Northern Rail Ambassadors’ Scheme

Northern Rail Community Ambassadors’ Scheme – Blueprint research

A project to assist Northern in delivering a railway the North can be proud of

northernThe business need

In 2004 Serco and Abellio won the franchise to run train services across the North of England and formed Northern Rail. Over time, a ‘Northern’ culture became established, which is reflected in Northern Rail’s values and actions.  This culture is formed around a desire to deliver local railway services that the North can be proud of and that really work for everyone.

A key element of Northern’s culture is a strong focus on community rail. For example, Northern recognise the value of the work of Community Rail Partnerships (CRPs) and currently sponsor 18 CRPs, more than any other train operating company. These CRPs work to bring together the railways and the local communities. Their work includes bringing station buildings back to life, art and education projects and organising special events which promote the railway and its relevance to the community.

Building on this community focus, Northern wished to set up a Community Ambassadors’ Scheme to promote the use of rail services with Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and socially excluded groups on their network. It was to be modelled on a concept developed earlier by Serco on Docklands Light Railway, based in London.

Northern hoped that a fresh, more direct approach would attract new users onto the railway and help them to build positive relationships with communities where traditional marketing had made little impact.

To understand the barriers these potential new rail users faced, Northern recruited Ambassadors who had strong links with the targeted areas. They also commissioned Jungle Green to conduct a significant programme of research activity running throughout the pilot period of the scheme. Through the Ambassadors’ knowledge and hard work, coupled with the detailed feedback from the research programme, Northern were able to support people and break down perceived barriers to travel. In some cases their work also led to increased footfall at the local stations and, even more importantly, a legacy of train use has been built which will continue for years to come.

The following chapter explains how the scheme and the research were approached, the lessons that were learned along the way and the real difference that has been made to the people who have taken part. Northern are immensely proud of what the Ambassadors have achieved.

Setting up the scheme

The Northern Rail Community Ambassadors’ scheme was created to promote the use of local rail services at BME and socially excluded groups on the network. Initially, this focused on four locations in the North West: Blackburn, Brierfield, Rochdale and Farnworth. These locations were selected due to the population profile including a high proportion of the target groups.

Together with Northern’s colleagues at the Department for Transport (DfT), Transport for Greater Manchester and the East Lancashire Community Rail Partnership, they wanted to understand and then break down the barriers to rail travel.

Moving away from their normal recruitment process, Northern conducted a mail-drop in the relevant locations and used posters in local shops and community centres to attract people from within the communities. Following this process, four part time Ambassadors (working 16 hours per week) were recruited to join the full time Project Manager.

To help the scheme gain momentum, Ambassadors with strong local knowledge and existing relationships within the targeted communities were recruited. Excellent communication skills were also essential and so to overcome the language barrier, Northern recruited a team who were fluent in Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi.

Aims of the scheme

With the support of their funding partners, Northern hoped that the scheme would:

  • Increase the use of local rail services at the target locations
  • Help them to build positive relationships with the local communities
  • Provide a blueprint to help other organisations engage with BME and socially excluded communities

The scheme in action

On a day-to-day basis, the Ambassadors were involved in a range of activities such as visiting community and faith centres, giving talks to local groups and organising group accessibility trips to show people how easy it is to use rail services. The Ambassadors deliberately targeted a wide range of people including the elderly, job clubs and colleges. Where English was not the first language, the trips were often conducted in Urdu or Punjabi and they were tailored to each group, taking them to a local destination which they would find interesting or useful.

Blueprint research project

The research brief was clear in setting out the business needs and research evaluation objectives:
Despite serving areas of high multi-ethnic communities, Northern had yet to engage in any systematic way with socially-excluded ethnic minority communities, and indeed some socially excluded indigenous white communities. If Northern were better able to engage with these communities they believed there would be benefits in terms of revenue and ridership growth, reduced anti-social behaviour and stronger stakeholder relationships with groups representing ethnic communities.

There were several dimensions to a successful outcome for the Northern ambassadors.

