Andy Milne talks to Neil Buxton, General Manager of ACoRP the Association of Community Rail Partnerships

The sixth annual Community Rail Awards 2010 took place at Westcliff on Sea, Southend, Essex. From the venue high above the town, keen supporters of the railway industry could look out across the sea. Ships plied up the Thames estuary with a timeless gait mirroring the measured advance of the new rail industry, many of whose triumphs were on show that evening.

The Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) fosters a myriad of local initiatives being taken by ordinary men and women – and children – to make Britain’s railways better and more appealing. Perhaps the greatest unsung success story of recent years is the development of the community railway partnerships in often overlooked parts of the network.

I met Neil Buxton the following morning still fresh and limber after a late night with the winners of the awards and their supporters. Buxton is a tall, slim man, articulate and younger looking than his 57 years. However he is no gym rat.

‘I drink too much beer but I never did any sport,’ he says cheerfully. ‘It’s got to the point where I wear a pedometer now to make sure I walk enough.’ Living in North Yorkshire certainly makes walking the sport of choice. Buxton, a Londoner, moved there some years ago

A cost-effective win

The Association of Community Rail Partnerships links government organisations and railway companies with the local communities they serve. ACoRP is mainly funded by the Department for Transport. Local authorities have been very helpful too. For them it’s a cost effective win. The result of local community rail initiatives are out there on the railway fully visible.

An Enabler

ACoRP supports about 60 community rail partnerships across the country. Knowledge and best practice are shared. That’s what the awards, now in their sixth year, are about. ‘Each CRP has a partnership officer – sometimes part time – who is largely an enabler.

We’ve been doing the Big Society long before the current government thought about it. It is a method of getting interested parties around a table. Everyone recognises that the community railways that we deal with are never going to be profitable in the conventional sense.

However, they are profitable in another sense. They help communities survive and thrive. People get access to work. We want to try and make them more effective. We understand we can’t throw money at them. We are not in the business of closing lines for their own sake but if they don’t deliver then what is the point of it being there?

We’re into transport, mobility, getting people out and about and we happen to feel that the railway is the best way to do this. The railway is a vastly underused resource. Our role is to try and get more people on trains in a cost effective way.’

How does it fit together?

A Community Rail Partnership is usually made up of the train operator and the local authority. ‘Then you tie in the British Transport Police, local district councils, schools, volunteers, right down to individuals.’

Neil cites the Esk Valley Community Rail Partnership of which he was once the officer. This links the train operator Northern Rail, North Yorkshire County Council, the National Park, Scarborough Borough Council and the Tees Valley Joint Strategy unit plus representatives of the people of Whitby.

Specific projects bring in other people and teams. If it’s reducing vandalism it could be the BTP and local schools. Tidying up a station could involve the local garden centre and local people like the Women’s Institute. The role of the rail partnership is to identify the people who can maximise a particular project.

ACoRP has achieved a great deal. ‘For every £1.00 spent we can generate £4.60.’ This has been signed off by DfT economists. ‘They gave us a hard time which is why I’m quite comfortable about quoting them. Using their own assessment tools we have a cost-benefit ratio of 1 to 4.6. Train company leaders have been quick to spot this and welcome the support CRPs bring them.

‘Local people get a sense of ownership. They’re the best ambassadors and it tends to reduce trespass and vandalism. One reason for this is because it is self policing. If you get the trouble makers involved in doing something like art work on a station they will then feel enabled… and won’t despoil the station.’ The BTP is right behind the CRP – it cuts crime and makes a real difference.

‘In Northwich, between Manchester and Chester we had a station – half a mile from the town – that was really run down. It was overrun with rats running through the ticket office and not really part of the town.

Kids used to hang around on the bridge and throw stones through the glass roof. Drug users ghosted along the platforms. It was the worst environment you could think of.

Then the rail partnership officer got together with the local health and social services people and regeneration agencies and put together a package where the railways renovated their bit of the station and other people funded an educational resource centre and cyber café.’

Now thanks to hard work by the Mid Cheshire Community Rail Partnership there is an Adult Learning Centre called Zone on the station and a café called the Rail Side Café. The station is used and popular. Vandalism has gone down 75% and ridership is up.

‘That’s an indication of how people feel. It’s safer in the station and they take ownership of the stations and are delivering something that is actually needed.

How do railway staff and managers feel about CRP?

‘We have made it clear we are providing additional services. We are not replacing anything. Railways are dangerous places to be and you can’t have untrained people hanging about. So we’re not in the business of replacing staff. We’re providing added value that can’t always be financially justified but benefits the railway.

Ironically a lot of the work we do secures the service and so secures the railway. I have to say we have had nothing but support from the railway industry from top to bottom.

The first role of the partnership officer is to go and create relationships with the staff. That’s not usually difficult at all. They’re helpful, they like it and it’s ownership for them too. Like all of us, it’s a vocation. I’ve got nothing but praise for the railway people who work with us and the unions as well.’

Crucial to the success of community rail is the role of community rail partnership officers. ‘If you are going to have volunteers you have to have somebody who is there for them full time, serving, directing and recruiting them.

By their very nature volunteers are needy people. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way but they have different needs to a member of staff. Volunteers can be lonely pensioners, ex-convicts, so you have to treat them completely differently to normal staff.’

The Big Society

Happily ACoRP and the partnerships it represents look like surviving. Despite the imperatives of reducing public expenditure the government is recognising the social and wealth creating benefits of railways and, to its credit, has not overlooked the important part played by ACoRP.

‘We’ve been doing the Big Society for years in community rail. It is localism writ large. Local people take ownership of their local services, their local station and they support it. They do lots of work voluntarily but it still needs a paid member of staff to co–ordinate all that. My anxiety is that we don’t lose that core funding.’

