A train could be pulling into Byron Bay station again as early as next year. But don’t expect to see one at Lismore or Murwillumbah any time soon.
That was the message of a meeting convened by Byron mayor Simon Richardson at the Byron Community Centre last night.
Cr Richardson was quick to point out the council had no role in deciding which projects would get the green light from the state government, apart from advocating on behalf of its constituents.
The three speakers spruiking advanced projects looking at ways to use the line all impressed on the 200-odd attendees that the key to getting things moving on the line was tourism.
Two of the projects would involve short-distance commuter transport and two would offer self-drive buggies running on the existing rails.
All agreed that substantial work and significant expense was required to bring the lines back up to scratch, with the Bangalow to Byron section alone estimated to cost $1.5 million.
The most ambitious proposal, which includes both ‘ultra-light’ rail and self-drive on-track buggies, would maintain and use almost the entire stretch of track in Byron Shire, from Bangalow to Yelgun.
All three groups said their projects were compatible with a rail trail concept along the full length of the old Casino to Murwillumbah line.
Mayor Richardson took on the role of speaking on behalf of the first proponent, Jeremy Holmes of North Byron Beach Resort.
The company has been in advanced discussions with the state government over its plan to run a renovated rail motor, twice hourly from its site via West Byron shops and tavern and the Arts & Industry Estate to Byron Bay station.
‘The two-carriage shuttle would carry around 90 people, beach chairs and surfboards,’ Cr Richardson said, ‘and would charge around $3 for the 3.5km trip.’
‘The resort’s owners would fix and manage the track, including the bridge over Belongil Creek, at their own expense,’ he added.
‘They are looking to renovate it so that it will run on solar power,’ he said.
In answer to a question about the impact of the train crossing Ewingsdale Road twice an hour, Cr Richardson said they would be using ‘advanced technology, which I’ve seen demonstrated, which means the boom gates are only closed for around 30 seconds each time.’
‘If you sit in a queue on Ewingsdale Road at the moment, look at your watch and wait for 30 seconds, the car in front of you probably hasn’t moved very far,’ he said.
Cr Richardson said the resort owners already had initial approval from the NSW Government and expected final approval ‘in six to nine months’ for ‘non-exclusive’ use of the line’.
The Rail Explorers group, headed by Alex Catchpoole and Mary-Joy Lu hopes to tap into the shire’s appetite for community involvement with its plan to launch up to 100 pedal-driven ‘rail bikes’ on the downhill Bangalow to Byron Bay stretch of the track.
The plan is modelled on a successful venture in South Korea, which sees groups of two-to-four people pedalling the open sided vehicles along one of the most picturesque stretches of the line.
The quad bikes would be pedalled in one direction only, with a tour bus taking patrons up to the Bangalow start of the line.
The bikes would be towed back up the hill by a high-rail vehicle (a modified road vehicle) initially and later by a light-weight diesel passenger train.
‘We want to be profitable and partner with the community in a social enterprise,’ Mr Catchpoole said, adding the group would be happy to give way to light rail after five years if that could be shown to be feasible.
He said the group would be responsible for the upgrading of the track and Bangalow station. Locals would be welcome to ride on the shuttle bus for a small fee, he said.
At a one-way price of $45-$50, Ms Lu said the group envisaged a significant return to the community after the second year, based on a 30 profit share of revenue from an estimated 50,000 passengers.
An audience member who identified herself only as a ‘fellow eco-tourism provider’ said she liked the scheme but questioned the numbers, suggesting they were ‘optimistic’.
But the most ambitious plan of all came from two New Zealanders, who are already running a similar system on an old stretch of rail line in Rotorua.
Spokesperson Neil Oppatt said the group would restore and maintain the entire track from Bangalow to Yelgun, running a combination of powered self-drive buggies and ‘ultra-light’ rail vehicles carrying up to 40 sitting passengers.
The line would be divided into three sections: Bangalow to Byron; Byron to Mullumbimby; and Mullumbimby to Yelgun.
Passenger ‘ultralight’ services would run up to twice hourly from Byron Bay to Bangalow and Mullumbimby.
The self-powered four-seater rail cruisers would also run on the Bangalow to Byron and Mullumbimby to Yelgun sections of the route.
Mr Oppatt was at pains to point out the company’s experience in building and maintaining rail lines and the vehicles that will run on them.
‘We will build our 40-seater trams and four-seater cruises from our factory in Coffs Harbour,’ he said, adding they are cheap to construct and their light weight keeps the cost of line reconstruction and maintenance to a minimum.
He added the company was in the middle of presenting a similar proposal to Coffs, Belingen and Dorrigo shire councils for another abandoned stretch of rail line in those three shires.
‘We can run the ultralight tram and the cruisers over the same track with a maximum speed of 20km/hour,’ he said, adding he expected costs would be ‘about the same’ as the company’s current route in New Zealand.
There it charges $76 per person for the cruisers and $190 per family. He said the tram would like cost $15 one-way and $20 return from Byron to Bangalow or Mullumbimby.