Crucially, Northern wanted to see:

  • Clear evidence of greater use of each station by members of the target communities
  • Quantified evidence of improved customer satisfaction with Northern Rail at the target locations
  • Active involvement of the local communities targeted, through station partnerships and community rail partnerships
  • Reductions in crime and vandalism at the target stations
  • Endorsement and support from local authorities and Department for Transport (DfT)
  • Positive local media coverage
  • Winning of awards for a highly innovative project

The aim of the research evaluation study was to provide Northern with transferable lessons about whether the ambassador pilot and specific elements of it had worked or not and why.

The objectives of the evaluation research were to:

  • Evaluate the extent to which the Northern pilot community ambassador initiative was being delivered/operated in the way it was designed to operate (process evaluation)
  • Evaluate the extent to which the Northern pilot community ambassador initiative was meeting its objectives e.g. in terms of increasing station passenger throughput by the targeted local community (impact evaluation)
  • Identify the factors driving success
  • Identify the factors hindering success
  • Based on the evidence from across the pilot areas, identify what types of ambassador interventions were most and least successful and why; what transferable lessons about the design and delivery of a successful community ambassador scheme could be drawn from across the pilot areas and could be applied to other similar areas.

As the evaluation research ran largely in parallel with the 12 month pilot, the research was to focus initially on gathering relevant baseline data. The data was to be used to influence how the pilot ambassadors worked in their particular locations. Towards the end of the pilot, Northern expected there to be some evidence of what was or was not working and the researchers were expected to obtain and analyse relevant data and undertake surveys of local residents as required. The results from this data analysis and further surveys was to inform the final report and transferable lessons.

The ultimate aim of the extensive research programme, running alongside the pilot phase of the Ambassadors’ scheme, was to help Northern and their partners to create a Community Ambassador Scheme blueprint that could be replicated by or provide valuable transferable lessons for other transport operators or similar organisations wishing to introduce such a scheme.

Jungle Green as a research partner

Northern were looking for a research partner with whom they could work very closely and one that they could trust to conduct the research in a sensitive, professional, efficient and highly effective manner. The scale of the project clearly required competitive tendering and Jungle Green were delighted to be successful in being awarded the project.

Jungle Green and Northern had conducted many research projects together since 2006. This wide experience of the network and the partners involved enabled the research company to understand the context of the project in some depth and to design a varied and creative programme of research activity.

Research scope

The research clearly needed to be conducted on the ground in the specific communities, face to face, with translators where necessary. There was a need for both quantitative research to measure impact and qualitative research to gain a deep understanding of the needs, feelings and behaviours of the targeted groups.
A number of personal case studies were also prepared to bring the research findings to life.

Quantitative research

During the early months of the pilot scheme, initial quantitative research was carried out to set a baseline to measure against and to provide Ambassadors with information to aid in their work. A sample of residents, representative of the population profile in each of the targeted areas, was interviewed. Key sample points (usually busy high streets and market areas with proximity to local community facilities) within each community were selected and a shift pattern was carefully programmed to cover weekdays, weekends and early mornings through to late evenings. The sample points, profiles and shift pattern were all to be repeated exactly in the follow up research.

Early research

The early research focussed on current feelings and behaviours relating to the use or non-use of the local rail network. This included rail awareness, process knowledge, any current or past rail usage, perceived barriers to rail usage and ideas on how these barriers could be reduced. There were also questions on the use of other modes of transport.


(Figure 1: Jungle Green quantitative research in the early stages of the pilot scheme, January 2011)

Quantitative research insights

Many of the people encountered in the research had little or no experience of using rail services and they believed them to be expensive, complicated, unreliable and unsafe (particularly for females). It was interesting to note that those who held these concerns were those with the least experience of actually using the local rail services. The views they held were based on their perceptions of what using a rail service would be like, rather than any direct experience. This made it clear very early on in the pilot, that helping people in these communities to experience the rail service would enable them to form opinions based on reality rather than perception.

