The Helmsdale Station Project
Can an unstaffed station be brought back to life?
Are you old enough to remember the Euston arch? Swept away in 1960, its loss was both physical and conceptual. Not only was it a splendid architectural edifice but also an emblem of that grand Victorian concept of a railway station as a gateway: to new opportunities for departing passengers, and to the local community for those arriving.
Since then many smaller stations across the network have been degraded to an even greater extent - from staffed facilities often within a building of grand design to, in many cases, a platform bus shelter. Sad is the station where the building has been sold off for non-rail use whilst passengers are reduced to standing exposed on the platform in an enlarged display case.
At some urban locations this is the way things have to be. Vandalism and perceived risk to personal security deem a more sheltered and comfortable waiting room a health and safety hazard. Yet attractive stations by definition do attract passengers. On the North Staffordshire Community Rail Partnership (Crewe-Derby) line, we have seen station footfall increase at over twice the rate at adopted (and beautified) stations compared with those that are left unimproved.
Add to the gateway concept and station adoption two more dimensions: building conservation where there remains a station building with interesting or meritorious features; and people - to keep an eye on the place and to give isolated passengers the re-assurance of other human presence. Now you have the four elements required for reviving an attractive station environment which contributes an additional pleasing focus to its community.
Early next year, on retirement, I'm hoping to spend time in Helmsdale working to put these ideas into practice. The opportunity has been made possible by Transport Scotland's Stations Community Regeneration Fund - "to bring redundant or disused station buildings back into use for the benefit of passengers or the local community." In response to this funding initiative launched at the end of May this year, the station building at Helmsdale has been added to First ScotRail's station lease and the Helmsdale Station Preservation Trust has been set up (and is currently seeking charitable status). The Trust hopes to sublet the building from FSR.
Below are the Trust's aims. I hope you will see in them the four strands mentioned above: gateway - adoption - conservation - human presence. Currently (September 2009) the project is at the stage of preparing funding applications and these aims are still evolving as we consult as widely as possible within the community. I would be glad to receive any comments from FoFNL newsletter readers, also to hear from anyone in the Helmsdale area interested in helping or supporting this project in any way. Regular progress reports are posted on the www.helmsdale.org website.
The aims of the Helmsdale Station Preservation Trust:
- to renovate the old stationmaster's accommodation for short term lettings, a portion of the income generated to be used to maintain those parts of the building dedicated to passenger and community use and to promote opportunities presented by rail travel and other public transport
- to re-introduce a waiting room/exhibition area and to include both information about Helmsdale for visitors and co-ordinated public transport travel information for residents (this information will also be available at other community outlets and on the station website)
- to promote the opportunities made available to local residents through rail travel and other public transport (for example an agreement is being forged with North Highland College to link promotion of its education and training programmes with publicising the Highland Rail Card and public transport possibilities for getting to its activities)
- to make available a tool store and tea room for a station adoption group - volunteers who would be happy to assist in maintaining the station gardens (when re-established) and the station approach
- to give a discount to those renting the flat who arrive by public transport, walking or cycling - promoting both sustainable transport and patronage of local shops and amenities (working on the assumption that people who don't have access to a car will spend more time and money locally - also what easier accommodation is there to reach by public transport than a railway station?)
- to promote a feeling of greater community ownership of the station, contributing to increasing rail passenger numbers and to raising awareness of the environmental importance of maintaining and developing rail and other alternative transport modes
- to provide an exemplar for using station buildings to sustain facilities and services for passengers and for promoting the use of public transport.
Michael is a frequent visitor to Sutherland and a longstanding member of FoFNL. He is chairman of the North Staffordshire Community Rail Partnership .