Supporters of a return of rail services for the north coast, emboldened by the recent failure of controversial rail-trail plans for the region, are growing in numbers.
A petition signed by thousands of people will be handed over to new Greens MP for Ballina Tamara Smith this morning at Byron Bay railway station.
Ms Smith is a supporter of rail transport for the north coast and spoke about the issue in parliament soon after her election.
Today’s 3,500 petition signatures brings the total number of signatures collected by the TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks) lobby group to 15,000.
TOOT president Basil Cameron said it showed that ‘clearly there is very strong support for the return of rail services to our line’.
‘A further 2,000 signatures have also been collected by our partners, the Northern Rivers Rail Action Group (NRRAG) based in Lismore,’ Mr Cameron said.
The petition calls for ‘an urgently needed public and tourist transport system, including modern shuttle light rail, buses and cycling tracks for the fast growing northern rivers’.
‘The community’s rejection of a proposal to rip up the tracks and the election of the new Member for Ballina in March presents an opportunity for the NSW government to restart the conversation around rail,’ Mr Cameron said.
‘Rail runs through the centre of eight of the ten largest population centres in the northern rivers – soon to be nine with the planned extension of the Queensland rail system to the border – and as such is the perfect backbone for a regional public transport system connecting local bus services and cycleways.
‘The rapid growth in our region and the adjacent Gold Coast region, particularly in relation to tourism, demands rail as a solution to the sustainable dispersal of tourists and increasing traffic congestion in our towns and villages,’ he said.
The Northern Rivers Railway Action Group (NRRAG) was founded last year when the disused Casino to Murwillumbah railway line corridor was threatened by rail trail proposals.
NRRAG say this ‘imminent threat of destruction’ was due to the Rail Trail Community Management Bill, a proposed amendment to the NSW Transport Administration Act, introduced into parliament by the Labor Party.
Before NRRAG was formed, since the closure of the line in 2004, TOOT was the only group representing the interests of railway supporters in the region.
Now, NRRAG and TOOT work in close cooperation on the issue, with TOOT mainly active in the coastal areas and NRRAG in the inland areas.
Between the two groups have collected and presented to parliament petitions containing more than 15,000 names.
Around a third of those signatures were added last year when the rail-trail campaign started to pick up steam.
NRRAG president Beth Shelley said the huge increase in support since ‘demonstrates the strength of feeling in the community around the need for the railway to be preserved and re-opened, and the deep concern local residents have that their great railway could be replaced with a gravel cycleway for use by a small number of elite cyclists’.
‘The northern rivers is a rapidly growing region, both in terms of permanent population and tourism. It is also an area with a relatively high proportion of elderly and disabled people with mobility issues, many of whom who can’t drive, and are unable to use buses due to the difficulty of navigating the bus network in a timely, efficient, convenient or comfortable manner,’ Ms Shelley said.
‘This has made life very difficult for them and made their lives increasingly isolated.
‘The lack of rail transport also places young peoples’ lives in increasing danger as they are forced to drive on the area’s narrow, winding roads to access recreation and entertainment as well as tertiary education and employment opportunities.’
‘It is therefore all the more mind boggling why, given this clear need for a modern rail based transport system, the state government has been recently intending to provide $50 million to corporate-backed groups like the Rail Trail consortium and other tourist-oriented operations to remove the railway line. ‘
‘Although NRRAG is not opposed to cycleways and supports dual use of the corridor, the region, with its growing population and tourist numbers, doesn’t need tourist cycleways that are only accessible by car and will therefore increase traffic congestion.
‘It needs an effective rail-based public transport system that will help locals and tourists alike (with their bicycles if they want) to get around the region and take cars off the road,’ Ms Shelley said.
Beth Shelley President, NRRAG Inc.
Chris Mansergh Secretary, NRRAG Inc.