Addressing concerns

Accessibility trips facilitated by the Ambassadors had the potential to change perceptions through real experience. The Ambassadors worked hard to overcome the negative perceptions and found that reassurance could be provided by simple acts such as providing examples of journey opportunities and prices. Similarly, on the safety question, people felt much more confident once the CCTV cameras were pointed out to them and they understood that they could contact the conductor if they were concerned during their journey.  Explanation of group ticketing, off peak travel and other fare offers informed the communities on cheaper ways to travel.

At the end of the pilot scheme time period, the quantitative research programme was repeated and measures of impact were thus produced.


(Figure 2:  Jungle Green quantitative research at the end of the pilot scheme. February 2012)

It was clear that the Ambassadors’ Scheme was having significant impact. This was backed up by evidence of increased ticket sales in these locations.

The follow up research found that:

  • There had been overall growth in rail usage at the targeted locations of around 14%; approximately half of this growth could be directly attributed to the Ambassadors
  • These new users had mainly come from certain sectors of the community i.e. mainly C2DE social grades (eg. skilled and unskilled manual workers and those who rely on the welfare state for their income), mainly females, from BME communities who were infrequent travellers
  • The vast majority of those who had been on an accessibility trip said that they were now finding it easier to use trains (83%) and over half of them (54%) were already using the train independently
  • Northern brand awareness had increased, by 20% in one location, and reputation had been enhanced. The scheme had a significant impact in particular on perceptions of having helpful employees, running reliable services and offering good value fares

Qualitative research

In addition to the quantitative research, a series of groups, mini groups, community workshops, friendship depth interviews and observations were conducted. In all cases a representative from the specific local community involved was present, along with any necessary translators.

The Ambassadors themselves also took part in the research process so that their experiences and learnings could be included in the eventual blueprint.

Research venues and participant groups were many and varied, including:

  • Local community centres
  • Carers’ groups
  • Learning disability centres
  • Homes for the elderly
  • Parent and toddler groups
  • Sure Start Centres
  • Neighbourhood and Learning Centres
  • Libraries
  • Markets
  • Asian women’s groups
  • Women’s refuge groups
  • Job clubs
  • Housing associations
  • Walking groups
  • Schools
  • Church groups
  • Student groups

The primary aim of the qualitative research was to gain a greater understanding of the impact of the scheme among those exposed to it. It was evident very quickly in the qualitative research that the impact ran deep.

 Qualitative research insights

The qualitative insights that emerged revealed that one of the most significant contributions that the Ambassadors’ Scheme accessibility trips had made in these communities was to raise confidence levels amongst those with low levels of self-confidence, such as those who had suffered domestic violence, the elderly and infirm, young teenagers, single mothers and Asian women. This confidence raising had very often led to repeat use of the train independently, which was something many of these participants would never have considered doing previously. The increased confidence levels were not only self-reported by participants but mentioned by the group/community leaders also interviewed in the qualitative research. It was also evident from the increased rail trips made.

The accessibility trips, where individuals and groups were introduced to and accompanied by an Ambassador on a rail trip, had opened participants’ eyes to the relative ease with which rail trips can be made and had broken down the negative perception barriers (identified in the early quantitative research) of rail travel being expensive, complicated, unreliable and unsafe.

Impacts of the scheme

Various impacts were seen as a direct result of the Ambassadors’ scheme:

  • Word of mouth in these close knit communities was prevalent. Those who had experienced the accessibility trips were telling their friends and family and taking them with them on future trips independently.
  • The social stigma of public transport among BME communities was being replaced with a view that it is for fun family trips – replacing a common view that travelling by train was a sign that no one in your family cared enough for you to drive you to where you need to go.
  • Many mothers were now taking their young children on trips in the holidays, revisiting locations they had encountered on the accessibility trips and venturing to new ones too.
  • The elderly and disabled had been reintroduced to rail travel. Both they and their carers were feeling more confident about using the train in the future.
  • Family members and friends, that had not seen each other regularly for a long time, were being reconnected via rail travel and those seeking work had been encouraged to look further afield and travel there by train.
  • The Ambassadors had become highly respected and very popular figures in the local communities in a very short time. Much of the uncertainty about rail travel had been removed for many of those that the Ambassadors engaged with.
  • The scheme lessened many of the unknowns about rail travel for those with a language barrier, making this less of an issue in the future.
  • Station location awareness had increased and the reputation of the rail industry improved in these neighbourhoods, especially in terms of accessibility, value for money, ease of use and caring about the community.

