Faye Lambert, head of community rail at London Midland, talks about the true value of setting up community rail projects and engaging more deeply with local individuals and organisations

Railways have long been vital for local communities, carrying passengers and freight across the lengthand breadth of the country. Despite shifting travel preferences over the years, railway stations remain focal hubs for many towns and villages.

Community rail initiatives aim to celebrate these local stations and bring together groups of diverse backgrounds, all with a connection to the railway. Engagement is at the heart of every project and no matter what the focus – be that gardening, artwork or some other creative activity – it is essential that community rail succeeds in promoting enthusiasm and pride in the local area and the UK’s railway network.

The growth of community rail partnerships
At London Midland, community rail is being given a renewed focus. The Direct Award Contract, which began in 2016, has provided many opportunities to deliver such projects. London Midland’s focus is to bring the train operator closer to the communities it serves.

In the 20 years since its introduction, community rail has grown in both scale and ambition. With an original aim of supporting smaller branch lines and local routes, the initiative can now be extended to include stations across UK main lines. As something which started off very small, its success can be gauged by the fact that there are now over 60 Community Rail Partnerships (CRPs) nationwide. These partnerships have become integral to not only the communities along the railway lines, but also to the rail franchising process, with community engagement playing a major role in the new contract bid process.

Identifying a potential community rail project involves keeping specific goals in mind. The most important aspect to consider is whether it is achievable and what the benefits are to customers and to the community partners involved. As a general rule, a successful project will engage as many people as possible. In the case of London Midland, it often starts with the development of a station adoption team, also known as a station friends group, who are then able to use their local knowledge and skills to extend the initiative through their own networks.

The snowball effect of station improvement
The benefits of community rail are numerous. First and foremost, stations are generally improved aesthetically once they have been adopted or involved in an initiative. Sometimes these improvements can appear cosmetic in nature, like platform planters or the creation of a station garden, but they play an important role in positioning stations as attractive gateways to local communities. Customers are happier when travelling, the involvement of the community reduces antisocial behaviour and makes stations feel safer and visitors to the location are given an outstanding first impression, displaying the community as one that really takes pride in its station and surroundings.

This can be evidenced by the community rail work that was undertaken during my time at the North Staffordshire Community Rail Partnership (NSCRP) at Longton and Longport stations in Stoke-on-Trent. The partnership was able to raise £244,000 to improve the general look of the stations and to install new information screens, CCTV and anti-vandal shelters.

After the project was completed, a survey was carried out which showed passengers felt safer using the stations. Footfall grew enormously and similar projects all along that community rail route created a total growth in footfall at the smaller, unstaffed stations of 320 per cent.

Enthusiasm spreads and it has often been the case that engaging a small group of supporters for a station leads to larger, more influential groups getting involved. Leveraging contacts and building on this positivity has proved instrumental in building the profile of several community rail projects.

The community involvement at Kidsgrove station, another on the North Staffordshire CRP line, enabled the station to win an award of £4.3 million from Access for All. This award will soon help the station to become fully accessible, along with hugely increased car parking provision. These changes will prove extremely beneficial for the Kidsgrove community.

Engaging in community activities
The engagement created by community rail projects extends to groups and associations that play pivotal roles in the local area. Recently, in Stone, Staffordshire a local group of artists who used the station for their weekly meetings were able to make their mark in a London Midland project. The group was invited to create a series of posters inspired by railway imagery of the1930s and 1940s to feature in new display cases at the station. Far from being a one-off event, the project at Stone demonstrated the real longevity of community rail. The station will benefit from this changing display of local artwork throughout the year and local groups have already been engaged for future projects, ensuring that the station stays a fitting gateway to the town.

A similar approach has been taken at Nuneaton, an important London Midland station on the West Coast main line. It is often the case that parts of stations can become disused due to a lack of need for the extra space. The old café room at Nuneaton was identified as one such space. After being offered the room for community use, a local group of artists, Art Alert, adopted the station and set about making Nuneaton station a destination in its own right. After freshening up the space with a new coat of paint, a three-week railway-themed art exhibition, On Track, was held to celebrate the new partnership with London Midland. The enthusiasm of the Art Alert adopters will see the space come to life, with a rolling programme of art workshops and events already in place. Local schoolchildren have already begun to produce new artwork for the station waiting rooms.

The artwork at Stone and Nuneaton are two examples taken from a fast-flowing pipeline of ambitious community rail work. In the last five months, London Midland has signed up 100 new adopters as part of its Adopt a Station scheme, with 10 stations newly adopted and 12 more currently being formalised. These adoptions have enabled civic societies, local residents, learning disabilities support groups, local regeneration groups and businesses to show pride for their local area and become an important part of the railway.

Collaborating across organisations
The true principles of community rail extend over boundaries between different train operating companies and joint projects between separate groups oftenprove to be the most powerful. A trio of community engagement projects is set to regenerate Smethwick Rolfe Street station involving collaboration betweenNetwork Rail, Transport for West Midlands, Sandwell College, Abrahamic Foundation outreach and London Midland to deliver a new station mural to show Smethwick Going Forward. BTec Art students have been engaged to create and paint the mural design, local residents are adopting the station and Sandwell College work experience students will turn the old Station Master’s office into a project and station history exhibition space; all are combining to make the station a real community hub.

It’s not enough, though, to use anecdotal evidence alone to support the idea that community rail delivers. The statistics are there to back it up. According to the Association of Community Rail Partnerships’ (ACoRP) Value of Community Rail Report 2015, the average benefits-to-cost ratio of community rail is 3:1. Between 2006 and 2015, the North Staffordshire CRP gave a benefits-to-cost ratio of 10.4:1, proving that driving local engagement with the railways is worthwhile.

The importance of community rail is growing and train operators are recognising the benefits that engaging groups along their lines can bring. Taking pride in the UK’s railway heritage is one thing, but setting up groups and projects that really empower local communities to take pride in something so crucial to their area, is a fitting end goal.

Faye Lambert, former project officer for North Staffordshire CRP and head of community rail at London Midland.