New thinking on community-based station development

Paul Salveson

Based on a presentation to ACoRP Station Adopters’ Conference, Friends’ Meeting House, Manchester, June 2nd 2015

Change is constant – but sometimes it can accelerate

There are few examples of completely ‘new’ ideas. Most practical – even revolutionary – ideas emerge and build from development that has already happened. Sometimes you see great leaps forward, a shift from quantitative change and development to something that marks a qualitative shift. In politics, that can mark a revolution. And something of that sort ahs happened with community rail. In the late 1980s and early 1980s there were several things going on that contributed to a positive approach towards rural and local railways in general. The Devon and Cornwall Rail Initiative was set up in the early 1990s to promote the local rail network, involving BR, local authorities, national parks and the University of Plymouth. There were several examples of rail user groups which were doing more than just protesting: groups like the Cotswold Line Promotion group, as the name suggests, took a positive approach to their local line. The BR Community Unit, almost forgotten now, did some great work in taking railways out into local communities. And at a very local level there was the beginning of the station adoption movement. I honestly don’t know which was the first example of a community ‘adopting’ their station. Dolau on Heart of Wales? One of the East Anglian rural stations? Answers to ACoRP on a postcard please. In addition there were isolated examples of local business enterprise at a station, notably the one-man booking office at Ledbury, which continues to thrive. Putting all of these good things together led to the ‘community rail’ concept. But sometimes radical change needs an external stimulus and this came from the plans for rail privatisation which were taking shape in the early 1990s. Would rural railways survive? What actually happened was that privatisation created space to develop some quite new initiatives which the more formal structure of BR might not have endorsed so positively. We’ve not looked back.

A mature movement

Station adoption – or more cumbersome – ‘community-based station development’ – has been around for over 25 years. Along with its bigger sisters in community rail partnerships, it’s a mature movement with lots of great work happening up and down the country. My friends in ACoRP reckon there are over 300 groups on the network. Their work has led to the transformation of hundreds of stations, making them more welcoming and attractive to use. They have re-established stations as being at the heart of many communities. Here in Greater Manchester, there are brilliant examples at Hindley, Westhoughton, Walkden and Littleborough. Some are staffed but many are not; most have lost their buildings but that hasn’t stopped volunteers at the likes of Westhoughton transforming their station through gardens, art work and a range of amusingly eccentric features.

So a perfectly reasonable stance is to say ‘carry on lads and lasses, you’re doing a grand job’. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that what you’re doing is old hat and should be swept away in pursuit of something new and better. What I am offering is the possibility of doing more – sometimes quite a lot more – if you’r e up for it. Unlike the situation in the early 1990s, there isn’t the external stimulus of a threat (i.e. privatisation leading to closures). However, there is a more positive stimulus, represented by a far more positive approach coming from the Department for Transport, the devolved governments for Scotland and Wales, Network Rail and the train operators. Your work has been recognised and people at a very high level of government are saying “let’s see more of this sort of thing”. For the first time in my experience, civil servants are challenging community rail activists to be more radical. This is reflected in the core of rail policy and expressed in franchise documentation. The Northern Rail Invitation to tender gives explicit support to community rail and group station adoption, and supports plans to bring unused station buildings back to community use. And what’s more, this will be scored in the franchise evaluation. There are great examples of station buildings being brought back to use around the network: Littleborough with its superb community museum and archive centre, Moorthorpe (pop in and enjoy a brew in The Mallard Cafe) and Todmorden with its artists’ studios. And the jewel in the crown – or soon to be – Wakefield Kirkgate, and example of station adoption on steroids. The once derelict station buildings, which added extra emphasis to the station’s former title of ‘Britain’s worst station’ have been restored in a £5m project led by not-for-profit environment charity Groundwork, working with Metro, Network Rail, train operators and Wakefield Council – with generous help from the Railway Heritage Trust. When it opens later this year there will be conference facilities, office space and cafe facilities. I invite next year’s adopters’ conference to meet there.

The challenge of ‘scorched earth’ stations: enter the ‘caboose’

There are still station buildings sitting there, waiting to be brought back to life. Mytholmroyd; Padgate; Askam and many more. But they are shrinking in number as communities realise that they can intervene and bring those buildings back to productive use. But suppose there isn’t a building to be brought back to sue? Back in the 60s and 70s BR pursued a policy of ‘scorched earth’, trashing many buildings that could now be part of flourishing community station. Nobody is going to wave a magic wand and bring back the buildings which once graced Llandeilo, Craven Arms and Church Stretton on the Heart of Wales; Clapham, Wennington and Giggleswick on the Bentham Line; and so many more. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. There is. In rural Mid Wales – Presteigne – a local company owned by David Bamford that specialises in eco-friendly ‘passiv haus’ homes, has come up with the ‘caboose’ concept. For those of you old enough to remember, it looks like the classic BR ‘fitted van’ some of which and still be found in farmers’ fields across Britain. But it’s built to modern standards using sustainable materials. And it isn’t expensive. We’re not talking about a more attractive waiting shelter. It’s a building made for things to happen inside it (yes OK, I know all about some of the things that happen in unstaffed waiting shelters). It provides room for small businesses, station adoption groups, local community groups. It could be used as a small shop, a booking office and convenience store, a bike hire business – or whatever the local need might be. Art gallery? Tourist information? Local food shop? Bike hire? The list is endless and will be determined by local opportunities rather than any top-down ‘model’.

