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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Creating thriving communities through the rail estate

Railway properties, through strategic utilisation and partnerships, are instrumental in fostering thriving communities across the UK.

As the largest property management company and consultancy within the rail sector, AmeyTPT have worked alongside multiple clients and industry stakeholders to unlock the potential of station buildings, delivering innovative and complex projects, and embedding stations within the communities they serve.

The UK's extensive railway network and stations have long been more than mere transit hubs. Historically, these spaces have demonstrated their ability to adapt and serve key roles in times of need, from the World Wars to the present day. Today, with a renewed focus on community engagement, these sites are experiencing a transformation, becoming catalysts for community development and social cohesion. This transformation has been facilitated by government initiatives from both the Scottish Government and the Department for Transport.

Our extensive knowledge of clients’ stations has enabled us to identify redundant or vacant space that has either no or marginal commercial potential, thereby creating a list of premises that can be made available for community benefit. By working with our clients and with the support of ACoRP, AmeyTPT guide community tenants from project inception to delivery navigating them through the complicated consents processes and legal frameworks on the way.

Optimising space to benefit community groups and charities

Working with South Western Railway, AmeyTPT and Hampshire Community Rail Partnership have combined efforts on ten different projects on eight stations to bring new life into disused buildings.

The first project at Petersfield saw the letting of a former Red Star Parcel office into a multi-use community building. Now known as the Hub Travel and Tourism Information Centre, the premises is used to encourage people to travel using the railway and other local public transport networks, to visit attractions in the immediate vicinity of Petersfield and the wider South Downs National Park.In addition, the premises is home to a free shop three times a week.

With the assistance of active, community minded volunteers, the group collects food from supermarkets, farms, community gardens and individuals that would otherwise go to waste and end up in landfill sites.This facility has been extended to include a previously owned school uniform swap and a winter coats, hats, and scarves exchange. Between 50 and 60 people visit the free shop on each opening. This initial success has acted as a catalyst for growth.

The achievements delivered at Petersfield have been replicated at Swaythling Station. On Saturday mornings, volunteers hand out spare food on a first come, first served basis, with between 60 and 80 people regularly attending.The project helps to bring the community together and uses premises that would otherwise be unused. This has also been expanded to incorporate a baby bank, which provides spare nappies, food, recycled toys, clothing, and equipment to the local community free of charge. The facility is promoted through a local resident’s Facebook page which has over 1,000 members.

Mark Miller of Hampshire Community Rail Partnership said: “The food distribution really works and while many visitors enjoy the environmental credentials of the free shops, others find it a lifeline in times of domestic budgetary pressure. We have had people who had lost their jobs, marriages and houses come to us to help them by in traumatic times.Young families frequent our facilities with one mum saying to us: “this is a blessing; my partner has cut off my money and I have 3 young children to feed. I haven’t eaten for 3 days.”

It is not just free food distribution that Hampshire Community Rail promotes. The partnership has regenerated an area of disused land at Woolston Station, converting it into a community garden which is maintained by volunteers. The group lease the former signal box which will be repurposed as a meeting place for local groups and societies. At Netley Station, the waiting room is used at weekends for monthly meetings of the local history group.At Romsey and Shawford Stations, the group operate community cafés with their partner Marco. Following significant grants and funding from railway stakeholders, the Shawford café was created from a redundant ticket office and booking hall and is now a thriving café which is popular with both locals and visitors.

It is now an established meeting place for dog walkers, ramblers visiting the nearby Itchen Navigation Canal between Winchester and Southampton, social morning coffee groups as well as rail passengers.The partnership has opened the café in the evenings to the local Bridge Club, which was on the point of closure because they had no available premises. Now for a small donation to the Community Rail Partnership, they have a “small but vibrant group” meeting once a fortnight. An SWR walking initiative called “Go Jauntly” was also launched from the café.

Profits are recycled into further community rail projects to encourage longer term financial sustainability of the initiative.

Currently, the partnership is working with the Railway Heritage Trust, SWR and Network Rail to refurbish the old booking office at Bitterne, where the building will be returned to its former glory and turned into a multi-purpose arts and crafts community and gardening centre. Already the station adoption group has transformed the station forecourt into a haven of wildflowers and held weekly art mosaic groups inside the building. They cannot wait until the old windows are opened again and the whole building insulated and redecorated.

Work with the group continues with further projects under discussion at St Deny’s and Rowlands Castle stations where the partnership is in discussions with a local art group looking for a new art studio and a charity seeking to help individual craftspeople set up their own creative studios.

