The grassroots network connecting people with their local railways and stations can play an important role in helping our communities and railways rebuild, says Jools Townsend, Chief Executive of Community Rail Network…

While communities around Britain face unprecedented challenges due to Covid-19, we, as the umbrella body for community rail partnerships, station friends and other rail-related community groups, are looking positively to the future.

April marked a new beginning for us, as we became the Community Rail Network (previously the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, or ACoRP): a more inclusive, open and forward-looking identity for our organisation and the grassroots movement we represent. Our vision remains of a flourishing community rail movement, connecting people and their railways, contributing to inclusive, empowered, sustainable and healthy communities. We are clear that, as we, our railways and communities look to rebuild from this crisis, and turn our attentions to the other looming global crisis, the climate emergency, this work will be more important than ever.

Community rail events and face-to-face engagement may have paused due to Covid-19, but work is ongoing to strengthen the place of community rail, and our railways, at the heart of Britain’s communities, while also helping communities to cope, bolster resilience, and move on. Many community rail partnerships and station friends are using this time to review and take stock, plan future projects, and reach out (remotely) to partners. Some are involved in local volunteering efforts, such as distributing meals from the Gaslight Café on the Isle of Wight. Many are stepping up online communications, promoting ‘do not travel’ messages, while maintaining positivity about rail, and supporting local wellbeing and home schooling, such as through art competitions: Mid Cheshire CRP, Penistone Line, Community Rail Lancashire being great examples.

At the Community Rail Network, we continue to work hard to support our rapidly growing membership, advising community rail partnerships and groups on adapting and developing their activities in these extraordinary circumstances. We’re currently switching our acclaimed events programme to webinars, so we can keep sharing good practice and maintain a sense of togetherness. And we continue to champion members’ efforts, getting the message out to wider audiences about how railways and communities are working together.

We also work at a strategic level, with decision-makers within government, industry and the third sector, showing how community rail’s insights can help rail to play a maximum role in sustainability, wellbeing and inclusion, and to build a more sustainable and inclusive transport system. This side of our work will become more crucial, as we rebuild from Covid-19, and grapple with the climate crisis: lessons from community rail may hold the key to creating a more people- and community-focused, caring, sustainable and integrated railway.

Community rail now spans Britain, in diverse rural and urban locations, and its impact on wellbeing, inclusion, sustainability and local development is burgeoning too. We’re proud to support more than 70 community rail partnerships, and counting. These are community-based organisations, mostly with one or two staff, which work along a line, or across a county or region, in partnership with the rail industry, other transport providers, local authorities, charities and educators.

There are also at least 1,000 station friends’ groups across the network: volunteer groups who bring local people together with the station as a focal point, but whose work reaches well beyond station boundaries. Increasingly, we see stations adopted not only by volunteers interested in the station itself, but also by schools, colleges, support groups, charities or enterprises, who see the benefits of working in a rail environment, and opportunities for making a tangible difference to their locality.

These partnerships and groups continually take on more wide-ranging, ambitious activities – from biodiversity gardens on the Poacher Line, to green tourism campaigns for Devon and Cornwall, to social enterprise cafes like Gobowen Station, to pedestrian access improvements as planned at Handforth – but always with local people at the forefront, driven by local needs and contexts. Community rail is richly varied because it is community-led, with this bottom-up approach key to the value it delivers.

It’s all about building positive relations between rail and community, and helping local people get the most from their railways and stations (not least by using them!) Hence, community rail can be effective in any location where there’s a railway and a community, and where there’s at least a seed of enthusiasm within the community to get involved in rail (from our experience, there generally is). Part of our role is to nurture its spread, while ensuring it remains community-driven, with critical support from rail industry partners.

Most people in the rail industry have at least a vague awareness of community rail, and many champions, some very senior, are adamant of its importance. Yet its growth and impact are an often-overlooked success story of communities and transport working together, delivering far-reaching social, economic and environmental benefits. Britain’s well-established community rail network is unique globally, and an invaluable resource for sustainable development. It offers insights relevant to everyone working in transport, especially as we strive for a more sustainable network that works for everyone.

