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Railway station’s café not on track yet for town council funding

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MELKSHAM Town Council has raised a ‘significant concern’ that the railway station’s café is not open to serve customers using the busiest rail services in the morning. However, TransWilts, the community interest company that manages the café, says this is currently not possible due to a shortage of volunteers and the effect of Covid-19. 

Cllr Graham Ellis – who was formerly involved with TransWilts, the community interest company that manages the café – explained that the busiest trains at Melksham Railway Station are at 7.20am and 7.50am, but the Melksham Hub Café currently does not open until 8.30am.  

The concern was raised at a town council meeting last month when councillors considered a £10,000 grant application from TransWilts to help pay half the salary of its café coordinator – an application that was turned down because of the council’s concern. 

But TransWilts’ chairman, Paul Johnson, has explained to Melksham News that the café, which opened in April this year, is still in its infancy and does have ambitions to open at 7.30am six days a week – but a shortage of volunteers and the impact of the pandemic has restricted its opening times. 

“The cafe core opening times are 8.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings,” explained Paul. “We open at 7.30am typically on two days per week when our staff shift patterns allow – not everyone can get to work every day to open the cafe for 7.30am.  

“As these days can vary, we do not publicise them. In the meantime, we are seeking volunteers who could help us deliver a reliable 7.30am opening and to help with community events. Post pandemic railway usage has been low and variable, we are still in a recovery phase and passenger numbers do not yet justify additional paid staff shifts for a six-day a week 7.30am opening.” 

In their application to the town council, TransWilts explained that the “one-off” grant would be to assist the café in its first year of trade, which has been impacted by reduced passenger numbers because of the pandemic.  

“We are confident that the café and parking [at the station] will provide a sustainable income in the longer run when passenger numbers return,” said TransWilts in their application.  

However, at the town council meeting, cllr Ellis explained that passenger numbers for Melksham have “rebounded quite considerably”, adding that whilst he was “hugely supportive” of developing facilities at the station, he had “significant disquiet” about how the café is run, describing it as a “money pit”.  

And other councillors described the application as “not sustainable”, expressing concern about helping to pay the salary of an employee at the café  

“For me a café at a station is open at the time you leave the station – you get your coffee and get on the train,” said cllr Ellis. “The two busiest trains of the day are at 7.20am and 7.50am – the café opens at 8.30am, and I cannot see how this benefits rail users, I’m sorry.  

“I would characterise what we have there at the moment is a café that happens to be near the station.”  

He also highlighted that rail timetables cannot be picked up at the café. “It’s disjointed,” said cllr Ellis.  

“The clincher for me is that they are not open when the majority of people are using the service,” said mayor, cllr Jon Hubbard, “which I just find in incomprehensible.    

“I wouldn’t want to see town council money being spent to have a facility open when no-one is using it, but closed when people are using it.”  

The mayor went on to praise the Melksham Hub Café’s efforts to provide a service beyond “just providing refreshments for people using the trains”, by offering the café as a space for community events, and local groups to meet.   

But he emphasised that the café should focus on its “core purpose”, which could generate funding for its other aims.  

“If they were open when people are using the service,” said cllr Hubbard, “they’d be more likely to raise money to help pay for other things.”  

At the meeting, councillors voted to reject the application, offering TransWilts the opportunity to resubmit the application in the future, with the caveat that they address the concern about why the café is not open for the busy commuter trains.  

About TransWilts’ ambitions for the café, chairman Paul Johnson added, “The café is provided to support the community as a whole and provides facilities that were badly needed at the station. There is a three-year plan to deliver an improved station facility for Melksham, with a focus not just on passengers, but on community events and community access.  

“We have invested substantial grant funding in the facilities and are grateful for the support given from Melksham grants that have helped us obtain further matched funding from GWR, Community Rail Network and sponsors to deliver the Hub. Those who have used the cafe recently will have seen the installation of the outside covered seating area with lighting and heating. This has been achieved using this year’s Melksham Area Board grant funding and a wonderful volunteer team. We have just ordered a defibrillator to be installed at the Hub in October, with 24/7 availability both for rail users and the local community. We also have funding to install a destination indicator in the cafe to provide real time train information to customers. 

“Our menu is evolving and a new menu is being launched next week to coincide with the change in the hospitality VAT rate. As a non-profit making community cafe, we are focusing on using local Melksham suppliers wherever possible. The cafe has already provided opportunities to be able to support local Melksham community members seeking work experience. 

“We pay a commercial rent for our lease and the grant application was for a one-off payment to help take us through the next 12-month period whilst the passenger numbers recover. A station is an important asset in the climate strategy, which is why we also added electric car charging facilities.  

“We continue to campaign for an hourly train service for Melksham which will more than double the passenger numbers and in the meantime, we took the long-term decision to lease the Hub facilities when they became available in 2019. We remain confident in the long-term community value and success of the Hub Cafe.” 

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