Jools Townsend, Chief Executive of Community Rail Network explains how the grassroots network connecting people with their local railways is playing an increasingly important role in revitalising station buildings and land for the benefit of communities and railways alike

Community rail partnerships and groups across Britain work to cement the place of railways and stations at the heart of local communities. From its beginnings of reconnecting people with their
local lines to increase passenger use, the movement has diversified to incorporate a wide range of forward-thinking activities, contributing to inclusive, empowered, sustainable, healthy communities, and prospering railways.

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. Tallying with this, we have countless inspiring examples of community rail’s powerful effect on place-making, regeneration, sustainable mobility, and access to opportunity, as well as evidence showing enhanced rail patronage on lines with community rail partnerships and the social value of volunteering.

Community rail now spans Britain, in increasingly diverse rural and urban locations, and with our support it continues to grow. There are more than 70 community rail partnerships, working along lines, or across counties or regions, to champion the role of railways and deliver activities driven by local needs and contexts. There are also around 1,200 station friends’ groups across the network: volunteer groups bringing local people together with the station as a focal point, but whose work tends to reach well beyond station boundaries.

In recent years, we have seen the development of more and more ‘community stations,’ whereby community rail partnerships, station groups and other local groups and leaders have spearheaded the transformation of stations for community benefit. Supported by railway partners, many have revitalised under-used, often derelict, railway buildings and land, turning over these spaces to productive community uses.

Rejuvenating station buildings

Bringing unused railway buildings back to life can transform stations into thriving hubs for their communities. This brings a host of benefits to the rail industry, making stations more welcoming, hospitable, attractive, well-connected environments for passengers and visitors, bringing increased footfall, and creating positive local relationships. Such projects greatly benefit communities and are naturally driven by and respond to local needs: stimulating social and economic prosperity and complementing wider regeneration. This aligns with the Williams Shapps Plan for Rail, which states that reusing rail buildings for community hubs, training and education can create a sense of place, create social value, and improve services for local residents.

Projects we have supported include station buildings converted for community events and meeting spaces, cafes, pop-up stalls, arts workshops and galleries, museums, and bookshops, and sometimes with various ventures and uses brought together under the one roof. These may be set up as social enterprises or community interest companies or managed by a community rail partnership or a local trust. Numerous ventures creating both commercial and social value have flourished at stations, such as the cafes at Gobowen and Yatton Stations, where as well as running successful businesses and engaging local suppliers, work placement opportunities are offered to young people and adults with learning disabilities who might otherwise be excluded from the labour market. In some cases, community stations initiatives also help to connect the railway better with other sustainable travel modes, such as with bicycle repair or hire hubs, onward active travel or tourist information, or improving interchange and wayfinding whilst renovating buildings.

At Community Rail Network, we continue to see great enthusiasm for station buildings projects within communities, and not just among established community rail partnerships and station friends: local charities, clubs, councils, and other community-based partnerships see the opportunities for working with the railway and making better use of their stations. As a result, community stations projects constantly branch into in new areas, such as: training and employment support; zero waste and free shops; music and arts programmes; and spaces for social activities and support groups. Community rail can act as the glue to bring community and railway partners together on such schemes, aiding learning from successes elsewhere.

Recent examples include:

  • East Hampshire Community Rail Partnership converting rooms at Petersfield and Swaythling Stations for use as ‘Free Shops,’ where food that would otherwise be wasted is available to those who need it.
  • Millom Station’s buildings being transformed by Community Rail Cumbria into a museum, café, booking office, and heritage centre to make the station an attractive proposition for tourists and a key site for local regeneration.
  • Redundant rooms at Kilmarnock Station being adapted to support people affected by mental health issues, addiction, and loneliness, with the station acting as a key site working with local agencies and the NHS in a whole-community approach.
  • A vacant room at Llandudno Station being refurbished to host Creating Enterprise, a not-for-profit organisation that supports local people into employment.