northern3(Figure 3: Jungle Green qualitative research at the end of the pilot scheme. February 2012)

Bringing the findings to life

A separate document of People’s Stories was prepared by Jungle Green to help bring the findings to life. The following are snippets from this document, in the words of the research participants.

I get bad panic attacks, so I’ve never thought I could use trains as a mother of three kids. When I found out that you could experience the train with someone who could show you all about it and would travel with you, I really wanted to give it a try. Because I’ve never taken my kids on the train, I really wanted to give them that experience. I could never have taken them on my own; I couldn’t have managed that at all. Having the support of others in the group was really good. I never even knew that Farnworth station was there before. We’ve been on a few trips now on our own and our confidence is building (Parent Group)


It’s been so beneficial for the women and children. Previous experience of trains for the women here is pretty non- existent and that’s certainly true for the kids. They are fleeing domestic violence and they have been quite controlled and isolated so the scheme offers a lot more than experience of the trains. It’s confidence building, it’s a whole new freedom experience, it’s promoting independence. It really helps them think about a better future. They don’t have cars for a start and they are used to being controlled totally. We have a constant stream of new women coming and going through here, so there is a constant need for the scheme (Women’s Refuge)


Introducing the train travel idea to these women in here is brilliant because they go on to live independently afterwards and, instead of still feeling lonely and isolated, they have new ideas of where to take the children on trips and how to get out and about and integrate again. The women and children’s relationships often suffer because of domestic violence and these trips help to rebuild those relationships. In fact it’s often the first time they’ve done anything like it together at all (Women’s Refuge)


We were really, really scared about trains as we’d never used them before. Families just don’t travel very far around here so we don’t know about it. So when we saw the leaflet at the station for the Northern Ambassadors we were really interested. We got in touch with Sultana who said we could go on a trip with her to experience the trains and get used to it. It’s been brilliant and we feel quite confident about going by train to university now (Students)


I’ve found it most useful for people looking for work. It’s opened their eyes to the possibility of working outside of Blackburn. They’ve learned about tickets, timetables, routes, they’ve had tours of the train station and it’s really, really helped. Sultana comes in to some of the job clubs and helps them find all the information they need on the internet (Job Club)


In our culture we are always thinking ‘Oh no, you can’t use the train’, but now we say ‘Yes you can, of course you can’. It’s just lack of awareness and just the way our culture is, but it is changing a bit now. We are very over protective of our children too. We drop them right outside the door. We need to realise that they are capable of doing things for themselves and can go by train, also that they are safe doing it. This scheme is helping in that goal too’’. (Children’s Centre)


We have over 40 people in our group and so different people come each time we meet. Our people do not get out of the house very often and have low confidence. The language barrier is the main problem for them, along with their carer duties obviously. We’ve been twice to Bradford on accessibility trips with different ones and they were quite surprised at how easy it was. It takes time but they feel more confident now. (Carer’s group)


Public transport is seen as a ‘poor’ person’s pursuit, even though ticket prices are quite high. The reason is cultural; children are brought up to respect their elders and look after them, so if they are seen on public transport it suggests to others that their children have no respect for them and do not look after them as they should. This is seen as a stigma in this culture (Community Group)


Our women are now able to get on the train when they’ve never been able to before. They would not have even contemplated it through lack of confidence, lack of awareness, disability, mental health problems, cultural reasons and lack of ambition in life (Ambassador)


Children having the best time they have ever had, seeing the smiles on their faces is so worth it, something they’ll treasure and also planting the seed for future train travel (Ambassador)


One lady is 97 and she just loved being on a train again. Before doing the trip with Simon I thought it would be too difficult with people in wheelchairs, but everyone was so helpful. (Home for the Elderly)

Where the scheme is now

From early 2012, the scheme was jointly funded by Northern and the Citizens’ Rail Interreg IVB project.

