WITHOUT Britain’s unstoppable army of train station champions would our lines grind to a dreary halt? Would our journeys be less cheery and indeed would we be making them at all?
Fortunately these are questions we don’t have to answer because there is a growing revolution of regeneration at neglected railway stations all across the country.
A new army of willing volunteers is contributing time and effort worth millions of pounds to turn once neglected stations into bright, welcoming community hubs.
One such example is Batley, where we have just unveiled our revamped, rejuvenated and repainted railway station.
The station was in a poor state but it now looks incredible thanks to a great deal of hard work solely by volunteers. The driving force behind the revamp has been the Friends of Batley Station.
In 2014 Batley councillor Gwen Lowe approached me and said she had been contacted by a number of local people concerned the station was sad and unkempt; an unloved place. She said we should do something about it and so the Friends of Batley Station was born.
With Gwen’s infectious enthusiasm and passion for Batley, we had no trouble recruiting volunteers to clean it up, plant flowers and develop an ambitious plan for more significant improvements longer term.
The volunteers mostly live or work in Batley. But not all of them. Some just want to support our railways or are passionate about making a difference and be involved in something worthwhile. Our volunteers come from all walks of life, communities and backgrounds but they have all got together and pulled in the same direction.
Eighteen months on and the whole station has been painted, the roof extensively repaired and there are negotiations ongoing to bring some of its rooms a back in to use. There have been regular clean ups, what we call “action stations” and we now have plants cheering the place up.
But the centrepiece of the improvements is a beautiful, colourful community mural along the subway that connects the station’s two platforms. It showcases the best of Batley for all those coming and going from the station.
We hope that one of the main gateways to our town will no longer be thought of as sad and unkempt. It is now very much a loved place.
As well as attracting volunteers, the Friends of Batley Station also secured the support of a local business that has been central to the improvements. The incredible help from the Birstall-based paint and coatings company PPG has been key to all the wonderful work that has been done over the last fortnight.
Their army of volunteers has numbered well over 140 as staff queued up to be a part of this incredible transformation.
And this kind of project isn’t just happening in Batley.
The explosion of interest and community involvement in our railways is a phenomenon, being witnessed all across the region and throughout the country.
Some communities have even taken on running lines themselves. There are now 37 routes formally designated as community rail lines or services. There are 36 community rail partnerships in England covering 68 lines and 111 station adoption groups. Network Rail manage regular volunteer schemes at 91 locations. And there are estimated to be more than 400 local volunteer groups.
Such community rail initiatives help get better value for money and deliver improvements which mean more people use and enjoy the network. There are also clear community and environmental benefits. Everyone wins.
But we must remember why this works: volunteers. Research by the Association for Community Rail Partnerships suggests that every year 3,200 community rail volunteers give a quarter of a million hours in support. This is worth, they estimate, more than £3m.
This potential of volunteer groups was recognised right from the off by Network Rail in Batley, and their support and advice has been invaluable to our group. Indeed this partnership with Northern Rail, now Arriva since the franchise changed hands, and Network Rail has allowed the group to secure investment that otherwise we would not have had.
The willingness of the rail companies to engage with such groups is not surprising, but the level of co-operation has been unprecedented and what is clear is that these companies listen. They appreciate how much volunteers are investing and that this is mutually beneficial.
Our railways would not grind to a halt without these volunteers, but they would certainly be a lot less welcoming. Batley and towns with stations all over the country are benefiting from the excitement and enthusiasm these projects bring. So too are the travelling public. Long may it continue.
Jo Cox is MP for Batley & Spen.