Mark Miller, Director of Hampshire Community Rail Partnership, says: “I am so grateful to South Western Railway and AmeyTPT for entering such leases for formerly redundant buildings. The difference we can all make together is astounding. Local areas of creativity have sprung up, we have created eight full time job equivalents and co-ordinated much needed long-term investment into previously overlooked infrastructure. We have so many more plans in the pipeline. If only there were enough hours in the day”.

The success of the work undertaken by Hampshire Community Rail Partnership on South Western Railway stations was recognised in the 2023 National Rail Awards when the Community Rail partnership was awarded the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Society’ Award.

Premises on the South Western Railway network is also used by other not for profit groups. Staines and Tolworth stations are now home to Community Gardens, premises at Tolworth are used by Community Brain, a not-for-profit organisation that uses people's natural talents and energies to develop stronger communities and relationships through community-led arts projects. A former disused taxi office at Havant station now houses Solent Remade, a community interest group that supports the repair, reuse, recycling of bicycles and active travel within the local area and at Winchester Station, the former signal box is now used by Bespoke Biking an organisation that encourages active travel.

Assisting the NHS and its partners through new initiatives

Working with our clients Southeastern Trains Limited, space has been provided at Bromley North Station to assist the NHS and its partner Our Future Health in their objective to undertake the UK’s largest ever research programme. The aim is for five million volunteers across the UK to provide information on their health and lifestyle and to provide a blood sample.

Space has been provided within the car park for a fully self-sufficient mobile clinical research unit which comprises a reception and appointment bays, along with staff welfare and storage areas. The location is important as it provides easy access for volunteers from the local area to attend without having to travel to a fixed central location.

The scale and depth of the research being undertaken is important. It is designed to assist the NHS in making more effective approaches in the prevention, detection, and treatment of diseases such as cancer, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and arthritis. By researching such a significant proportion of the UK population, it will provide important information that will assist currently underrepresented groups.

To date there have been over 1,750 first appointments, over 1,620 second appointments

and over 1,570 third visit appointments. Bromley North Station and the residents that participate are helping the NHS and their partners to achieve their research targets.

Helping Transport for Wales achieve their Social & Commercial Development Plan

At Abergele and Pensarn Stations on the North Coast of Wales, the Social and Commercial Development Plan (SCDP) has seen the long redundant station buildings bought back into use by Transport for Wales. Working with the community engagement teams at the train operating company, AmeyTPT put in place a SCDP lease with Abergele Community Action to provide a money advice service and district foodbank.

The money advice service aims to provide free, unconditional, and totally confidential advice to people from all walks of life, helping them to identify and work through financial difficulties to bring about a fresh start in life. The district foodbank provides much needed assistance to people in crisis. As well as this they help to signpost people towards organisations to try and resolve the underlying root causes of the problems they are facing.

Abergele Community Action had the following to say: "The community is pleased to see the restoration of the buildingsat the station, and we receive many positive comments. They are particularly happy that it is a community project using thebuildings which are so very busy! We have made them welcome and easily accessible since we moved into the buildings in November 2021, we have grown from strengthto strength and are able to help an increasingnumber of people who are struggling with theimpact of the cost-of-living crisis.”

When the phase 2 of the project is completed, we will be able to use the additional space for more communityprojects.

We have been able to facilitate drop-in sessions with other agencies including the Benefits Advice Shop, Youth Homelessness team, Employability Hub, Resource Wales (Scope) and Drug and Alcohol Wellbeing to name just a few."

The impact of the programmes run from the station can be seen in the comments from the users. One anonymised client said:

“My experience at the food bank was totally better than expected, I didn’t feel embarrassed like I thought I would and the staff there were amazing so friendly and welcoming. The supermarket experience was nice, it felt better to have the choice of your own. I had all the support I needed when going there. After receiving the support from the food bank, I felt relieved and better, my experience has been more than just food, it’s been a place to speak to people and get other help and support if needed. I’m very happy with the services from there, thank you!”

Positive social impact

All the projects no matter how varied have two common themes. They use station buildings and land and bring people together for the benefit of the community.

Without the work from the volunteers that organise and operate ventures to help people to reach their potential, the projects would not get off the ground. Our clients and AmeyTPT work on daily basis to support groups at the earliest possible stage and see the matters through to completion.

As towns and villages grew from the railway, the railway station is for many parts of the UK at the heart of the community that it serves. Using station buildings to improve town, villages and cities and provide space to the community has assisted to bring people together, to build strong relationships and to enable communities to thrive.

There will be more exciting projects in the future.

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