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June 29, 2011

Why did we let the railways go?

Back in the 60’s, in an effort to reduce the running costs of the nationalised railway system, a major review of Britain’s transport policy concluded that the future direction of transport policy lay with the road network – not rail.  In the decade after the Beeching Report, 25% of Britain’s railways were ripped up and 50% of stations were closed – many of which were on lines that remained open.  Some communities are starting to think about what can be salvaged from the wreckage of this misguided policy

The potential reopening of a long-abandoned railway station is at the top of the agenda for one Fife community. For years, the halt in Newburgh has been an overgrown mass of weeds — but community activists insist it could hold the key to a more sustainable future.

Research by the group, Sustainable Newburgh Project, has shown that reopening of the station would be hugely popular locally. Results from a recent survey are being used to create a community wish list of future carbon-cutting measures and improvements for the town. It is envisaged these could be paid for by the income from a proposed community-owned wind farm.

Initial results from the survey show 84% of those who responded supported the reopening of Newburgh rail station. Angela Douglas, project manager of the Sustainable Newburgh project, said, “Newburgh is the largest freestanding settlement in Fife adjacent to a passenger railway but with no rail station of its own. The town sits in a poorly connected corner of Fife, entirely dependent on road transport, and some of its bus services depend on continuing subsidy from Fife Council.”

And elsewhere……

Many stations now have “friends” groups that look after gardens and create artwork. The most innovative example is Gobowen in Shropshire. The station was unstaffed for many years until a local teacher, the late David Lloyd, had the idea of using his pupils to run a booking office as an educational project.

Things have moved on since then and Lloyd founded Severn-Dee Travel as a not-for-profit company, which runs the booking office. Use of the station has nearly doubled in the last five years and Severn Dee is a successful business. Sheila Dee, the community rail officer for the line and a director of the company, says that part of the growth is down to having staff at the station. “People from Oswestry and surrounding villages use the station knowing they can get good information and journey advice.”

The station staff can handle European travel, group bookings and specialise in schools travel – a much wider portfolio than a normal station booking office. Severn Dee has stimulated other local businesses. Later this summer a cafe will open on the station and one of the old railway buildings is already used as a GP surgery.

“Gobowen offers a way forward for other stations which are either unstaffed or facing booking office cuts,” says Dee. “But potential station businesses need to be prepared for a lot of hard work!”

Other partnerships are looking at ways of generating revenue through trading. The Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company runs a flourishing station cafe at Skipton and provides an on-train trolley service along the scenic route.

And it’s not just stations….

Community rail partnerships have transformed many of Britain’s local railways, and not just rural branch lines transporting tourists through some of our most scenic countryside. The partnerships cover around 60 lines, some of them urban routes in major cities where community rail is playing a role in urban regeneration. They bring together train operators, Network Rail, local authorities and more than 100 “station friends” groups and community groups that promote lines which were threatened with closure.

Many of the lines have experienced double-digit growth, thanks to imaginative promotion and community involvement, backed up by modest investment. Stations have experienced a new lease of life through community adoption, including a social enterprise which runs the booking office of a formerly unstaffed rural station.

Railways minister Theresa Villiers has praised the “ideas, innovation and enthusiasm” of community rail partnerships. And their services could be in more demand than ever, following last month’s government-commissioned report into rail industry costs by Sir Roy McNulty. He called for £1bn in costs to be stripped out of the industry and, while not recommending line closures, he floated the idea of phasing out ticket offices in small stations.