Transforming railway land
Community gardening and outdoor activities continue to be a mainstay of the community rail movement, particularly for station friends or adoption groups. Their activities show that even stations with limited or no green areas can still be made greener and used to enhance local environments and wellbeing. Groups are becoming increasingly aware of their potential to benefit wildlife and are honing their activities to deliver biodiversity gain, while simultaneously considering and providing for local needs, such as green spaces that support mental health and wellbeing. We are offering increasing support and resources to members in this area, complementing the commitments to improved green space and biodiversity in the government’s transport decarbonisation plan, and Network Rail’s aim of achieving biodiversity net gain on the rail estate by 2035.

We are seeing growing numbers of community rail partnerships and station groups working with rail industry and community partners to: create elaborate and bigger station and community gardens, often including platforms, sheds and sidings as well as existing green spaces; nurturing and enhancing wildlife habitats, such as through pollinator-friendly planting, bug hotels, bat boxes, and making links with wildlife corridors and wider local conservation; delivering nature education and awareness-raising activities; and engaging communities in volunteering, food growing and conservation schemes that develop wellbeing and skills alongside care for the environment.

Recent projects and initiatives include:

  • The Friends of Buxton Station transforming disused station land into a Japanese and wildflower garden and adding bee-friendly planters to support populations of the endangered local species the Bilberry Bumblebee.
  • Station adoption groups across Greater Anglia creating biodiverse, wildlife-friendly areas, with 56 station gardens, which a survey found were hosting and attracting more than 200 different species, as part of the ‘WildEast’ movement.
  • The Poacher Line Community Rail Partnership working with the Bee Friendly Trust to create the ‘Bottesford Friendly Garden,’ turning a neglected piece of land, including an old station building, into a garden, wildlife haven and educational space.
  • Station adopters at Largs converting an old siding into a healthy and educational community garden, with a focus on promoting health and wellbeing and social inclusion.
  • Incredible Edible Bristol and Severnside
  • Community Rail Partnership revamping a disused platform compound at Avonmouth Station into an accessible community food growing and learning scheme.

These projects help to turn land that might be going to waste, sometimes even acting as a burden on the railway estate, into community assets and focal points that deliver social and environmental value. Our evidence shows not only these initiatives enhancing natural environments and wildlife habitats, but contributing to improved physical and mental wellbeing, engaging young people and marginalised groups, promoting sustainable lifestyles, and even encouraging use of the railways by improving travel confidence and familiarity. They can also better integrate stations with their surroundings, bringing people in and breaking down barriers to rail use.

Looking forward
Community rail has responded to the rapid change Covid-19 has brought, and is continually evolving, with its eye on shifting needs and emerging opportunities at local level. We see a significant role for the movement as we move out of the pandemic, helping to rebuild rail patronage, as it has done so successfully in the past, while boosting local economic recovery, supporting local wellbeing and cohesion, and forging a more sustainable future. Community rail activities at stations, transforming buildings and outdoor spaces, and putting stations firmly at the heart of communities, is a crucial part of this: bringing people back together, and bringing people closer to their railways.

Looking forward, the transition to Great British Railways offers great opportunities to further develop this work, to empower more community groups and organisations to access, utilise, lease, and transform station spaces for social, environmental, and economic good, strengthening the railway’s place within our communities. By working with rail and other partners to develop cooperation around stations, community rail can be at the forefront of achieving that increased responsiveness to local needs on which Williams-Shapps quite rightly places so much emphasis.
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Jools Townsend is chief executive of the Community Rail Network: empowering and championing 1,000+ local groups and 70 community rail partnerships. These groups promote sustainable travel by rail, deliver local place-making and volunteering, give communities a voice in transport development, and bring people together. Jools has nearly 20 years’ experience in community engagement and communications, with a focus on sustainable travel. She has an MA in Political Communication, through which she focused on promoting and enabling sustainable development and behaviours.