If you haven't checked out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4 of the history of Mobility Lab, then you should before reading on.
It's easy to get distracted by the big, shiny things. Especially in the transport industry. You know what I mean. Ooh, a big new railway line. Ooh, a nice new motorway. Ooh, nice shiny driverless car.
These are are the things that politicans (usually men, in a hard hat and hi-vis jacket) like to stand in front of. As though to say "look at what I did" despite not having even heard of the thing until that very morning. The things that fill the columns of the commenteriat, and we spend far too much time as professionals talking about. The things whose difference to people's lives are in no way related to the money spent on them, or the priority given to them.
We should know. Our team has helped build infrastructure projects from multi-million bypasses to zebra crossings. Smaller is more meaningful and has a bigger impact on people everyday. They are better value for money, and achieve far more than big infrastructure.
And a perfect example of this is a small building next to a motorway and a railway line. This is the story of Ridgmont station.
For many years, our team members worked with the Marston Vale Community Rail Partnership. A partnership of local authorities, community groups, rail users, and the train operator who wanted to boost passenger numbers on the Marston Vale railway line between Bedford and Bletchley. A lot of this was doing basic work to promote the line in the community, and supporting station adoption groups. All very well received, and all popular. But we had eyes on another prize.
In 2008, the Ridgmont Station Building stood disused. Next to the Bletchley-bound platform, and originally designed to be the home of the station master, it was...doing nothing. A monument to the glory days of railways. But with bags of potential.
The Partnership wanted to realise this potential. What it wasn't going to do was bring the building back into its original use. The concept of a station house doubling up as a ticket office staffed by railway staff was long gone. That went with the Beeching cuts. Instead, the grand vision was for the building to become a true hub for the community.
For months, we spend time kicking around ideas. Community shops probably wouldn't have the passing traffic to be viable. Nor was the building big enough for offices for small local businesses. The area was already awash with community halls as well.
Eventually, we settled on a relatively simple idea. Downstairs, we would have a tea room in the former ladies waiting room, and a small heritage centre in the old ticket office. Upstairs, we would have some small offices for businesses in the old station master living quarters. We took our ideas to the parish councils and rail user group - they loved it. In fact, everyone loved the idea. Having stood derelict since the 1990s (we know it was that long because on a visit to the house, a copy of The Sun dated 1995 was found behind the ticket office counter). Network Rail also agreed to rent the building on a 99 year lease on a "peppercorn" rent of £1 per year.
There was one problem. The £300,000 cost of the work.
We had managed to secure £70,000 from the Railway Heritage Trust for the cost of repairs to the building. On one condition. We find another £30,000 from somewhere to fund the rest of it. We applied to lottery grants, the Landfill Communities Trust, and the Local Transport Plan budget. Nothing. This scheme that would have a genuine community benefit was going to fail over the price of a zebra crossing. We had almost no time to find it, or it was over.
The update report to the Community Rail Partnership Steering Group made for sobering reporting. But on the train home, we got a call. It was the planning department at Central Bedfordshire Council. They had been going through the old planning agreements, and came across something very interesting. A local employment site had paid £32,000 towards "transport interchange" improvements at Ridgmont station. Improvements that were unspecified, and importantly the money had not been spent. And was just about to be handed back to the developer.
"Have you got anything to spend it on?" they asked. "You know what, I might have just that." was the inevitable reply.
This project was saved by a chance phone call. We worked out all the legals, and got letters of approval from the developer for a slight variation in the planning agreement. The money was transferred into the project account withon 30 days, and the Railway Heritage Trust funding was secured. From that moment, we never looked back.
Today, the building has been open for close to 7 years. The Tea Rooms in the building have a 4.5 star rating on Tripadvisor, as does the Heritage Centre. A number of businesses have called the place home over the years, and community groups have held numerous meetings and informal get-togethers over the years. If you head there at any time there is always something going on. The place has a real buzz about it.
Sitting in the tea rooms, and wandering the Heritage Centre, we can't help but reflect on the impact this scheme has had on people. Not just those who visit either. But the people who volunteer to help out at the Heritage Centre, and the new businesses established because this station building now has a purpose. A tangible purpose.
These are impacts that are not measured by traditional transport analysis. But they are as meaningful to people than what we traditionally measure. Perhaps even moreso. The opportunity to build connections between people, and to contribute towards something bigger than yourself. Does a bypass do that?
Ridgmont Station Building often occupies our thoughts when we think about what transport should be, and what it often isn't. It should be about giving meaning in people's lives, and the opportunity for them to contribute to something more than just themselves.
This is how our work generates impact. Just talking about public engagement is good and everything, but it doesn't generate any sort of impact. And if you want to demonstrate impact in terms of potential economic growth and journey time savings, there are already plenty of consultants who will do that for you.
But if you want to create a social impact. Or to enable people to volunteer on projects or to create something more. To allow new businesses to start up in a manner that is demonstrable. To give a place for people to meet. To create more interactions between people. Then we can help you with that.
What transport planners currently measure gets funding, and meets the requirements of HM Treasury. The reason why this is the best £30,000 we ever spent is because the impact of what we did was meaningful to people and it has had a lasting impact on people.
Not convinced? Then take the train to Ridgmont. Have a cuppa and a wander around. Observe how people use what we helped to create. Then tell us that the bypass you are promoting, or that new railway line will have as meaningful an impact.