Copper is shining a social value spotlight on…Community Rail Network who drives the delivery of social, economic and environmental benefits through the national rail network.

Across the UK, the Community Rail partnerships have turned stations into thriving community hubs, with local people themselves volunteering to drive the development and repurposing of station buildings and spaces.

Volunteer activity alone in community rail is calculated to be worth £39.9m annually, mostly from the social, health and wellbeing benefits among the volunteers and their communities. Since 2016/17, Community Rail Network has directly funded more than 170 biodiversity/gardening/wildlife-related projects, many supported by our Small Grants Fund which is administered on behalf of the Department for Transport.

The benefits that Community Rail Network offers are clear, which is why we met with Jools Townsend, Chief Executive of Community Rail Network, to hear Community Rail Network’s future ambitions and help us understand just how these partnerships reach into communities across the country and create positive change.

What is Community Rail Network’s role within the rail sector and how does it support it?

We’re a national not-for-profit umbrella body, grassroot movement across Britain representing community rail. We are made up of community rail partnerships and small voluntary groups that deliver activities at railway stations which are shaped by locals, local needs and contexts. We’re helping communities get the maximum value from their railways and stations, including using them and improving accessibility. We’re building positivity and confidence towards rail travel, particularly among certain groups. By promoting local economic development and delivering all manner of activities, we’re bringing stations into the heart of communities. We’re a unique part of the community and voluntary sector that works really closely at a local level with our rail industry partners.

What is your role in making sure that those benefits can be realised and have you got any examples of things that have been achieved?

We’re working with government at different levels and with the rail industry, feeding into the thinking around rail reform and advising on how to make community projects, smoother and less complicated. Another example of what community rail is increasingly doing is thinking about how we can better join up the railways with other sustainable modes of travel. There’s a lack of alignment between local bus services which commonly excludes a lot of people from using the railways and it can make sustainable end-to-end journeys much harder. Strategic level collaboration between bus and rail is a big challenge and something that needs to be looked at more widely.

Why is investment in rail so important?

As I have just alluded to, we really need both rail investment and modal integration. Modal integration is particularly important in these resource-constrained times. We should get better, greater value from what we’ve got. That’s not to say we don’t believe we need greater investment in rail and our wider sustainable transport network, we just need to be thinking holistically about it. We need to be thinking about how to invest in the whole piece in a way that enables and encourages people to make low-carbon journeys. If we’re to hit our net zero targets, we need to significantly reduce private car use. Putting rail at the heart of a coherent, sustainable transport system, we know that it makes an enormous difference. Once we start recognising that, that should inform investment decisions and increase the priority that’s been given to rail.

Putting decarbonisation aside, when we invest in public transport, active travel, community transport and shared mobility, these enormously benefit the lowest income groups and people that are otherwise marginalised and often excluded from opportunities. We often overlook the fact one in three adults in the UK don’t have personal access to a car. Investing in rail and public transport, has huge decarbonisation dividends but it’s also incredibly important in terms of the social value that’s delivered. It creates a more inclusive society with fairer access to opportunity such as employment and leisure opportunities. It literally broadens people’s horizons.

How can CRN be used to support the delivery of social value amongst rail schemes across the UK?

It’s important that we make sure that doesn’t become a tick box exercise. That we make sure it’s meaningful and not just about demonstrating social value, it’s about creating real benefits for local people. Community Rail provides a means to do that because it’s an existing grassroots network who have that local knowledge and ability to bring local people in. Our network can help the rail industry to listen and be community-minded and be appreciative of what local communities are thinking, feeling and wanting. There’s lots of scope for us working much more with supply chain and companies that are involved in developing railways.

What is your focus for Community Rail Network over the next 12 months?

Aside from what I have already mentioned in relation to modal integration and sustainable transport networks, we’re also ramping up our work to support our members on activities that engage with people with disabilities. We’re helping improve travel confidence and feed these lessons into the rail industry. We aspire to make railways more inclusive and welcoming for people with all sorts of mobility needs.

And finally, what should people do if they think they have a station that could benefit from becoming a part of the community rail network?

We’re certainly experienced in helping community rail to spring up in new areas and getting local people and partners enthused about the benefits that it can deliver. We’re happy to support where there are new opportunities and encourage anyone to reach out to us directly.

For more information on Community Rail Network, you can visit their website here.