Station approach

Community rail partnerships have transformed scruffy, scary stations for the better

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Ten years ago Mytholmroyd railway station, on the Calder Valley line between Halifax and Manchester Victoria, was in a sorry state. Like most stations on the northern network, it was considered a “no growth” station, unmanned, neglected and getting by on a government subsidy, with a shoestring budget that left nothing for the upkeep of the station building or its surroundings.

This was when Geoff and Sue Mitchell and other local residents set up the Mytholmroyd Station Partnership, to try to halt the decline by “adopting” the station. Since then, the station has seen a 40 per cent increase in usage. Geoff Mitchell calculates that more than 400 people now use the station every day.
“It’s not as formal as it sounds,” he says. “We are basically a very friendly community group from the village and beyond who have transformed a vandalised wreck of a station into an award-winning amenity. If it had been damaged any further it’s questionable as to whether it would have had a future at all. As it is we’ve put Mytholmroyd on the railway map.”

Mytholmroyd is typical of the growing number of community rail partnerships (CRP) around the region, who work to improve and promote their local railway stations, identifying new uses for derelict station buildings and keeping the platforms, station gardens and surrounding areas planted and cared for.
Mytholmroyd Station Partnership comprises around 25 volunteers from nearby villages. As well as gardening, the partnership organises school art displays, carol concerts and presentations to local businesses. For its tenth anniversary next year, the exhibition Fanfare for Local Industry is planned at the station. The partnership works closely with Northern Rail, which supported the work by supplying flower tubs and contracted works such as the required repainting.

“Before, it was a bit like a bus stop, and now it’s part of the village vocabulary.”

“We don’t do anybody else’s work – this is stipulated in our agreement,” explains Mitchell. “We also promote the line by distributing timetables through letterboxes so everyone knows the service is there, and people respond by using it. Before, it was a bit like a bus stop, and now it’s part of the village vocabulary.”

The partnership now includes schools, churches, pubs, shops, local councils and businesses, and anybody who has a stake in the area being well kept and welcoming. Mitchell says: “The travel experience doesn’t end at the station exit but continues throughout the ongoing journey through the village and countryside.”

The Beeching Report of the 1960s led to the closure of many rail lines and the rise in car ownership took even more people off the trains. Privatisation led to fewer trains and more unmanned and redundant stations. The arteries bringing life to many small communities were severed.

But communities are claiming back their railway stations. Mytholmroyd is part of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP), a national network of like-minded groups that focus on station buildings.

Northern Rail’s current franchise ends in April next year, and with community railways set to play a big part in future rail planning, CRPs have the opportunity to become more involved and influence strategy. Communities can only benefit, says Paul Salveson, community rail expert and transport consultant. “The partnerships started mainly in the north but have spread across the country, mainly in places where stations are unstaffed and buildings falling into disrepair. What you find nowadays is a basic shelter, CCTV and ticket machine. It wouldn’t cost much to add more facilities.”

CRPs range in size from small friends groups to those with a couple of employees and local authority representation. “Some CRPs have good relationships with local schools; there are others where local businesses have taken the initiative and created thriving centres of activity at their stations,” adds Salveson.

The mainly voluntary work of bringing these unused but distinctive station buildings back into use is funded from different sources – for example, local sponsors and the government’s new National Stations Improvement Programme. The benefits of regenerated facilities can be increased footfall, reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour, and inward investment because the place is colourful and vibrant. “It’s hard to quantify,” says Salveson. “But there’s no doubt that a busy railway station brings life back into communities, generates jobs and encourages people to get out of their cars and use an important public service.”

Network Rail is currently responsible for the rail infrastructure, and the train operating company is responsible for services and providing the rolling stock. “What they don’t have is the local knowledge that would benefit individual services, and the pulse of what people want,” points out Gerald Townson, chair of the Bentham Line (Leeds to Lancaster and Morecambe) CRP, and also chair of the Friends of Bentham Station.

Bentham Station in North Yorkshire serves two major areas with a large student trade travelling in both directions, and the line is the backbone for Craven District Council, allowing Bentham’s livestock market to thrive.

“CRPs typically step in to influence the appearance of the station and the provision of facilities.”

“Because of our geographic position between three counties, and being close to both the Forest of Bowland and the Yorkshire Dales National Park, our CRP has representatives from government departments, rail companies, Network Rail, local authorities, user groups, tourist bodies and friends groups. We have been able to push the train operating companies to be more responsive and understanding at a community level,” says Townson.

“CRPs typically step in to influence the appearance of the station and the provision of facilities. We’ve gone one further and formally adopted the station for the benefit of the community. We have turned the station buildings into offices and attracted local businesses, including a mini-bus service and education facilities where teachers can bring school groups. We also promote the line and look at timetabling and frequency of services.”

The winners of the 2015 ACoRP Community Rail Awards, presented last month, reflect the quality and diversity of the partnerships. Categories include community art schemes, floral displays, innovation, small projects, marketing campaigns and First World War commemoration projects. Railway stations as far apart as Dalmally in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and Sandown on the Isle of Wight were recognised as vibrant community partnerships.

Northern CRPs have a strong showing among the winners. The overall winner was Mid Cheshire Community Rail Partnership for “outstanding delivery of the community rail strategy”. For one of its projects, Mid Cheshire CRP worked with special needs students from Petty Pool Vocational College to improve Delamere Station.

“The students learn about gardening in college and then do the practical work at the station,” says Sally Buttifant, Mid Cheshire community rail officer. “It’s an opportunity for them to practice their skills in a real life setting. They get positive feedback from passengers and can see that their work is appreciated.”
Other northern winners include Ellesmere Port, named the “most enhanced station building”, Grange-over-Sands, which won the best station garden and the large floral displays award with the Brontë Garden at Sowerby Bridge, named after Branwell Brontë – brother of Emily, Charlotte and Anne – who worked as a railway clerk at the station winning second place. Orrell Park Regeneration Group came third with its traditional planting and wildlife garden around the station and banking areas.

Local authorities are often important players in partnerships, as at Mid Cheshire. “Stations are shop windows on our communities,” says Buttifant. “The rail network underpins economic growth and the government and local councils could do more to pick up on that and encourage more innovation.

“It can be as simple as planting flowers and creating artworks but even small scale improvements can help reduce the fear of crime and the low-level antisocial behaviour that blights unmanned stations. A well-used and tidy station is better respected by everybody, including bored teenagers.”

Photo of Orrell Park: ACoRP

Baltic crossing

Urban stations can also benefit from community involvement. St James Station, on Liverpool’s Northern Line, closed nearly a century ago when it was part of the Cheshire Lines Committee. But a campaign to have it reopened to serve the Baltic Triangle creative community, close to the city centre, is gathering speed.

“The station is within the Baltic area and it would be a fantastic asset for our community of creative and digital businesses,” says Mark Lawler, managing director of Baltic Creative. “It would benefit not just the businesses, but also the wider residential areas, and the Studio, the new school, which is set to double in size.”

The Baltic Triangle is full of converted warehouses and low cost rented units housing small companies, artists’ studios, cafes and music venues,. But the area lacks good public transport links.

“Better communication is a major strand of our business plan and the station would connect us with Liverpool city centre, the waterfront, the cathedral and the residential areas of L8 and beyond,” adds Lawler. “Crucially, it would also connect us to the national rail network through Liverpool South Parkway.”

The station is currently in a poor state of repair and does not meet current regulations or safety standards, so significant capital investment would be needed.

“We are looking at setting it up as some kind of community partnership,” explains Lawler.

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