways and stations is a central pillar of the strategy.
Ultimately the Department for Transport may designate up to fifty rail lines in England and Wales as Community Rail lines, though so far only twenty-one have been identified, all in England . Designation gives train operators a little more flexibility in how they operate the lines: for example, it allows special sorts of fare concessions to be developed to try to tap latent demand. There's flexibility too on timetabling trains. Designated lines can also be maintained to different standards from those applying on the main rail network.
The idea has been tried out elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany , Sweden and the Netherlands where rural train services which had been neglected by the big state-owned railway operators have got a new lease of life with the involvement of local authorities in their operations. The government here hopes that a similar transformation can be possible. Certainly, rail services which previously could have been under threat of closure have a breathing space: as part of its new strategy the Department for Transport is committed not to close any lines until at least 2014.
It's seen by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) as welcome endorsement by the government of the arguments it has been putting forward for several years. ACoRP brings together most of the existing community partnerships (many of them pre-dating the government's 2004 strategy) and around thirty or so groups working to improve the state of individual stations. “We are an association of ‘do-ers', focused on practical initiatives which add up to a better, more sustainable, local railway” ACoRP says. “Improved station facilities, better train services and improved integration with other forms of transport are central to the work of ACoRP's members”.
How to become a station adopter
Twenty-five years ago the local stations on the line north from Settle to Carlisle was in a sorry state. Passenger services had been withdrawn in 1970, and by the early 1980s the whole line seemed destined for closure. But the creation of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line in 1981 marked the beginning of a fight-back, and little by little, things looked up. In 1986 trains once again started calling at the stations, several of them high up in the hills of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales national park. Now not only do the Friends continue to work tirelessly to support the development of the line, they also ensure that each of the stations along the line from Settle to Carlisle look their very best.
The Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line were one of the pioneers in taking on responsibility for local stations, but the idea is one which has appealed to people across the country. And in the last few years the ‘Adopt a Station' concept has become formally acknowledged and recognised by Network Rail and the train operating companies. The franchise areas covered by Northern and National Express East Anglia have been particularly go-ahead in this respect.
The idea is a simple one. As ACoRP says, “station adoption is a way of turning round uncared-for and unloved stations, bringing them back into the heart of the community”. Some places have one or two individuals who take a particular interest in the state of the station, but ACoRP recommends that it is usually better to set up a small community group properly constituted as a ‘Friends of the station' organisation. ACoRP has a free 36-page guide Station Adoption , available for downloading from its website, which has full information on how groups can get started.
Exactly what is involved in station adoption differs from place to place, depending on the nature of the station itself. Part of the work is likely to involve monitoring and reporting any problems to the train operator: this typically includes checking for such things as damage to the platform lighting and signage, graffiti, inaudible PA systems and out of date timetable posters. But most station Friends groups also go a step further, and work to make their stations something special. The scope here is potentially as wide as you want to make it: one Friends group has planted a tub of culinary herbs on the platform, complete with advice on how to use them in recipes. Another has established a free book library in the waiting room: you can take a book with you to read on the train, and return it next time you're at the station. Art installations, including community art works, are becoming a familiar sight at many rural stations, too.
Station Friends groups undertake their work as a way of restoring local pride in a key community facility, but there can be some benefits to the individuals involved too. Many train operators arrange for station adopters to have free rail passes for their local lines, as a little ‘thank you' for the work they undertake.
Prospective new station adopters and station Friends groups are encouraged to make contact first with their local community rail partnership, if one exists. ACoRP will be able to point you in the right direction.
The scene in Scotland
The railways in Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish government, leading to some differences from the situation south of the Border. The government's twenty-year strategy document Scotland's Railways was produced in December 2006, and the national agency Transport Scotland now has responsibility for overseeing its delivery. ScotRail holds the rail operator's franchise.
Scotland has chosen not to copy the community rail partnership idea promoted by the Department for Transport, though the not-for-profit Highland Rail Partnership works to encourage the development of rail usage in the Highland area of the country. ScotRail supports the station adoption concept, and several Scottish stations have their own Friends groups. ScotRail also will try to assist community groups interested in taking over unused station accommodation for non-profit purposes (contact ScotRail on 0141-335 4787 for more information).
Case study: West Runton, Norfolk
If you're planning a trip to north Norfolk this summer, you might just want to try to arrange to be at the village of West Runton over the August bank holiday weekend.
