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1,400 community rail volunteers poised to play a key role in the South East’s recovery

Members of a growing grassroots rail movement have continued to strive for communities across the South East and work towards a greener transport future, despite the pandemic, and are looking forward to supporting local recovery.

Figures from Community Rail Network’s Community Rail South East report sponsored by Rail Delivery Group and released today (31 March) highlight that more than 1,400 community rail volunteers in the South East give 65,000 hours annually, valued at £5.5 million, to support social inclusion and wellbeing, sustainable and healthy travel, economic development and tourism.

The South East’s 14 community rail partnerships and 230 station friends groups engage local people with their railways and stations, working with train operators, local authorities and other partners. Their activities include: volunteering, community gardening, food growing and biodiversity projects at stations; community arts and heritage projects to help people learn about and take pride in their area; work with rail industry partners towards improvements and integration, such as shelters, signage or pedestrian and cyclist access; and events, workshops and activities to promote sustainable travel, bring people together, and celebrate local communities.

Community rail partnerships and groups have continued to support communities and local resilience efforts during the pandemic (see below). They are looking forward to playing a pivotal role in building back better from Covid, helping our railways to be a vital component of a more sustainable and inclusive way forward as part of a ‘green recovery’.

Community rail in action across the South East

When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, the Lymington to Brockenhurst Community Rail Partnership, with the support of the Friends of Brockenhurst Railway Station, worked with a local school and a dedicated team of volunteers to distribute food parcels to more than 1,000 vulnerable families, many of whom were on low or no income or living in rented or emergency accommodation.

Similarly, the Isle of Wight Community Rail Partnership, together with staff at Sandown Railway Station’s Gaslight Café, provided 400 ‘Railwayman’s Lunches’ per week, with volunteers delivering the food to vulnerable families and isolated elderly individuals, supporting more than 5,000 people.

The Southeast Communities Community Rail Partnership worked with local schools to reassure students about using trains to get back to school following lockdown, promoting active travel, and providing a ‘virtual schoolbag’ – an online information service for parents and pupils. The partnership also worked proactively with rail partners to address station ‘pinch points’ and timetable arrangements to ensure young people could travel safely.

Station friends groups, social enterprises and partnerships across the region are looking forward to getting back on track with their wide-ranging community gardening, biodiversity, social inclusion and sustainability projects – such as Haslemere Community Station’s local events space, sustainable travel information hub and community arts.

Jools Townsend, chief executive of Community Rail Network, said: “Community rail works to make our railways community-minded and inclusive, and promotes sustainable travel by rail, bringing people together and bolstering local pride and wellbeing. Across the South East, community rail partnerships and groups have adapted and responded, supporting communities through the pandemic, maintaining positivity, and advising rail partners on shifting local needs.

“As we start to rebuild from Covid, within the community rail movement, and across our railways, we will be redoubling efforts, to create confidence and togetherness, and help more people to get around by socially and environmentally responsible means. Community rail is all about communities and connectedness, and people working together locally to make things better for each other and our shared future – that couldn’t be more important right now.”

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group, said: “The railway is at the heart of local communities and the fantastic initiatives by community rail volunteers in the South East play to its strengths, connecting people up and down the country. As we recover from the pandemic, getting more people back on trains will be vital to boost local economies and the environment, so the support of community rail will be more important than ever.”

Angie Doll, managing director for Southern and Gatwick Express, added: “Community rail plays a vital role in connecting local communities to the railway. Covid-19 has presented many challenges, but we believe there’s a real opportunity now for the railway to play a key role in helping support the recovery of local businesses and tourism by encouraging people to travel again. We look forward to working in partnerships with CRPs, local stakeholders and communities to grow again and be stronger together.”