As the scheme became established, a part time Project Manager and three Ambassadors collectively worked a total of 75 hours per week. Instead of focusing on a single location, they worked along circular lines of route between Burnley, Rochdale, Bolton and Blackburn.

In the second phase of the scheme, focus on the local student communities increased, hoping they continue to use the railway as they move into the world of employment.

This approach enables Northern to reach more of the BME and socially excluded communities which they serve, helping them to use local rail services and improving their access to employment, education and leisure opportunities in the region.

In December 2015 (as this chapter was being written) the Department for Transport announced Arriva as the new franchise holder for the Northern network. The new franchise period starts in April 2016 when the new franchisee will make clear plans and programmes for the future.

Arriva said in their first statement about the new franchise

“Our aim is to be the communities’ local railway and to leave a positive lasting legacy for the North of England.”

The Community Ambassadors’ Scheme has the evidenced scope to contribute towards this aim. Jungle Green hopes that the research and subsequent blueprint document can help the new franchisee to set out their plans for future community rail initiatives.

Award winning scheme with European recognition

In terms of wider recognition, the scheme went on to win the following awards:

  • The Small Scale Project category at The Railway Industry Innovation Awards 2012
  • The Diversity and Equality category at the Civil Service Awards 2012 (working together with the Community Rail Team at the Department for Transport)
  • Customer Service Excellence at the European Rail Congress Awards, Nov 2013

Reflections on the research programme

This was, and still is, one of the most satisfying projects Jungle Green researchers have undertaken. The research produced a rich array of findings and more than answered the original objectives set. The researchers took away a number of insights from the project and these have proved valuable to them in their work since.

  • A project of this nature requires a small dedicated team of two or three people. Enough to share thoughts and cross reference but not too many to miss the benefits of deep immersion in a project.
  • When referring to qualitative research, Jungle Green now always tries to use the term ‘immersion days’. This helps all involved to focus on what qualitative research really is.
  • The importance of ensuring that participants from all backgrounds feel comfortable enough to speak openly and candidly about their lives was clearly evident in this research. Many different venues, appropriate escorts, translators and different methods of capturing the research findings were all key considerations in this project.
  • Researchers are in an extremely privileged position. Every day they have the chance to meet extraordinary people living ordinary lives, who share their thoughts and feelings on all manner of topics. Some of these topics are simply interesting and some can be fun to listen to. Others run deeper and stay with the researcher for a very long time; this project was one of those and Jungle Green actively seeks out projects of a similar nature.
  • The experience on this project, and other factors, led to a number of other projects being awarded to Jungle Green by a variety of health and charitable organisations. It has also been valuable in informing the company’s approach to commercial projects involving ‘brands with purpose’.
  • The learnings from this research piece have had wide application in Jungle Green’s extensive rail research. If individuals are not habitual train users or have not travelled by train for a long time, it is common to find that the perceptions held of what travelling on a rail network would be like centre on complexity, personal security issues, expense and unreliability. This is found to be true for people from a wide variety of backgrounds. These negative perceptions can often be transformed through the simple encouragement and incentive to take a rail journey and gain current experience.

The final word on our case study comes from Northern

….. the research not only identified the key quantitative measures we needed but also transferable lessons which could be used by other train operators and organisations wanting to establish a similar scheme elsewhere in the country. This covers lessons learned from establishing the scheme with community group leaders, which activities were the most and least successful and suggestions from the Ambassadors for future improvements. We have currently collated these lessons into a booklet available for all stakeholders and interested parties at Northern.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s