It has been welcomed by rail trail enthusiasts, but condemned by those wanting light rail: a state government-commissioned study released Friday gives a strong case for a regional rail trail but suggests removing existing track to accommodate foot and cycle traffic ‘in a majority of locations’.
The Casino to Murwillumbah Rail Trail Study comes in at 68 pages, cost $80,000 according to the deputy premier’s office, and estimates a rail trail will cost $75.5 million and that it would add 88,320 visitors the region per annum.
Consultancy company Arup were commissioned after the Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study was released in 2011. But that study, which cost an astonishing $2m and totalled 130 pages, inexplicably omitted light rail as an option, only surveyed a small percentage of the entire line, bloated costs and estimations which were at odds with previous studies and largely ignored Byron Bay’s traffic congestion and exceptionally high tourist numbers.
And while the state government and rail contractor John Holland refused to disclose to The Echo the cost and quality of rail maintenance work – if any – being undertaken in the area, the new rail trail study claims that there is an ‘approximate annual budget of $750,000 allocated for the purpose of maintaining the corridor’.
The report suggests removing the existing track to accommodate foot and cycle traffic, dashing the hopes of the line co-existing with light rail. ‘In a majority of locations,’ the report says, ‘the removal of track, sleepers and ballast material will be required, where a trail cannot be economically formed adjacent to the existing line and remain within the existing railway corridor boundary’.
But it’s not all bad news; the study says, ‘Byron Bay forms the focal point for the rail trail and it would be logical to consider Byron Bay as the starting point for the rail trail development.’ Additionally, the ‘section from Murwillumbah to the shire boundary at Yelgun could be timed for delivery to coincide with a similar progression north from Byron Bay’.
Supporters and opponents
Northern Rivers Rail Trail Inc has supported the move, with spokesperson Marie Lawton saying it confirmed the trail would ‘create strong benefits for the northern rivers region and that the project is likely to be viable’.
‘By developing a cycling, walking, horse riding trail along the disused railway corridor, the community and visitors to our region will be ensuring the whole corridor is kept in public ownership for our future population,’ she said.
But Greens NSW MP and transport spokesperson, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, slammed the study, describing it as ‘a blatant exercise in justifying a pre-determined outcome’.
‘Converting the Casino-Murwillumbah line to a rail trail would be a death knell to any hope the northern rivers would have access to the same levels of public transport as other areas of New South Wales.
‘The estimated cost of the rail trail will be $75 million which comes to around $600,000 per km. Railway lines in regional Victoria have been reinstated at half the estimated cost per kilometre of this rail trail.
‘These funds should be used to reinstate the railway line, starting with the Casino to Lismore leg, not tearing up vital infrastructure.
‘The report suggests that the rail trail would attract 97,000 visitors a year based on a comparison with the Murray to Mountains Trail in northern Victoria. What the report fails to mention is that towns along this trail such as Chiltern and Wangaratta have functioning railway stations.
‘At the end of the day, despite what this report claims, a bike trail cannot be a replacement for public transport for the population centres of the north coast,’ Dr Faruqi said.
Grab The Rail
Surprisingly the report supports the proposal put forward by residents’ group Grab The Rail, which is at odds with mayor Simon Richardson’s advice and position.
Grab The Rail, made up largely of residents likely to be adversely affected by a Butler Street bypass, is promoting ‘an alternative vehicular bypass through Byron Bay town centre utilising a section of the rail corridor from the existing Shirley Street level crossing to Old Bangalow Road level crossing, a length of approximately 2.5km.’
Unlike other sections of the 130km track, ‘the corridor width in the vicinity of the proposed [Grab The Rail] bypass is generous, particularly around the Byron Bay Station locality… and [it] is considered likely that a shared corridor could be laid out that meets the needs of both a rail trail and road bypass.’
Byron’s light rail
Ironically, the fossil fuel sector is leading the charge for light rail in Byron Shire.
Queensland-based coal mining baron and owner of the North Byron Beach Resort, Brian Flannery, has plans to establish a railmotor service ‘between the existing Byron Bay station and the proposed North Byron Beach Resort located to the north of Bayshore Drive’.
Entitled ‘Byron Bay Community and Tourist Rail Shuttle’, the report says that as the corridor width is ‘generous’, it will ‘likely allow for both rail and trail to co-exist for the majority of the proposed operating route’.
Meanwhile, ‘Tweed Shire Council are promoting the connection between Murwillumbah Station and the Tweed Regional Gallery as the ideal ‘pilot’ for the development of the trail.’
Funded by gas industry?
While federal and state government grants are identified to help fund the project, the ‘formation of partnerships with business and industry is considered vital to the ongoing viability of the rail trail’.
Remarkably, the report, authored by James Robinson, suggests that the northern rivers region partner with its ‘emerging gas industry’.
‘For example BHP Billiton contributed over $200,000 to the Victorian Coast to Crater Rail Trail.’ But local state MP Don Page (Nationals) told The Echo, ‘The rail trail will be in no way coming from anything to do with gas. It will be funded by state and hopefully federal government.
‘I’ve done the submission to the state government and I’ve been talking to [fellow Nationals federal MP] Kevin Hogan regarding a federal contribution. The state government announced on Friday a Regional Tourism Fund, which contains $110m, [and] I expect after treasury checks out the Arup report they will indicate the state government’s response financially. I expect this to be positive.’
As for ongoing funding, the report suggests reallocating the $750,000 of ongoing maintenance funding, ‘until such times as the rail trail derives sufficient income and funding revenue from other areas’.
A snap action rally is planned this Wednesday morning from 9am at Don Page’s Ballina office, and will include TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks), Northern Rivers Greens, Northern Rivers Guardians.
Mathew Townsend from the Ballina Greens and The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) says, ‘I am deeply concerned about our rail line being destroyed by a rail trail project, because it does not solve so many problems within our region. The purpose of this is to stop the political favour and short sighted of the Northern River’s public transport infrastructure issues.’
The report can be found at http://bit.ly/TXZ9RM.