Interestingly rail chiefs prove very supportive of community rail once they realise what it is… The DfT community rail team is very supportive as is Network Rail. ‘We are their enablers on the ground, if you like, and I have found this right up through the echelons of the DfT. Once they’ve found out what we’re about they are enormously supportive. I did a presentation about a year ago and there was a real sense of people walking out of that meeting understanding what we’re doing.’

Are you described as an anorak’s charter?

No, we’re a rail partnership. We can access money that rail companies can’t. We’re not for profit. Some of us can access money for arts and environmental grants. We try and dissuade anoraks and steam engines.

We’re into a modern railway resource. We’re providing ways of getting people about. You’ll find community rail partnership officers aren’t railway people at all but they’re community development people or economic development managers. Interestingly enough after few years they go cranky about rail; they go native.’

One distinct benefit of community rail is the high presence of women. ‘We have a high percentage of women now and they bring a very special view point into community rail development and it certainly knocks on the head the anorak notion.’

Sarah Collins, Severnside Community Rail Partnership officer and a qualified lawyer, won several of the awards at Southend. Sadly she has moved on. Another is Sally Buttifant over at Mid-Cheshire CRP.

Railways generally have a bad press but there’s always good news and community rail provides lots of it. ‘Yes we are bad at lobbying and PR but community rail is getting better. We have a good story to tell. The music train might sound odd but it gets attention and the press are interested in it.

The press still go on about the BR sandwich, but that hasn’t existed for 30 years! In a way community rail is about trying to redress that balance. We’re saying we do really good stuff that is also fun and we’re getting more seats on seats.’

Community rail partnerships now stretch from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall, from East Anglia to the Heart of Wales. Scotland has done particularly well and John Yellowlees, Scot Rail’s encyclopaedic external relations manager, won a special award at Southend.

Neil Buxton is quick to point out the hard work done by other people and is quite self effacing. Buxton makes sure I have understood the hard work put in by Brian Barnsley, Operations Manager, Dawn Wolrich, Office Manager, Hazel Bonner, Events Organiser, Sue Miles MBE, Community Stations Initiative Project Officer and Philip Jenkinson Company Secretary and Resource Centre Officer as well as many, many other CRP, officers and supporters like Yellowlees and Chris Austin.

‘The job involves enormous amounts of travelling. It’s a national remit with endless emails; but I have a good self motivating team where we’re based in Slaithwaite near Huddersfield. I travel by rail and my office is coach D on the Kings Cross service.

We have very good relations with Network Rail, the Department for Transport and the train operators. I talk to managing directors and they’re right behind us, even the inter city franchises. East Coast has a community rail clause written into the franchise.’

In turn ACoRP is a big supporter of the rail industry. If there are disagreements they’re kept firmly behind locked doors. ‘We don’t wash dirty linen in public. If we identify a problem we’ll fix it at a local level. We’re trusted.

If the train operator lets us on the platform with a few cans of paint, we’ll do it. We won’t run down the railway like other pressure groups do. Our place is to try and make the railway a better thing and we do it by co-operative working.’

How did Neil get into this job?

He has a railway background leaving school at 18 to work on the Southern Region. ‘I was born in south London in Norbury and grew up in Croydon. I started as a rolling stock roster clerk in what was Essex House – now demolished – outside East Croydon station.’

Neil studied photography at college in Birmingham then, disillusioned with the photography industry, ended up in Preston and worked for Age Concern. ‘I had to look after their mini-bus and of course learned all about all the rules and regs governing that.

When that job came to an end I applied to this community transport project in Swindon. This was Dial-a-Ride – for people with mobility difficulties. ‘They gave me a cheque and said start Dial-a-Ride. I started with two completely wrecked minibuses in 1983. By the time we moved up to North Yorkshire we had 11 buses and 12 staff and were carrying 118,000 passengers a year. I was proud of that.’

Of equal importance was another partnership entered into in Swindon. Neil met his wife, Jane, in a pub in the town, in 1994. The two did not click straight way, although Jane comes from Herne Hill, quite near Norbury.

‘A group of us ended up at her house. I left some shopping there,’ says Neil. With some apprehension he went round the following day to pick it up. To this day Jane does not know why she said this but she said, ‘Come in and have a glass of wine.’ The couple were married six years later and have a daughter.

The job offer of CRP officer in Yorkshire concentrated their minds and when Neil moved to the north Jane came too. When Dr Paul Salveson went to work for Northern Rail Neil became general manager of ACoRP.

Happily ACoRP has survived the government Spending Review. But local authorities will also be cutting back which may have an impact. However local councils are much better briefed about the benefits of community rail than they were hitherto.

Community rail is good news and represents good value for money. ‘I am as comfortable as I think I have any right to be,’ Neil Buxton says, unwittingly speaking for much of the rail industry as the Association of Community Rail Partnerships.

Walking back along Southend sea front at midnight from the Community Rail Awards 2010 the moon shone bright upon the water. The lights of Kent were clearly visible across the sea. Party goers struggled gamely through the voluminous road works that have ploughed up the Southend Corniche.

Jovial members of the Essex constabulary shepherd them on their way. Bewildered motorists and cab drivers are backed away from the sea front. It’s chaos. By contrast the local train company, c2c runs a superb regime now more punctual than Swiss Railways.

Out at the airport the Eddie Stobart operation has just opened a new railway station. As a morale booster an evening in Southend on Sea with Neil Buxton and the community rail movement is hard to beat.

Community-Rail-Awards-2010-winners
Community Rail Awards 2010 winners

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