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"Community Rail" by Chris Austin: Edinburgh meeting of 11 February 2014

Chris Austin at the Edinburgh meeting.d

Chris Austin at the Edinburgh meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2014

Community Rail has its origins in memories of the Beeching era, where communities unable to sustain the case for hardship were powerless to do other than watch helplessly as their rail services were dismembered.

Attempts to close railway lines continued until 25 years ago, and following unsuccessful talk of privatisation as an alternative to closure the Settle & Carlisle Line's station buildings were vested in a Development Company to encourage use by local businesses.

The University of Plymouth began taking an interest in the Gunnislake branch, and the Penistone Line which had survived three separate attempts at closure was promoted by a Partnership now chaired by a train-driver which pioneered real ale and jazz trains.

At the Strategic Rail Authority in 2004 Richard Bowker gave strong support to a Community Rail Strategy, and without him it might not have outlasted the Authority's subsequent abolition at a time when consultants were poised to strip out all unnecessary costs.

Instead it was found to have scope for boosting passenger growth while reducing costs and encouraging the involvement of local people to promote economic growth.

Promotion of local lines reveals latent demand of whose existence we are only now becoming aware. Explanations include fuel duty and other costs of driving, congestion and also lifestyle changes as young people can use their IPads to get information and buy tickets and prefer playing with them while travelling to having to concentrate on driving.

Such innovations as radio signalling and lightweight trains gave us the low-cost rural railway, and the contribution of volunteering has proved staggering, with up to 1000 stations now looked after by local adopters. Germany took localisation a stage further with microfranchises renewing rolling-stock as befitted a country with a strong regional identity and tradition of transport planning. Things did not progress so far here owing to a concern as to who would bear the risk in the event of an infrastructure failure, and ongoing flood damage to the Cambrian Coast and thge Island Line bear out this fear.

The Association of Community Rail Partnerships now represents 39 Community Rail Partnerships, 73 lines, 31 designated lines and 122 station groups. Areas covered by CRPs have spread from the traditional heartlands in the north of England, East Anglia and the West Country to include Wales and South-East England, though the presence is as yet thin in the West Midlands and Scotland, with its absence of surviving branch lines.

Consistent growth has enabled community lines to outperform national and regional averages, and the Exeter-Exmouth line saw the annual passenger number double to 1.6M helped by the relocation of the Met Office and opening of John Lewis's first West Country store. Over a ten-year period the Falmouth line has seen 209% growth on doubling of the frequency with opening of a new loop at Penryn, but no such simple explanation exists for the 180.7% growth on Severn Beach, with Windermere at 163.3, Preston-Ormskirk at 155.3 and Barnstaple at 151.1%. Preston-Ormskirk topped the list for absolute growth along with the Mid-Cheshire, Clitheroe, Bishop Auckland and Exmouth lines.

A typical CRP shows a Benefit Cost Ratio of 4-6:1, and the efforts of over 4000 volunteers help deliver benefit valued at £27M to other policies, including access to education and employment, local economic growth, reduced environmental footprint, active travel and social cohesion with a role for offenders. The Esk Valley Line developed its provision of school transport as local education became concentrated on Whitby, and its response to centralisation of healthcare at the Middlesbrough end has been to gain a new station at the James Cook Hospital. New franchises bring new opportunities, and Scotland has taken a lead with the Invitations to Tender envisaging £0.5M annual support to CRPs. Partnerships are best left to grow organically, for structures cannot be imposed on unwilling communities, and there is scope for further development on urban routes.

Scotland is now the scene of a 3-year programme to create CRPs, with Transport Scotland funding two posts at ACoRP to build on ScotRail's successful station adoption programme by forging line-of-route identities. It is anticipated that the first Scottish CRPs will emerge this year: these will be geographically large as befits Scotland's long railway lifelines. Award-winning gardener Louis Wall exemplifies Scottish station adoption, and the Borders Railway has clear potential.

Bringing together local authorities, regional transport partnerships and user groups, CRPs face seemingly intractable cost and revenue allocation issues but have delivered innovations including low-cost platform-raising and made some operational savings, though the principal cost remains in ensuring resilience against formation failures. Current infrastructure renewals by Network Rail are expensive, being to the highest standards, but help ensure the lines' survival.

Partnerships have successfully tapped into European funding for such projects as the Accrington eco-station, ACoRP's new HQ in the watertower at Huddersfield and the Citizens' Rail deployment of ambassadors extolling train travel in Lancashire's Asian community. In seeking value for money through passenger growth, CRPs can hope to benefit from further devolution in helping deliver a range of Government policies, but the search for new funding opportunities has to be constant and in these uncertain times they must never give up campaigning.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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