It isn’t the kind of place that should be run by the train operator, or by a local authority. It needs people like you – local social entrepreneurs – to activate the concept. But it does need a supportive framework, and I’m delighted to say that Network Rail, the Welsh Government and the train operator (Arriva) is keen to see a pilot ‘caboose’ installed at Llandeilo. The project is being encouraged and promoted by the Heart of Wales Line Forum and its newly-formed subsidiary Heart of Wales Line Enterprise Network. The caboose will be ready soon and I hope some of you will be able to get over to Mid Wales and see it. Even better, start talking to your TOC and Network Rail about getting one installed at your station.

Re-creating the garden railway village

Sometimes to go forward you need to find inspiration in the past. Back in the 19th century the railway opened up many parts of rural Britain, connecting villages and towns to larger centres. In some cases they helped create completely new villages, usually around junctions or other operating centres. A few railway workers’ cottages led to building the station pub. A church would be built; shops provided, such as a local co-operative. Before long, you had a complete, more or less self-sustaining, village. Many of the railway workers tended extensive gardens growing their own produce and sharing it with neighbours and workmates. They formed societies and built ‘reading rooms’. In the North-east you still see examples of these railway villages, like ‘Ferryhill Station’, which though it has a busy railway has long since lost its station. On the Heart of Wales Line, ‘Builth Road’ is a good example of a surviving railway village, though few railway workers still live there.

Can we re-interpret that concept in a 21st century context? There is growing interest in a new generation of sustainable ‘garden cities’. Why not re-create ‘railway garden villages’ with affordable, eco-friendly housing built around the station? The station could be the community centre, village shop and visitor centre. It’s an ambitious vision and would need the co-operation of Network Rail, willing to use some of its unused land assets, the local authority and train operator. But above all it would require community engagement stimulated by a not-for-profit development trust.

Staffed stations

Many station adopters work at stations which are staffed for at least part of the day. Examples include Kidsgrove, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Poynton, Littleborough and Whaley Bridge. Relationships with staff are invariably positive, with station staff recognising that adopters add value that neither they nor their employers could provide. It’s great to see staff getting involved in station adoption projects, often in their own time. I think there is scope to extend the scope of smaller staffed stations which may otherwise be vulnerable to de-staffing in years’ ahead. It baffles me that station booking offices sell only one ‘product’, i.e. tickets. Some stations could generate additional income by developing them (Merseyrail has already done it) as combined ticket sales and convenience stories. In some cases, currently unstaffed stations could be brought back to use with ticketing facilities supplemented by offering other sales and services, depending on what the local need might. And if there is no building – but the commercial opportunity – hire in a ‘caboose’! And it doesn’t have to be staffed by the train operator; it could be a local business – or maybe even the station adoption group. That would require, in most cases, a major step change which might be scary. But remember, you’ve got allies.

Larger stations

Most of this paper has focused on opportunities at small stations. But we shouldn’t ignore the potential of larger stations. Huddersfield, with nearly five million passengers a year, has its own ‘Friends of Huddersfield Station’ which staffs a visitor information point (VIP). The volunteers give advice and information on the town as much as the trains, to a degree compensating for the loss of the town’s tourist information centre. On certain evenings you can buy home-baked bread from the HandMade Bakery, cakes and flowers. Local artists display their work in the station concourse, with exhibitions changed every month so it’s always fresh. It wouldn’t have happened without the support of TransPennine, both station staff and senior management; now there is a team of some 25 volunteers who staff the VIP four days a week. Preston station, managed by Virgin Trains, has introduced a ‘station market’ for local businesses offering bread, pies and pasties, olives, soap and crafts. I can recommend the cheese and onion pie! The stall-holders aren’t charged – Virgin recognises that they bring a positive sense of community t this large, busy station. And there’s the space to do it without anyone getting in the way. There is scope to do similar things at many more larger stations. You need a supportive TOC and station management team and a way of reaching out to the community. Adopters of smaller stations nearby could play a pivotal role in helping the TOC do that.

Encourage innovation and do new stuff

Community-led station development is a flexible tool which can take in a wide range of activities. Grand Central has encouraged ‘station ambassadors’ to assist passengers using their services when the station (e.g. Hartlepool) isn’t staffed. Local volunteers come into more direct contact with users of the station, providing a positive, useful service. Huddersfield’s VIP again adds value and works at busier stations; we need more of them. Innovation works by sharing ideas and experience. Adopters need to get better at networking, through events like this and more regional events across the UK. Use social media to pass on things that have worked – or things that haven’t. Organise one-off events – station galas, station markets, festivals and the like. Invite other station groups to come along and join in the fun and have a stall. Get local producers involved, local artists (e.g. Todmorden) and musicians.

Don’t feel that you have to carry on doing the same thing all the time. Find ways of getting young people involved, through schools and youth groups. They will bring fresh ideas and a different way of thinking. Embrace that and learn from them, as they will learn from you. There’s lots you can do and within the railway industry the old ‘can’t do that’ attitude is being replaced by a much more positive ‘can do’ approach. Bill Bolt, TransPennine’s station team leader and former conductor on the Penistone Line, did much to encourage the visitor information point and station art gallery at Huddersfield. I introduced him to a senior DfT civil servant who wanted to see examples of community involvement at a larger station. Bill was asked what was the main ingredient in success. Bill said that it was about providing ‘creative space’ and not being put off by some of the hurdles that still get erected. “The only limit is the limits of your imagination” said Bill, to a slightly shocked civil servant. Bill died a couple of months ago but his legacy lives on. Take his advice to heart.

June 2nd 2015