Tackling Loneliness: Understanding Why Transport is a Critical Link

Jools Townsend, Chief Executive, Community Rail Network shares her fascinating thoughts with the IG Central and Local Government Hub about travel and how important it is going to be in tackling loneliness and in bringing our communities together again in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Through Covid-19, our communities face unprecedented challenges, and the implications of social isolation have been brought uncomfortably to the fore. Travel is not an option for most of us, except key workers, keeping vital services going. But thinking forward, to when we start to rebuild, travel and bring our communities together again, transport, and its relationship to tackling loneliness, should be up there in our thinking.

Transport is often overlooked when we talk about creating more inclusive, cohesive, empowered communities. We were therefore delighted that transport was such a prominent part of the government’s cross-departmental strategy on tackling loneliness, including citing community rail as an example.

Community rail is a grassroots movement, spanning Britain, and unique in the way it engages communities in transport. We support and champion 70 community rail partnerships and 1,000+ station friends groups. These are community-based organisations and volunteer groups, delivering wide-ranging activities to promote rail and access to it, connect rail with other travel modes, bring communities together, and help people get the most from their railways and stations.

Although face-to-face engagement is now paused, community rail is growing and evolving, due to the passion and determination of volunteers and officers, alongside support from the rail industry, governments and partners. Community rail’s work and influence in tackling loneliness has become increasingly important, and no doubt will be especially so as we rebuild from Covid-19.

We have an expanding range of evidence of community rail delivering profound effects on localities and people’s lives, by building pride, efficacy and connectedness.[i] This includes:  

  • Increasing access to sustainable journeys – This includes working with young people and excluded groups, to develop confidence using rail (combined with bus, walking and cycling) to access opportunities via sustainable, healthy means. A great example is Community Rail Lancashire’s Confidence Programme. Our members also work with train operators and local authorities to spearhead accessibility and service improvements, from signage, to ramps, to walking and cycling paths, to new Sunday services.
  • Creative projects and community events – Part of community rail is about rejuvenating unloved spaces at stations, celebrating local history and landscape, and creating feelings of ownership and togetherness. For example, Smethwicke Rolfe Street’s mural shows how the railway supports the diverse local community and its future;
  • Volunteering – Nearly 10,000 community rail volunteers use stations as focal points, bringing people together for the good of their locality. Of course, this is hugely beneficial for health, wellbeing and empowerment, especially so given the visibility of community rail work, and interaction it affords with others, as shown by Community Rail Cumbria’s work with Turning Point.

Helping more people to access rail (and buses, walking and cycling) may not seem directly related to inclusion, but it’s crucial. One in three adults don’t have direct access to a car, most commonly among those who are poorest, marginalised or vulnerable, and young people.[ii] Yet, places where we live, work, are educated, and may want to visit, have become increasingly orientated around cars. Access to all sorts of opportunities has become harder without one.[iii] Meanwhile, it’s become pressing for us to shift transport away from the car, to preserve our planet and local environments for future generations.[iv] Hence boosting access to, and creating positivity and ownership around, public transport and active travel, can have transformative effects for health, wellbeing, prosperity, and our future.

Community engagement in transport helps people to access opportunities they might otherwise have thought out of reach. It brings people together, and enables diverse groups to interact. It broadens horizons, improving people’s recognition of what’s out there and how to engage with it: surely the essence of empowerment.

In this way, transport really matters, to tackling loneliness. Yet there’s much scope for bringing this more to the forefront of our thinking in transport, and for transport to be more central to local government and third sector efforts on inclusion. As we turn our attentions to the future, beyond Covid-19, we will surely have heightened needs, and perhaps, a critical opportunity, to create a more inclusive, caring, sustainable transport system, and ensure that public transport and active travel are a fundamental part of the solution to isolation and exclusion.

For more information on community rail, and to explore ideas for working with community rail and transport providers, see communityrail.org.uk, and get in touch with the Community Rail Network.

Written by Jools Townsend, Chief Executive, Community Rail Network


[i] See our 2017 report on Community Rail and Social Inclusion, https://communityrail.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/ACoRP-CRSI2018.pdf and 2019 report on the Value of Community Rail, https://communityrail.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Acorp-Value-of-Community-Rail-12019-V3.pdf

[ii] See NatCen’s 2019 report on Access to Transport and Life Opportunities, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/831766/access_to_transport_report.pdf

[iii] ibid

[iv] A 2019 parliamentary report asserted that ‘widespread personal vehicle ownership…does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation’. The government’s recent Transport Decarbonisation Plan consultation document asserts that we need to make public transport and active travel the ‘natural first choice’.