West Runton's station on the rural line from Norwich to Sheringham is unstaffed and not normally packed out with passengers. But on the bank holiday Saturday anything up to 150 people crowd on to the platform for the occasion of the annual tea-party organised in conjunction with the local WI. Much baking of cakes takes place in the run-up to the event (though it's not unknown for the demand to be so high that the cake supply runs out) and the local scout group is pulled in to help ferry the necessary cups and saucers from the church hall over the railway bridge. The afternoon train, when it pulls in en route to Sheringham, is given a particularly warm welcome: the driver gets to take away his own cup of tea, returning it to the WI on the return trip a little later in the day.
The WI began to take care of the station as long ago as 1993, and over the years they have won numerous awards for their efforts. Their current President Jane Bothwell is one of the four official station adopters, the group now including a WI member's husband as well. Jane describes with obvious pride how the money raised from the tea and cakes gets spent on improving the appearance of the station. Flowers and shrubs have been planted, and Spring each year always brings forth a good display of Spring bulbs. “And last year we splashed out on a pergola,” she says, “We have roses and clematis climbing up it”. Bird boxes and a bat box have also been installed.
There can be problems: “We do get a bit of vandalism. We had a tub tipped over a month ago, and some of the plants thrown on to the railway line,” she recalls. Another time the tip of a newly planted tree was broken off. “You think, why do people do it?,” she adds. But there's no doubt that the vast majority of users of the station are very appreciative of the work which Jane and her fellow adopters undertake. Unlike many small villages, West Runton not only still has its own local station, it has one which is a pleasure to use.
The big challenge: reopening closed lines
Community rail partnerships can help protect existing rural rail services - but what about places which have already lost their rail link? What is the chance of actually bringing back passenger rail services to towns and villages which thought they had lost their trains for good?
The answer, it seems, is that it all depends on how strong a business case can be made. It can be done – but it's not easy.
ACoRP produced the Rail Re-opening Toolkit in 2004 which, although now out of print, can be downloaded as a PDF document from ACoRP's website. This detailed handbook stresses that nostalgia is not a good enough reason for bringing back rail: any serious proposal has to be driven by economic factors. “Whilst local aspirations may have initiated the idea for a rail reopening only hard irrefutable facts will determine whether the scheme is taken seriously by all the regional and national authorities who will have to become involved and whose support is critical,” it points out. The handbook also warns that the timescale in reopening a disused rail line is a long one: perhaps 10-15 years for a completely disused railway.
A disused railway line can fall into one of a number of categories. It may be being operated as a freight-only line, probably not to a standard suitable for passenger trains. It may be ‘mothballed', owned by Network Rail but not currently used. It may be a ‘closed line', removed from Network Rail's control but not yet been sold. Or it may have been closed and already sold on to new owners.
How a reopening proposal is drawn up and developed depends therefore on the line's current status. However, there are some steps which any serious plan to bring back rail services will have to go through, including detailed business planning. As well as including all the elements of a conventional business plan (demand forecasts, estimates of construction and running costs, and so on), the wider social and economic benefits and costs will also need to be considered. The government asks for the impact of the proposal to be judged against five criteria, relating to environmental impacts, safety issues, economic factors, accessibility and transport integration.
If the work involved in making the business case seems daunting, comfort can perhaps be drawn from the fact that it can be done: the cover of the Toolkit shows a photograph of a diesel train pulling into one of the stations on the Wensleydale Railway. Regular passenger trains have been running on a seventeen mile stretch of track from Leeming in north Yorkshire to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales national park since 2003, making use of a line which had for many years been freight only. The Wensleydale Railway plan soon to replace a missing link which will allow their trains to connect to the main line services at Northallerton. Their long-term aim is even more ambitious: to reopen the railway line throughout the whole of Wensleydale, bringing passenger trains back to Dales towns which lost their through service in 1954. This would mean among other things repurchasing the old track bed and replacing the track.
Ruth Annison, a local businesswoman who was the project's inspiration and is now the Chairman of the railway operating company, is adamant that their aim is not to run a heritage railway. She sees the Wensleydale Railway as contributing to the local public transport infrastructure and helping the economic regeneration of her dale. She admits that it is not easy to run a rural rail service independent of the national rail network (and of government rail subsidies), but says that the Wensleydale Railway has been able to pull in a team of people (almost all volunteers) with the professional skills needed to operate the business successfully.
She has a number of tips for others thinking of following in Wensleydale's footsteps. Have good long-term strategic goals, she says, but combine these with attention to immediate detail. Be businesslike at every level (“This should be seen as an achievement, not something rather distasteful!” she adds). Invest in ‘friendliness'. And understand and appreciate what volunteers have to give.
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