The free controllers with ideas above their station

You can't buy a train ticket at West Runton – there are no staff there to sell you one. But volunteers are waiting to welcome you and to show you their garden. Matthew Bell and Jane Merrick relish the ride
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The Independent Online

The damsons growing on Platform 1 are ready to be picked. Then the grass has to be cut and the roses deadheaded. Welcome to West Runton, the train station in north Norfolk run entirely by volunteers.

There is no branch of Ritazza here, no Upper Crust baguettes for £3.99. There isn't even anywhere to buy a train ticket. But there is a pergola draped in clematis and flowers that look a bit like bluebells.

"That's not a bluebell, it's an agapanthus," laughs Jane Bothwell, one of six "station adopters" at West Runton, population 1,600. She is part of a scheme that encourages communities to look after otherwise unstaffed stations, perhaps a working model of David Cameron's vision of the Big Society.

National Express East Anglia, the area's franchisee, says more than 70 quiet rural stations have been "adopted" by local volunteers under its scheme. Dozens more unstaffed stations across the country run by First Great Western and Northern Rail have also been adopted locally. And if you were going to be adopted, you'd want it be by someone like Jane. She and Hazel Quinnell, at 68 five years Jane's senior, are wearing their "station adopter" badges when The Independent on Sunday's 09.45 from Norwich pulls into the station. Both are members of the Runton and District Women's Institute, and when they're not baking they're gardening, either at home or here. Actually, Jane says, she's let her garden go a bit, but the station is in full bloom: there are geraniums, pansies, evening primrose and rowan trees, even a Kilmarnock willow and some pampas grass. Oh, and some buddleia, but you get that on all railway sidings.

And then there are the damsons: they pick them and make jam, which they sell to raise funds to buy compost and tubs. Under the scheme, they can apply for grants, but they prefer to raise their own money. Every August bank holiday, they hold a tea party on the platform; people come from miles around, some from as far as Norwich. Many are "adopters" from other stations.

"We know a lot of other adopters," Hazel says. "We get a lot of encouragement and help from National Express. There's always somebody at the other end of an email who we can report to. And they hold a get-together, where they provide us with a buffet lunch. We hear the latest things going on on the railway; they talk to us about the adopter scheme. They support us. It makes it like a family – we all know one another."

The East Anglia scheme began in 2003, and is now very popular. At some stations, volunteers have provided feedback to the company about whether more trains are needed at busier times – for a village festival, for example – and have secured local funding for upgrades.

While Network Rail oversees the nation's track, it is the train operating companies that are responsible for the stations in their areas. Some of the quieter, more rural stations have been unstaffed since the days of Dr Beeching, so apart from periodic maintenance of buildings, the volunteers provide a link between visiting passengers and local communities. British Waterways has launched a similar project, in which communities adopt sections of canals.

Jonathan Denby, head of corporate affairs at National Express East Anglia, who was involved in setting up the station adoption project, says: "People are going beyond the call of duty and getting involved for the good of the community. Everybody wins. The volunteers are providing a proud gateway to their community."

Amid the controversy swirling over the building of the High Speed Rail line between the West Midlands and London, the station adoption project seems a quaint antidote to the 225mph railway. But Mr Denby says the only parallel between the two is the boost to the economy.

"Rural lines are more challenging from an economic point of view, but what they lack in terms of revenue for a train operatorthey make up for in terms of the local economy," he says.

The adopters of West Runton have had their setbacks: after England dropped out of the World Cup last year all the tubs were overturned and thrown on to the line. And vandals once smashed a pane in the shelter. "But the transport police had it fixed in no time," Hazel says.

West Runton is on the Bittern line, which runs from Norwich to Sheringham. It's named after the wading bird common to this coast. Nearly all the stations on the line have now been adopted. But the garden at West Runton is easily the biggest. And judging by the many plaques and certificates – there's a whole noticeboard dedicated to them – it's also the best.

There's even an annual awards ceremony in Southend; West Runton has won Best Small Station several times. Last year, the tea party was nominated for a nationwide award as the best fundraising event. They've got the photos to prove it – there's Jane and Hazel and a man from National Express, holding up a certificate. "We used that photo in the Women's Institute calendar," says Jane. Even though they haven't taken their clothes off? "Oh no! We don't do anything like that!"