Trains move millions of people and tons of goods every day. They transport employees to and from work, they link businesses with their customers, young people with schools and educational opportunities, and visitors to destinations. It’s safe to say that Scotland’s rail network has a vital role to play in keeping our towns connected.
The Tranent and Cockenzie Waggonway, which was built in 1722, is considered to be Scotland’s earliest railway and for many years, this mode of transport’s primary purpose was to support industry.
As Scotland’s railways have developed, it has become clear that they serve a far greater purpose and a safe, punctual and sustainable network of trains is vital to our economic success.
“Ultimately, we see the rail network –our railway – as a catalyst for economic growth,” says James Ledgerwood, head of economic development at Abellio ScotRail.
“Whether that be at a national, regional or local level, having a railway can support economic growth.”
He explains the recognition that a better understanding was needed of the relationship between stations, rail services and the communities they serve was one of the founding principles of the Abellio bid to win the ScotRail franchise from FirstGroup in 2014.
“It’s very much about looking at how we connect people with jobs, how we connect businesses with customers, tourists with destinations and people with opportunities.
“It’s not simply the moving of metal boxes from one location to another; it’s much, much more than that.”
A large part of Abellio ScotRail’s passenger base is made up of commuters who demand a fast, reliable and digitally- connected service to transport them to and from their place of work.
“We have somewhere in the region of 95 million passenger journeys every year and the majority of those will be commuters,” says Ledgerwood. “For us, it’s about what the railway network can do to make those connections better and that’s what we have to be working on.”
New smartcard ticketing options and faster, wi-fi enabled trains are already setting a precedent for how rail travel can work for business travellers across Scotland. The commuter journey has to be the best it can be because that’s what inward investors are looking for.
“We have two major cities within 45 minutes’ travel time of each other and that’s a massive incentive for businesses, particularly businesses looking to relocate to Scotland.
“Within an hour’s journey they have access to millions of employees with a wide range of skills and experience.”
Tempting tourists out of Scotland’s main cities to explore our towns is another priority for the rail network.
Ledgerwood says: “I always use a very simple phrase when describing the role that the railway network can play: we want people to stay longer, travel further and spend more.”
And it’s about more than just providing the services to match people with places. The right information needs to be readily available so that visitors are aware of the opportunities for days out and short breaks by public transport.
Abellio ScotRail has invested in marketing campaigns to do just that, such as #PackMoreIn, which promotes rail travel between Glasgow and Loch Lomond.
“We have also done some work recently with cruise operators to get people from the ships to utilise the train to get to destinations,” Ledgerwood adds.
“That’s a really innovative thing we have brought in in the last few years.”
The Borders Railway is one infrastructure investment where the positive impact is already being felt in the towns it serves. Since it opened in September 2015, the region has seen huge economic benefits.
The number of visitor days in hotels and bed and breakfasts has risen by 27 per cent since the railway came into service, and there has been a 16 per cent rise in overall visitor spend.
The Borders Railway has clearly put Ledgerwood’s “stay longer, travel further and spend more” theory to the test and proved he’s not wrong about the role of trains in making that happen.
Looking beyond the tourist figures, there are alternative ways in which the railways can benefit the communities they reach which go beyond providing a smooth service.
“One of the fundamental things for us is that we are looking across our network at how we can support our smaller towns and more rural lines,” says Ledgerwood.
“We do that through our ‘ScotRail in the Community’ programme and through our broader economic development programme.”
ScotRail in the Community, which was introduced when Abellio took over the operator in April 2015, works with eight community rail partnerships (CRP) which are made up of people who have an interest in a particular aspect of the railway in their community.
The most recent CRP to join the line-up is Rail 74 which launched this month to support the line from Hamilton Central to Rutherglen.
“We have CRPs from East Lothian to the Highlands to Strathallan [for the Bridge of Allan to Gleneagles corridor].
“Those focus on local opportunities whether that’s for improving the facilities within a station and using them for local business or social opportunities, or whether it’s promoting a local tourism opportunity that they are aware of.”
ScotRail’s wider economic programme looks at how disused railway buildings can be brought back to life while making a positive impact on the lives of local residents.
Aberdour station is a prime example. There are plans for a heritage centre in the station building, which will move in alongside the recently opened fine art studio and gallery.
“This works for us as a business because it brings some of the buildings that are no longer operational back into use again,” says Ledgerwood.
“Stations are often at the heart of a community and they need to be seen to be used. It doesn’t give visitors a very positive welcome if the buildings are not in use.”
At Newtongrange station, a disused building on the Borders Railway line has attracted funding for an alternative use.
ScotRail teamed up with Midlothian Council and Apex Scotland – a charity which works with young offenders – to pull together nearly £750,000 to see the building transformed into a community café which will serve both residents and rail passengers, and a training facility for young people. At Kilmarnock station, the rail operator worked with local schools and Ayrshire College to redesign an underpass in the town, adding improved lighting and staircases, as well as artwork submitted by members of the community.
“It’s about a partnership approach to social and economic regeneration,” says Ledgerwood. “Instead of just taking an underpass and making it clean and safe, we invested time in that and got the community involved in it.”
And there are plans in the pipeline for further station developments which will have a positive impact on Scotland’s towns. Considering the opportunities at Balloch station for making Loch Lomond more accessible to tourists is just one of the projects Ledgerwood and his team are investigating.
“Each station will have a particular interest. We have over 250 stations which are ‘adopted’, which means that a local business, group or individual is enhancing the physical appearance of the station with hanging baskets and so on.
“Quite often that acts as a stimulus to something else happening in that local community.” Turning to public transport rather than taking the car has additional benefits when it comes to sprucing up town centres.
Scotland now has 11 train stations where passengers can access ScotRail’s flexible cycle hire scheme “Bike and Go” to make the onward journey more environmentally friendly.
“Car impact on town centres can be very negative and car parking can be problematic,” says Ledgerwood.
“We have ongoing issues with air quality in town centres, so getting more people out of their cars and on to public transport is only going to be good for air quality and for the environment.”
Scotland’s railway is changing for the better. It has opened up opportunities for towns to welcome commuters, tourists and day visitors. It has put them on the map and will continue to do so as the network expands and develops.
Above all, Abellio ScotRail’s approach to station regeneration is refreshing.
“We have a multitude of different roles to play and the exciting thing for us as a business is there is not necessarily one pre-determined role that a station plays in an area,” says Ledgerwood.
“It is exciting to be working with stakeholders to identify what those opportunities might be.”