Community Rail Volunteers Win Backing

December 6, 2017

Volunteering has a long history in a wide range a public life in Britain and the national rail network is no exception since the first Community Rail Partnership was established in 1993 to provide an opportunity for community rail volunteers to improve stations on the line between Penistone and Sheffield and publicise services to avoid line closure.

This was the start of intervention by community rail volunteers who wanted to preserve their local rail service but feared a run-down was taking place that discouraged passenger use. In this period British Rail had promoted bus substitution for many routes as an alternative to preserve connectivity.

There would have been strong public reaction if the Government had backed the policy as routes subject to rail withdrawal included the Cumbrian Coast Line, all secondary routes in the West Country serving Barnstaple, Exmouth, Falmouth, Newquay, Gunnislake, and St Ives and a list in Scotland that included Mallaig, Thurso/Wick, and Kyle of Lochalsh.

As a result, many community rail volunteers set about making their local rail services more attractive and there are currently 60 Community Rail Partnerships with hundreds more local groups such as ‘station friends’ which attract more than 3,000 volunteers and provide an estimated 250,000 hours of annual work. Knowledge and expertise is provided by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP).

The Government recognised that this was a low-cost solution to improve the service environment and attract more revenue and by 2007 a formal designation of routes that were part of a Community Railways umbrella was established with the publication of a development strategy.

The following aims were stated. Increasing ridership, freight use and net revenue; managing costs down; greater local community involvement; and playing a larger role in economic and social regeneration. As a decade has passed the UK Government has published a consultation document with the aim of refreshing policy and setting the type objectives that individual Community Rail Partnerships might aspire to achieve.

The suggested new objectives are to promote the connection of people to places and opportunities; support community diversity and inclusion; support local and regional economies; and suggest innovative ways to improve the way the railway works.

The consultation period runs until 28th January. The briefing document is available at https://www.gov.uk/dft#consultations. Responses should be sent to Kulvinder Bassi, Department for Transport, 33 Horseferry Road, London SW1P 4DR, phone 020 7944 6066. There is email contact at CRConsultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

It has been recognised that leadership of community rail volunteers needs to be provided by paid officials and it is a feature of recent franchise contracts that successful bidders have been required to provided funding for this resource. This is a similar experience to the well-established heritage railways where a framework for volunteering attracts people to undertake fulfilling and often specialist roles.

This will enable new Community Railways to be designated such as the most recent Trans-Wilts route where a usable train service has been established between Swindon and Westbury that has allowed the sparsely served station at Melksham to attract new users who benefit from connectivity to jobs, education, and social inclusion.

There are many such opportunities and FCP has unique experience in the advice it can give to franchises in developing stakeholder engagement plans to meet Government expectations in the development of Community Railways.