Stephen Joseph, advisor to the Rail Devolution Network and former CEO of Campaign for Better Transport, explains the key role devolved authorities can play in station transformation with a new report from the Urban Transport Group…

Just a few months ago, the UK’s rail sector was preparing itself for the outcome of the Williams Review – the Government’s ‘root and branch’ examination of the railway,  promising recommendations on how to restructure a system that clearly has not been working well enough for passengers, taxpayers or the places the railway serves. But how things change.

Coronavirus has created a new (but hopefully temporary) transport reality in which capacity across all modes, including rail services, is severely constrained by the need for social distancing and the rail network is now even more heavily reliant on public support. Our immediate priorities have changed too. Reform of the railway may no longer be a primary concern for a Government grappling with the virus and its impact across all aspects of society, not just transport.

But as we start to pick up the pieces and turn our attention to how we recover from this crisis, the railway, and in particular, stations, have a key role to play. Why? Because investing in rail stations can give a much-needed boost to local economies and communities, a goal which is even more pronounced in the aftermath of this pandemic.

‘Action stations’, a new report from the Urban Transport Group which I co-authored, specifically highlights the benefits of devolved authorities’ involvement in station transformation. It finds that, by and large, the greater the role of sub-national authorities, the better the local station.

The report looks at over 35 UK case studies – from Barnsley to Bolton and from Liverpool to Laurencekirk – and shows how and why devolved authorities and administrations have improved stations in recent years, and the wide-ranging benefits that this has brought for passengers and the places the railway serves.

Meeting housing need without creating more car-dependent sprawl is one such benefit. Devolved authorities and administrations have been making this happen by building new stations which are specifically linked to new housing developments, such as the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s role in Kirkstall Forge. This new station opened in 2016 and serves over 1,000 new homes, as well as office, retail, leisure and community space, and has exceeded projected demand of passengers.

Devolution is helping to plug more places into the rail network. Local authorities and the Scottish and Welsh Governments have been instrumental in opening, reopening or upgrading stations, sometimes reopening whole lines – offering access to jobs, training, education and healthcare for more people in more places, and reversing the damage of the Beeching era cuts.

Local authorities have been instrumental in rescuing and revitalising run-down stations. In recent years we have seen stations transformed from run-down Victorian hulks, or spartan bus-sheltered platforms, into places that people can take pride in, feel comfortable in using and which are fulfilling more of their wider potential. The regeneration of Irlam Station in Greater Manchester is a fine example, becoming a community hub that has seen a 30 per cent increase in usage. This has been done because devolved authorities understand the value stations can bring to communities.

Devolved authorities also have the benefit of seeing railways as part of a coherent public transport network for the places they serve, where interchange between rail services and the rest of the public transport network is not only possible, but easy, safe and convenient. And that’s why they have a long track record of investing in better rail interchanges, often using their own resources to do so. A good example is Wolverhampton’s new multi-modal station connecting rail, metro and bus services, which has been part funded by Transport for West Midlands.

And the list of benefits goes on, from creating stations which are accessible to all and which involve communities in decision making and day-to-day running, to stations which lesson their environmental impact and celebrate heritage, arts and culture.

But the report is not just about what’s been achieved in the past. It also points to the future, and the potential that exists to do more. Greater devolution of responsibilities for rail stations can help to achieve consistent branding with the rest of the local public transport network, set demanding minimum standards for accessibility, security, and – particularly important in these times – cleanliness, and ensure stations are integrated with plans for housing, economic growth and decarbonisation.

And to realise this potential, devolved authorities and administrations need to have significant influence over the future of stations. The way this happens in practice should be in line with local circumstances and aspirations and thus could range from taking on full or partial ownership of stations through to having a strong and binding relationship with the owners and operators of stations.

Greater devolution of responsibilities for rail is something which the Urban Transport Group has consistently called for over the past few years. This report is just the latest addition to their evidence base, strengthening the case that any meaningful rail reform should have devolution as a cornerstone. Put simply, rail devolution works!

We must remember that stations are more than simply the places where trains stop, they also help to define those places and deliver the types of benefits that have become ever more urgent in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. If we are to truly build back better, then investing in rail stations is a sure-fire way to help do so.

Stephen Joseph is a transport policy consultant, advisor to the Rail Devolution Network and former CEO of Campaign for Better Transport. He co-authored the report ‘Action stations: How devolution is transforming rail stations for the better’.