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Community Business Units: community rail’s next leap forward?

Paul Salveson
08 January 2016

The community rail ‘movement’ is a well-established part of the national transport scene. From its origins in the early 70s, in the kitchen of a terraced house in Huddersfield, it has grown into a mature and widely-recognised force for good. Not that long ago, it was seen as a nice, slightly fluffy, added extra to franchises. Now it’s very much mainstream and is ‘weighted’ in franchise bids. The new Northern franchise, starting this April and operated by Arriva Rail North Ltd, contains substantial investment in community rail partnerships and funding to really make a difference.

So after years of grumbling that there was never enough money to do anything, and what funding there was tended to be short-term, the community rail sector increasingly finds itself – at a time when so many community organisations are feeling the pinch, to put it mildly – with a significant increase in resources. And it isn’t just up North. The Great Western direct award includes extra support for community rail. Investment in community rail is now a standard part of all franchises, including InterCity operations such as East Coast.

This poses some big challenges to community rail partnerships. Do they carry on doing the good stuff they’ve been doing for the last few years or is it time to move forward and use the extra resources going in to really take the community rail concept much further?

One colleague who is closely involved in community rail said “…community rail cannot stand still; to ensure that the successes are maintained and built upon, we need to encourage rail partnerships grow sustainably into local delivery bodies for rail and its communities. The next steps of community rail begin now with the new Northern franchise…”

And some are already doing that, to an extent. The Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Co (SCRDC) runs two station booking offices and operates a catering service on many of the trains as well as designing and printing the timetable for the S&C and Morecambe line. It runs a cafe on Skipton station and manages the popular Dales Railcard and group travel on behalf of Northern Rail. It employs 19 members of staff, crucially making an annual surplus and is itching to do much more. 

The SCRDC and sister partnerships around the country, are finding a highly receptive ear in the Department for Transport and its partner Rail North. In the past the debate tended to be a fairly rigid one between pure ‘microfranchising’ with a community businesses running the railway, and the existing situation with the TOC having responsibility for ‘operations’ and Network Rail doing the infrastructure. The ‘community business unit’ has the potential to chart a middle course between the two approaches, taking on a growing portfolio of activities in partnership with the franchised operator and Network Rail. 

A ‘community business unit’ (CBU) could, in structural terms, be a more formal partnership between the community rail sector and a TOC and Network Rail. Many community rail partnerships are already structured as not-for-dividend companies limited by guarantee. This provides the right legal structure to provide good governance and accountability. It also allows the TOC and Network Rail to be part of the company, with nominated directors on the board alongside community representatives with the right commercial skills and local knowledge.

On lines such as Settle-Carlisle, the partnership already looks after some traditionally TOC-managed activities such as station staffing and booking offices.  It could fairly quickly move into station cleaning and maintenance and property development. A feature of the DfT/Rail North specification for the Northern franchise was an expectation that a much more pro-active approach should be taken towards new uses for station buildings. Involving a social enterprise in the actual letting and management of empty space in station buildings would offer good value for money and a clear understanding of local market opportunities. Several other routes share similar characteristics to the Settle-Carlisle Line – scenic lines with a large number of leisure travellers. On-train catering isn’t a goldmine, as any train operator will tell you, but it can bring in useful extra income for a community rail partnership. Lines with obvious potential include south-west branches, Cumbrian Coast, Esk Valley and several other routes across the UK. This isn’t about volunteer labour to replace paid staff. The SCRDC’s 19 employees are mostly union members and the company is planning to become a ‘living wage’ employer by April. Volunteers can provide useful add-on services such as providing information to passengers about the line, distributing community information and the like. But if you’re expecting people to get up at the crack of dawn and do what is a demanding job, they should be paid the going rate – or more.

The CBU concept can develop further, with currently unstaffed stations having paid employees of the CBU providing not just classic ‘booking office’ services but offering other retail services as well, similar to the Merseyrail ‘M to Go’ scheme where TOC staff also provide ‘convenience store’ type services. The CBU approach turns that round, with the social enterprise providing some services traditionally done by TOC employees but offering more. This should not be about replacing existing TOC-staffed stations but looking at opportunities for re-staffing currently unstaffed stations. There’s no shortage of those across the UK, often with growing footfall that could justify a small business setting up shop on the station.

The community business unit approach is a flexible tool that should be about identifying opportunities that relate to local needs. As local government withers under the weight of cuts, there is an opportunity for rail-based social enterprise – through a CBU – to step into the vacuum. The SCRDC is already looking at ways of becoming what is in effect a linear development agency, acting as a promoter of local businesses on the line but also taking on some commercial initiatives itself. One suggestion is for it to develop an estate agency arm, offering a web-based facility throughout the Dales and Cumbria, building on its experience of working with businesses to promote their services to rail passengers.

Across the country, community rail partnerships are becoming more innovative and more alert to new opportunities. Sussex CRP is looking to develop more partnerships outside its traditional geographical area and shares the SCRDC’s commercially-focused approach, without neglecting its community activities. 

With the support of Government and the railway industry, the  community business unit concept has potential to really take off and develop a growing portfolio of activities that help transform lines that were once written off as ‘just carrying fresh air’. Could they become train operators themselves? Maybe. Perhaps a start would be to develop expertise in running feeder bus services that could also generate revenue through operating higher-value tourist-related services in the summer months.   

This is Paul’s last ‘Community Routes’ column for LTT. Pressures of other work and changing priorities at LTT mean it’s time to move on; thanks to all readers for their interest and comments. You can continue to keep up to date with community rail developments by looking at Paul’s ‘Weekly Salvo’ blog  at: www.paulsalveson.org.uk/category/currentnews

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson is a board member of Passenger Focus and a visiting professor at the University of Huddersfield. Paul’s book Railpolitik – bringing railways back to communities, was published in 2013, also by Lawrence and Wishart. The views expressed here are his own.




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