Posted on June 2, 2017 · Posted in General IRO news, North West & Wales

On 26th January, an appreciative audience of some 14 members welcomed Sally Buttifant, Mid-Cheshire Community Rail Partnership Officer, and Professor Paul Salveson, Group Advisor – Society & Communities at Arriva UK Trains.

Sally gave an illustrated talk on her work with two partnerships. One is based on a line of route, the Mid-Cheshire line from Chester to Manchester via Northwich and Knutsford. The other is based at a single station: Ellesmere Port, where electric trains from Liverpool and Birkenhead terminate. Her presentation can be found on the Council’s Dropbox site. Paul added his comments later, from the perspective of a train operating company and passenger franchise holder.

Involvement with community groups is now a condition of new franchise agreements, so it is taken even more seriously by TOCs. Sally showed how the modest sums spent on partnerships, funding part-time officers for example, reap considerable returns – as much as £4.60 for every pound spent. In part, this is because so many people volunteer their labour, whether it is for gardening or counting passengers. But it is also because local businesses get involved and can often provide goods and services at cost, or even free of charge. This all helps to make stations look welcoming rather than intimidating, places that are at the centre of their communities rather than hangovers from another age. It means that people who normally depend on their car to get around now consider the train as a better way to reach the busy regional centres of Chester, Stockport and Manchester. The impact can clearly be seen in figures for ridership and revenue, and on the TOCs’ “bottom line”.

It struck me, listening to Sally and Paul, that in many ways community partnerships and users’ groups now provide the essential feedback to operators that stationmasters used to do. The “front line” managerial presence largely disappeared in the 1960s and decisions on timetables and fares had to be made with less and less local knowledge of simple things like school hours. As a result of surveys conducted by volunteers, more capacity has now been provided on trains going against the normal peak flows, to take passengers into increasingly busy employment centres like Knutsford.

Sally left us with examples of the literature produced and distributed by the Mid-Cheshire partnership. Booklets of walks centred on different stations have proved very popular. There is no guarantee that anyone tackling one of these walks will arrive by train; they can just as easily drive to a station car park. But many of them will travel by train, and most of them will spend money in local businesses like cafes, pubs and shops.

Neil Worthington