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Salveson: Where now for Community Rail?

6 November 2012

Any past suspicion that Community Rail would act as a cover for attacks on staff should be put aside – its volunteers can be powerful allies, argues Paul Salveson.

Penistone Partnership

The Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) held its annual awards dinner in the fine surroundings of STEAM, the museum of the Great Western Railway, in Swindon at the end of September. There were over 300 guests, including senior managers from Network Rail and train operating companies, plus plenty of community activists from projects around the country. As far as I could see, the trade union movement was un-represented, though some of the rail managers present were TSSA members.

The ‘community rail’ movement is nearly 20 years old. It started as a result of concerns over the future of the rural rail network as privatisation loomed in the early 1990s. A report called ‘New Futures for Rural Rail’ sponsored by the soon-to- be-abolished BR Regional Railways, The Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission (both also abolished), tried to chart some positive ways forward which would drive up use of rural lines and make closure less politically attractive.

There were two key strategies developed in that report. One was to create ‘community rail partnerships’ that could begin in a fairly modest way to promote rural (and other local) routes by bringing together not just local authorities and the rail industry, but the wider community. Involving schools, local businesses, tourism agencies – and the railway staff themselves – was suggested as a way to develop a positive momentum for these routes. The second approach was more long-term and involved some of the more rural railways being managed semi-independently, based on the success of locally-managed railways on the continent, particularly Germany. The approach became known as ‘micro- franchising’. The concept was based on giving a local company (which could be publicly-owned) direct control over train services and potentially infrastructure, bringing a strong focus to local markets backed up by well-motivated managers and front-line staff.

Nearly twenty years on, there are around 60 ‘community rail partnerships’ and hundreds of ‘station friends’ groups. Ridership on many rural lines has more than doubled over the last twenty years and any threat of closure, at least for now, is off the agenda. As for micro-franchising, it has never happened. The reasons are numerous but one major factor is the sheer inflexibility of the post-privatised railway, where doing anything that diverges from the norm is difficult if not impossible to effect. And it has to be admitted that there was considerable suspicion amongst railway trade unionists that micro-franchising could have led to lower rates of pay and poorer conditions. So twenty years on, where should the ‘community rail’ movement go from here? Many of the problems facing local and rural lines today stem not from insufficient numbers of passengers but from a lack of capacity to meet rising demand. ‘Community rail’ has been all too successful and by its achievements in driving up passenger numbers many lines have reached the point where a step- change in operation is essential. Many rural lines were stripped back to the absolute basics by BR in the 1970s, by single-tracking and removing passing loops. On several routes, any attempt to provide additional services now requires costly investment in infrastructure. And putting in new services means that more rolling stock is required, again at an often- prohibitive cost.

Neither of these are challenges that a community rail partnership can meet on its own. It needs Network Rail, the Department for Transport (and the Scottish and Welsh Governments for their railways) to develop plans which give local railways the ‘head room’ which allows them to continue growing and meet the needs of local communities. Yet community rail partnerships can play an important lobbying role, based on the respect they have gained over the last two decades. Community rail partnerships (CRPs), often resourced by local authorities, are developing innovative long-term strategies for their routes in areas as diverse as Devon and Cornwall, Lancashire, Mid-Wales and Cumbria.


Music on the Penistone Line, with a local rock band - all Northern Rail employees - entertaining passengers

The very locally-based work of community rail partnerships is still important. In many parts of the country ‘community rail’ has been successful in introducing rail travel to socially-excluded groups. Volunteers have transformed the appearance of unstaffed stations through floral displays and artwork as well as ensuring community information is displayed. It may be small beer but it’s important in making the railway really ‘feel’ like it’s part of a local community. And in many cases local railway staff have played an enthusiastic part in helping these developments. At many smaller staffed stations, railway men and women have worked with ‘station friends’ to make their stations look a delight. Examples include Kidsgrove, Settle, Appleby, Glossop, Todmorden, Wemyss Bay, Littleborough, Poulton-le-Fylde and many more.

And it’s these stations where there is a real risk of staff being reduced or removed altogether. I’ve spoken to station friends groups up and down the country as well as community rail partnership officers, about their views on this. And it is clear there is unanimous opposition. The work of station friends and CRPs has always been in addition to that done by professional railway staff, and that relationship has worked well. There is no desire to take on booking office duties, let alone cleaning out the gents’ toilet.

So there’s an opportunity for the rail unions, particularly TSSA and RMT, to work with community rail groups to build a coalition of resistance to booking office closures. Instead of seeing ‘station friends’ groups as at best irrelevant or at worst a potential threat to jobs, it’s time we started talking to them and building up relationships. Many ‘station friends’ wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as campaigners, but if someone came along and threatened to take away their station staff, it might just tilt them into action. People feel passionate about their local station and many station friends have formed excellent relationships with paid staff: losing them wouldn’t just be the loss of a ‘facility’, it would be the loss of a mate. TSSA has been ahead of the game in recruiting ‘community organisers’ and they’ve done a great job. Now is the time to start talking to ‘station friends’ across the country and enlist their support in the fight against staff reductions.

For the community rail movement generally, it needs to recognise that the unions are allies and that ‘community’ includes the men and women who make our railways work, day in and day out. Some of the CRPs have recognised that, even to the extent that some have rail union members actively involved. Yorkshire’s Penistone Line Partnership – one of Britain’s first – is chaired by a member of Aslef and TSSA member Garry Keyworth is a member of the committee. But there is so much more potential. So a suggestion to TSSA: Talk to local community rail partnerships and in particular the national Association of Community Rail Partnerships. There is so much more in common than you might think.

Paul Salveson is a member of TSSA’s Yorkshire Ridings Branch and was general manager of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships from its inception until 2005. He was author of the report ‘New Futures for Rural Rail’.


Winners of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships awards

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