Travelling around the UK, I’m amazed at how our suburban and rural railway stations seem to be places for lost souls. If a train is not approaching there is no energy and life in the station.

Yet railway stations have the opportunity to be at the heart of the community, maybe even become an economic and wealth generating centre. This highlights an interesting point about ‘wealth’, because in this scenario it very much means more than just money, it’s about the feeling, the spirit, the sense of community that a thriving station can engender. This echoes a trend in Italy where station value is not only measured by throughput, but by how long people spend there, meeting friends and enjoying the station’s retail and hospitality facilities.

According to the ‘Community Stations: Innovative community uses for railway land’ report, commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), Britain is a world leader in community involvement in railways. Across the country, there are now more than 50 community rail partnerships, hundreds of ‘station friends’ or station adoption groups and many examples of community organisations making great use of railway buildings and land. Many train stations are being transformed and rejuvenated to benefit not only passengers but also the wider communities around them by creating hubs for arts, education, enterprise, volunteering, healthy living and social interaction. Hundreds of community rail partnerships and groups across Britain are brought together under the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP). Formed in 1907, it provides a supportive network for community rail groups, offering advice, ideas and guidance for ongoing development and innovation.

The benefits to urban communities are immediately apparent in places like Moorthorpe, Edge Hill, Millom and Ellesmere Port which are experiencing social deprivation. In towns like Kilmarnock, Burnham, Beccles and Llandeilo, run-down and unappealing stations have been turned into attractive gateways to thriving communities.

Slowing this trend down in the UK is the fact that many stations are in town centre positions, have been allowed to deteriorate and face high development costs. There is funding and support from train operators, Network Rail and Railway Heritage Trust to help turn stations into community centres through cafes, gyms, local community centres, arts, libraries and museums. However, it takes vision and energy and when it comes to town centres, serious money. Local people need to engage with Local Authorities (LAs) and integrate with their vision for the area – often, however, LAs seem to have a blinkered view of a station’s function and think of it just in terms of getting people in and out of an area.

I suggest that we need to take a broader, community-led view about the role of stations.

First, change how we measure success – this is bigger than passenger numbers, it’s about the contribution to the community. Second, find imaginative ways that encourage people to use the stations for more than just travel. Yes, they should be an integrated transport hub with access to complementary forms, e.g. buses, taxis. But there are numerous ways of creating retail and leisure attractions in the immediate vicinity of the station that will draw people whose purpose is something other than travel. Maybe airports are a model to draw from. Maybe we should view every station as a small wealth hub. Fundamentally they need to be more than just stations and that is the missed opportunity we should be working on.