Community rail’s wide-ranging benefits are reflected in themes of the Department for Transport’s Community Rail Development Strategy: providing a voice for communities; promoting sustainable, healthy and accessible travel; bringing communities together and supporting diversity and inclusion; and social and economic development. This underlines that the government believes in community rail to deliver impact in these areas, and indeed, we have many inspiring examples of its powerful effect on place-making, regeneration, sustainability, opportunity, and changing people’s lives for the better. We also have evidence that community rail benefits rail usage: passenger numbers on lines with community rail partnerships rose by 42 per cent from 2008/9 to 2017/18, compared to an overall increase of 35 per cent.

To give a flavour, common community rail activities include giving children and young people their first train experience, and helping them to develop confidence using rail, combined with other sustainable and active modes. They often include celebrating local history, bringing local people together through fun events, and promoting green travel. They include transforming stations into, not only more welcoming places, but useful hubs and celebratory gateways: places local people can feel proud of, and use to reconnect with their locality. Community rail also involves influencing or delivering improvements to the way rail serves local people and connects with other modes, from advising on timetabling alignment, to building a case for service improvements, to managing projects to develop active travel infrastructure connecting with stations.

Some community rail work might sound ‘cuddly’, but we suggest it’s critical stuff, if we are to build greater trust and positivity in the railway, as the Williams Review has highlighted as being of great importance. Community-led change is also precisely what much academic research points to, as being the key to driving the behavioural shifts we need, if we are to decarbonise transport and tackle the climate emergency.

Community rail also promotes a much-needed sense of connectedness between people and locations, thus reducing social isolation. Prior to the current crisis, a cross-departmental government strategy had stressed the huge strain that loneliness places on our economy and society, and this is clearly magnified by the Covid-19 fall-out.

Hence community rail is more relevant now than ever: with our mounting need to tackle social isolation, help people to reconnect and live more active lives, enable wider access to opportunity, and tackle the climate crisis through more sustainable living.

Aside from community rail’s contribution to railways and society, it means a great deal to the individuals involved, who make it happen. We conservatively estimate there are 8,500 volunteers giving nearly 400,000 hours of their time per year, worth £5.6 million annually to the rail industry and £27.6 million in social value to the volunteers and their communities. The tangibility and visibility of their efforts, and positive feedback they get, further bolsters their passion and pride.

For example, the work of one small station friends’ group can provide healthy, outdoor volunteering and food growing opportunities that give many people enjoyment, boosting health, wellbeing, cohesion and skills. They may also promote their town, village or line for leisure and tourism, providing maps and information. They might engage local young people in creative projects, creating a sense of familiarity and ownership of the station. They might spearhead station buildings being brought back to life in a way that celebrates local identity, creating a community asset from a wasted space. They might run school visits and trips, sowing seeds of interest and enthusiasm for rail among children. They might highlight a need for cycle parking and improved pedestrian access. The list, and the ideas that our members continue to come up with, and develop, goes on.

In fact, visiting a station with a well-established friend’s group or community rail presence can be an inspiration. To name but a few, Glossop, Hindley, Brighton Road, Smethwick Rolfe Street, Millom, Avonmouth and Kilmarnock all spring to mind, and are highly recommended when travel is opened up again.

The Community Rail Network is here to empower, advise, and share ideas and good practice, but we are also clear that community rail must come from and be well-rooted in the community. This community-led, people-orientated ethos is vital to our fast-developing network continuing to develop its impact, working alongside the industry to bring rail and community closer together.

As I write, community rail partnerships and groups, supported by our dedicated team, are finding alternative ways to work, keeping in touch with volunteers and partners, and supporting local efforts to maintain positivity – doing what their communities need right now. Many are considering how they can step up their role as we rebuild, and develop their work to help communities, our railways, and transport, become more sustainable, inclusive and caring. They will surely have a crucial role to play as the government, industry and communities work to decarbonise transport and make public transport and active travel the ‘natural first choice’.

Becoming the Community Rail Network demonstrates our ongoing commitment to helping community rail, and our railways, make an ever-growing contribution to sustainable development, inclusion and wellbeing. It reflects that we represent a rich and diverse community of communities, and we hope it will enable our members to say proudly (and perhaps more loudly) that they are part of a movement, they are part of the Community Rail Network.

As we rebuild from Covid-19, within community rail, and across our railways, we will need to redouble efforts, with our partners, to create confidence and togetherness, and play our part in re-orientating ways of thinking and living to be more socially and environmentally-responsible. Community rail is all about that: communities and connectedness, and people working together to make things better for each other and our shared future. These are the things that really matter right now.

Jools Townsend is Chief Executive of Community Rail Network. For further information, visit communityrail.org.uk.