Train operater London Midland has announced that it is to make a ground breaking change in policy.
With 148 stations throughout the West Midlands, it has decided to capitalise on these assets by inviting budding entrepreneurs to put forward business plans for utilising existing and unused buildings, together with the possibility of providing new ones at stations that have had their offices and store rooms demolished.
They will consider offering franchises where as part of any new development, where any station currently has no commercial office, they will allow tickets to be sold on commission.
This is an unexpected turn of events, for operators have been, over the recent past, closing down offices, claiming that they were uneconomical.
It is fair to say that, taken in isolation, this may well be true. In many cases, offices have been replaced by machines, but generally only one to a station, which can cause problems in rush hours.
However, if tickets are sold in conjunction with other activities, then the whole operation becomes much more viable, and there are precedents which prove that this.
The best illustration is that of Gobowen, just north of Shrewsbury. In 1991, the late David Lloyd, a schoolmaster at the nearby Moreton Hall School for Girls, as part of their sixth form studies, got permission to open a ticket office in the station and run it as a going concern.
This was unique in its day, such that a feature ran on News at Ten.
Indeed, so successful was the venture, that after a while, David left the school and ran the business himself.
This is still in operation today, and is now combined with a travel agency and small cafeteria, employing five people both full and part time.
About 36 trains a day stop at this country station, so there is a regular flow of passengers.
The great attraction for travellers is that they can come to the office and get the best possible advice on how to purchase the cheapest tickets in relation to route and time of travel. This is very much appreciated by older people who find that trying to book on line, or use a platform machine can be very confusing.
In London Midland’s area, many stations are much busier in terms of trains calling, and yet have virtually no facilities. Out of 148 stations, 88 are currently staffed, some only part time, but only 24 have any catering facilities. The door is therefore opening to endless possibilities, for money can be made from refreshments.
On the busy Lichfield-Redditch cross city route, only Birmingham New Street, Selly Oak and Redditch have catering facilities on offer. Alvechurch and Barnt Green have no staff or facilities other that one ticket dispenser and a small shelter. Yet these stations have 76 trains a day, increasing by 50 per cent within twelve months due to demand, so it is very obvious that there is potential for services to be developed.
Richard Brookes, the commercial director of London Midland, and a railwayman for 34 years, told me that he was very keen to make use of as many stations as possible, and to create opportunities for people to develop their own businesses.
In relation to the selling of tickets, this would save him having to service platform machines, which themselves cost £20,000 each, and can be vandalised. He also agreed that, other activities using stations mean that eyes would be kept on railway property, a very useful asset.
The West Midlands is home to thousands of small businesses, and the latest set of Government statistics go to show that this number is increasing.
This is one of those rare opportunities where new businesses can be started, some with a base of selling tickets, plus a host of other ways in which to take commercial advantage of a constant stream of potential trade.
Where there are people, there are pockets and purses. The trick is to quantify which service will turn a penny.
Opportunities of this nature are few and far between, and this is a complete surprise. I think it could attract widespread interest.
One fact of life is that if you run your own business, you cannot be made redundant.
* Russell Luckock is chairman of pressings firm AE Harris