The Abbey Flyer, Park Street & Frogmore Station © Gordon Edgar

At the Heart of the Community

16th September 2016

Britain’s railways were once the envy of the world. Today, you’re hard pushed to find anyone with a good word to say for them, decimated as they are by strikes, disputes, delays, leaves on the line and the wrong kind of snow… but there is one aspect of the network that is flourishing: community rail partnerships. DeborahMulhearn reports.

Like other places around the country, the 2015 Boxing Day floods in the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd left hundreds homeless, and seriously affected the business community. But help came from some unexpected quarters.

Local Mytholmroyd resident Geoff Mitchell was on holiday with his wife Sue in Venice at the time, but could see on Facebook the devastation in their village and the landslides that were closing the roads. He knew that being cut off is disastrous for any small community.

Luckily, Mitchell is chair of Mytholmroyd Station Partnership, one of a growing number of Community Rail Partnerships (CRPs) being set up around the country. “We were able to contact the Northern Rail managing director,” he explains. “Although we were in Venice and he was in Florida, he was able to arrange extra train stops to help displaced residents to get to new accommodation and for volunteers to reach the village to help.”

Northern Rail also supplied free tickets for affected people and arranged for staff to volunteer to help with the clearing-up. “They did a splendid job,” says Mitchell. “The village is very slowly recovering and the community spirit is now far greater. Altogether it’s been a superb example of co-operation.”

Keeping the vital transport links open would not have happened so seamlessly if it hadn’t been for the Mytholmroyd Station Partnership, which is often used as an example for community groups looking into setting up a CRP.

Schemes such as the one in Mytholmroyd, on the Calder Valley Line between Halifax and Manchester Victoria, work to improve and promote their local railway stations. They are mainly voluntary membership organisations that identify new uses for derelict station buildings and keep the platforms, station gardens and surrounding areas planted and well maintained. Volunteers help with gardening, painting and tidying as well as organising community events such as showcases for local enterprise and food fairs.

Partnership working is key for a successful CRP, and local communities reap the benefits. Local youngsters and schoolchildren have created superb floral displays, artworks and heritage projects, including, for example, First World War commemorative events and exhibitions.

Train travel used to be romantic (in films, at least), and a relatively cheap and convenient way to get to work or to go on holiday. But the post-war rise in car ownership, and the notorious 1960s government report The Reshaping of British Railways, aka the ‘Beeching Report’, ushered in the decline of our railways.

More than four thousand miles of route was lost after the ‘axe’ advocated by Dr Richard Beeching. This not only closed branch lines and left many villages and smaller communities isolated, but caused numerous station buildings to be left to rot. Increasing privatisation over the next decades meant fewer trains, more unmanned stations and a rise in anti-social behaviour and crime in and around these now neglected railway stations.

But communities are fighting back and reclaiming their railway stations. Mytholmroyd is part of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP), a national network of mainly voluntary-led groups that focus on station buildings and their immediate environment. They range in size from small ‘friends’ groups to those with a couple of employees and local authority representation, and liaise between the railway companies and rail users in their local communities.

“It’s not as formal as it sounds,” says Mitchell. “Mytholmroyd Station Partnership is a very friendly community group from the village and beyond who have transformed a vandalised wreck of a station into an award-winning amenity.” ‘Adopting’ the station has not only halted the decline, but has also seen a 40% increase in station usage.

Like Mytholmroyd, Hertfordshire’s Abbey Line Community Rail Partnership was one of the first to be set up, over a decade ago. The Abbey Line is a six and a half-mile long railway serving local communities between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey stations. The ‘Abbey Flyer’, as the train is known locally, also provides a vital link to London and beyond.

“The Abbey Line is a wonderful transport link, allowing people to travel between St Albans and Watford in only 16 minutes,” says Trevor Mason, Abbey Line CRP officer. “Working with the community through activities such as school art competitions and walking trails helps spread the word that this transport gem is there to be enjoyed.”
Improvements have included better signage and lighting, shelters and platform access, and the introduction of emergency and help points. “It’s an important way of saying that the local residents value their railway,” adds Mason. “Our volunteers act as the eyes and ears for the railway, reporting regularly on any faults or other issues that need to be addressed.”

Pupils from Marlborough Science Academy in St Albans designed the new metalwork entrance to the Abbey Station, which won a community art scheme award in last year’s ACoRP awards. There’s also a new Abbey Line Trail, designed to encourage people to use the train to reach and enjoy the natural environment.

Local authorities play an important role in the partnerships. Hertfordshire County Council and London Midland have invested in facilities such as a new heated waiting room at Watford, step-free access and new road signs to the stations. The CRP also campaigned for an extra late-evening service and ticket machines.

“Overall the CRP is about two things,” says Mason. “First, it creates a strong voice so that the needs and aspirations of users can be heard within the corridors of power. Second, it harnesses local energy and enterprise so that the community can deliver its own improvements. It also enables us to tap into a national network, allowing us to benefit from ideas created by similar groups all around the country.”

Community railway partnerships are not just about localism. Many of the rail operating companies have a remit to expand community rail partnerships, which are set to play a big part in future rail planning, where they can become more involved and influence strategy.

There are probably as many different CRP models as there are railway stations, depending on the size and communities they serve. Some have good relationships with local schools; there are others where local businesses have taken the initiative and created thriving centres of activity at their stations. Whatever the approach, communities can only benefit.

You don’t even need a functioning rail line to have an effective CRP. A campaign to reopen a Liverpool station that closed nearly a century ago is planning to set up a community rail partnership. St James Station would serve the Baltic Triangle, a vibrant and growing creative community close to the city centre. “The station would be a fantastic asset for our community of creative and digital businesses,” says Mark Lawler, MD of Baltic Creative. “It would benefit not just the businesses, but also the wider residential areas, and a new school within our area that is set to double in size.”

The area is full of converted warehouses housing small businesses, artists’ studios, cafes and music venues. However, it lacks good public transport links. “Better communication is a major strand of our business plan and the station would not only connect us with Liverpool city centre, the waterfront and beyond,” adds Lawler, “but also to the national rail network.”

St James Station is currently in a poor state of repair and does not meet current regulations or safety standards, so significant capital investment would be needed. “We are looking at setting it up as a community rail partnership,” he says, “and the look and feel of the new station would reflect the creative energy and community spirit of the Baltic Triangle.”

There’s no doubt that a busy railway station brings life back into communities, generates jobs and encourages people to get out of their cars and use an important public service. Regenerated facilities can increase footfall, which in turn reduces crime and anti-social behaviour.

CRPS have shown that even small-scale improvements can help reduce both the fear of crime and the low-level antisocial behaviour that blights unmanned stations. It can be something as simple as planting flowers and creating artworks. Everybody, including bored teenagers, would respect a busy, properly cared for station.

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