New report looks at potential for community railways in UK

Prof Paul Salveson, who wrote the report, says co-op and community ownership models are well suited to the ideas put forward

Ideas to develop the UK’s community rail network – including stronger partnerships with local authorities, use of railway land to grow food and integration with walking and cycling schemes – have been outlined in a paper from the Rail Reform Group (RRG)

Building on Success – Future Directions for Community Rail was written by RRG member Paul Salveson, who developed the concept of community rail in the early 1990s.

The RRG, an independent network of railway professionals, says community rail brings the train industry together with community groups, schools, local businesses and local councils to promote the railway and bring benefits to local communities.

These have included better passenger facilities, additional services, improved frequencies and in some cases new railways. There is also a creative element, with artwork transforming the appearance of stations and live music and poetry on trains.

The movement has grown into a national network comprising nearly 80 community rail partnerships and hundreds of station adoption groups.

Professor Salveson writes: “Community Rail is now a mature movement, supported by the rail industry, government and hundreds of communities across the country. The recent government white paper – the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail – offers great opportunities but also perhaps a risk that community rail might be forgotten in the new ‘Great British Railways’ organisation.

Related: Paul Salveson – a green signal for transport co-operatives?

“The railways have gone through a difficult period which has seen passenger numbers plummet. I fervently hope that 2022 will see a return to rail and community rail can play a really important role in encouraging that.”

His report says it is crucial to maintain and develop relationships with existing partners in the industry, particularly the train operating companies and Network Rail. Community Rail should become a professional career with appropriate accreditation, in partnership with the further and higher education sector.

“Building an equally strong relationship with the new Great British Railways (GBR) is of equal importance,” he writes. “I argue for a GBR Community Unit with a dedicated director at headquarters level and community engagement mangers within the regional divisions, working closely with the TOCs and CRPs who should be incentivised to develop ambitious projects.

“These projects could range from developing integrated bus links, promoting walking and cycling schemes including bike hire, to station and on-train catering and other station activities which bring passenger and wider benefits. Making greater use of railway land e.g. for cultivating edible produce, is a further opportunity.

“Community Rail should be resourced to take on issues around mental health, hate crime, anti-social behaviour and loneliness, each of which impact on the railways in different ways. There is a strong argument for some CRPs developing specialisms e.g. work with schools, arts or other themes, and sharing that expertise around the network.”

Many of these ideas are an ideal fit for the co-op and community ownership models, he tells Co-op News.

“It’s important not to get caught up the operational side of things,” he warns. “Setting up a co-op to run trains is ambitious and difficult – although there are examples like GO-OP and the Vintage Trains bencom. But it’s better to focus on the low hanging fruit around more peripheral services – catering an obvious one, there is a lot of scope there.”

Co-ops could involve themselves in providing catering, shops and convenience store facilities on stations, he suggests, especially in “smaller locations where the bigger fish might not be interested”.

There has been some encouragement from the rail industry around this; other potential areas which are a good fit for community ownership is the use of railway land to grow food, the provision of rooftop solar to help the railways hit their climate targets, and the use of empty buildings and other unused spaces on stations for cultural events.

“These things are very location-specific,” says Prof Salveson, “involving issues around vacant spaces and the amount of footfall a station gets. Local co-ops wanting to explore ideas should work through the local community rail partnership, if there is one in their area, which has contacts in the rail industry.”

The difficulty in finding industry contacts is one of the barriers to developing such projects, he adds. “It’s a very complex industry, it’s not always clear who you should approach, Network Rail or the operator; you could see if there is a local friends of the station group which can signpost you to the right people.

“You need to find out who to talk to, to be realistic. In terms of rooftop solar, the interest is there in the industry, Network Rail is quite go-ahead in terms of looking at how it can make a contribution to sustainability. There’s a lot going on there behind the scenes already.”

Similarly, there are already cultural activities on stations; Prof Salveson gives the example of Bolton, which has a platform gallery and hosts film shows, performances and talks. 

“There is lots of space at some of these stations, some nice buildings sitting there underused, and there’s a willingness to look at possibilities – a train company could lease a space or you could go directly through Network Rail.”

Catering and retail are key opportunities and Prof Salveson thinks there is scope for the bigger retail co-ops to talk to the relevant train companies, or Network Rail, or both, with ideas for convenience stores on stations which could be piloted.

“The problem is we, the co-op movement needs to have people who understand how the railway works – it needs, at a strategic level, to open up a dialogue with the industry to see where the opportunities might be.”

He adds that anyone in the movement interested in discussing a potential project can email him at [email protected]