The Citizens’ Rail Masterclasses demonstrated how university students can bring fresh, actionable ideas to the rail industry in a creative way. The two-day events were held in Aachen and Heerlen near the German-Dutch border in October 2013 and in Lancashire, UK in March 2015. They involved transnational collaboration between students and industry from five regions in north-west Europe, as part of the Citizens’ Rail EU Interreg IVB NWE project.
The masterclasses generated a wide range of ideas – the first of which was implemented by the UK rail industry within just 3 months. The masterclasses proved to be an innovative way to bring people closer to their local transport services and have input into the planning process.
The towns and cities involved in the Citizens’ Rail project are essentially car-focused and they each have light-rail services which facilitate travel within the region. However, the stations are in need of improvement, and marketing is required to convince more citizens to travel by rail. Community initiatives which are part of the project have been successful in involving people with their local railways and station facilities.
The masterclasses involved approximately 40 university students from the five partner regions – Aachen (Germany), Lancashire (UK), Heerlen (Netherlands), Pays de la Loire (France) and Devon (UK) – meeting for 2 days to solve travel problems with the input of practitioners from transport operating companies, local schools and colleges, community rail organisations and local municipalities. The events included site visits, presentations from expert speakers, team-building exercises and group workshop sessions during which the students developed their ideas. For the Aachen masterclass, station improvements were the focus. In Lancashire, marketing to increase rail patronage by different segments of users (young people, commuters, leisure travellers, third age and families) was explored. At the end of each masterclass, the students presented their ideas to an audience of practitioners.
From both masterclasses student feedback was very positive about the experiences they got from being involved in ‘real-world’ problem solving, something which is rare in the study programmes. Practitioners also received ideas to use for their services. From the second masterclass in Lancashire, the students produced an idea which was implemented by the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership and rail operator Great Western Railway. The concept was to promote scenic branch line railway trips on the Wi-Fi welcome page on main line trains. This idea helped the partnership to win Best Marketing Campaign at the UK Community Rail Awards 2015. As part of a wider marketing drive, the Wi-Fi project helped attract more than 10 000 people to the Great Scenic Railways website during a five-week period between May and June 2015. This represents a 40 per cent increase on the same period in 2014.
The involvement of students from different countries and practitioners was a positive experience for all concerned. Each individual received something they otherwise would not have experienced if they had not attended: for the students, they got to take part in industry-related activity, and for the practitioners, they got to receive vibrant and bright ideas from a group of people they do not often have contact with, giving them a different perspective to problem solving. The challenges for people who might want to do something similar in the future are that the organisation of such an event can take a lot of planning: destinations, accommodation, site visits and making sure a large number of people are briefed correctly are just some of the considerations. Therefore beginning the planning process early is advisable.