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August 3, 2021

The case for saving rail from trails

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Byron Shire councillor and TOOT spokesperson Basil Cameron.
Byron Shire councillor and TOOT spokesperson Basil Cameron.

Hans Lovejoy

Following from last week’s article where rail trail advocate Geoff Meers espoused the benefits of rail trails, Byron councillor and TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks) spokesperson Basil Cameron puts forward the case for rail’s return.

Cr Cameron believes that ‘within the community, there is a high level of anger and frustration with the current government for the way in which the rail issue has been mishandled.’

‘We could have saved $2 million on the rail study [The Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study] if local National politicians had been more honest about why they have broken their promises to the community.

Privatisation by stealth

‘The rail study was a red herring to disguise the fact that politically, local Nationals have been done over by city-based Liberals.

‘It’s time for a proper assessment for rail from a community perspective that includes tourism, public transport and benefits to councils and community.

‘Leave the rail trail for where it is best suited – in declining rural areas.

‘To restrict the benefits of public infrastructure to the interests of a small group in the community is nothing more than privatisation by stealth.

‘Railways are the most direct link for eight of the ten largest population centres in the region.

‘In fact the shortest route between most towns is the rail line, as stations are located in the centre of these communities.

‘Because the line has been in place so long, population growth has tended to be within the rail corridor.

‘For example, 86 per cent of the population live within 5km of the line in Byron and Lismore Shires.

‘Both TOOT and our council strongly put the view that there are many benefits of a regional rail system that helps to move tourist visitors in and out of the region as well as moving around the region while they are here.

Report excluded tourist numbers

‘The rail study completely excludes the considerable tourist numbers from the patronage models put forward in the report.

‘Acknowledging tourist visitors would change the economic model substantially and have significant benefits for Council and community.

‘By comparison the rail trail report acknowledges the tourism numbers, yet fails to deal with the increased traffic that these “adventure” tourists will add to the roads when entering the region.’

One of the facts usually overlooked by rail trail enthusiasts, says Cr Cameron, is that Byron Shire is located within a key national transport corridor.

Overlooked facts

‘In fact, the Pacific Highway/north coast rail corridor – the Pacific Coast corridor – is the second busiest in the country and will become the busiest in the next few years.

‘Road freight is increasing twice as fast within this corridor compared to others around the country.

‘Like it or not, we are in a region that has strong economic and social links with the Brisbane/Gold Coast corridor.

‘The Gold Coast Airport, located at Coolangatta, has grown rapidly in recent years to be the fourth busiest airport in the country and now has passenger movements of around five million annually.

‘About half of these passenger movements are within the Pacific Coast corridor.

‘In Byron Shire we have around 1.5 million tourist visitors a year and many more across the region.

‘In this context, the proposal for a rail trail is ill-considered.

‘Such infrastructure is well suited to declining rural areas to attract tourists, but not in nationally important transport corridors.’

The Gold Coast launched Queensland’s first light rail project this year, worth $1 billion. Awarded to GoldLinQ, a fleet of 14 trams covers 13km over 16 stations. Photo www.flickr.com
The Gold Coast launched Queensland’s first light rail project this year, worth $1 billion. Awarded to GoldLinQ, a fleet of 14 trams covers 13km over 16 stations. Photo www.flickr.com

But comparing us to Queensland appears to support rail trail advocate Geoff Meers’s position that more people equals more need.

‘I think [it’s] less a “comparison” with Qld and more of an acknowledgement that Byron and the northern rivers have significant movements of people moving to and from Qld.

‘A closer inspection of Geoff’s position is that more resident “population” and “density” is required.

‘As I have tried to demonstrate in this part of the world, resident population is not the issue and in fact population density is centred along the line.

‘We have plenty of people due to tourism, links to SE Qld and location within a major national transport corridor.’

So how can reclaiming the railways move forward? Does TOOT have a chance?

‘The case for rail is compelling in a regional context and from a public transport development perspective.

‘The TOOT campaign has flushed out a variety of potential rail operators including the North Byron Shuttle, light rail trams, rail bikes and others. Many of these are existing commercial operators who believe that rail is a profitable venture on the line.

‘TOOT retains a vision for regular commuter trains on the whole of the line and a connection to Coolangatta Airport. However, we believe the immediate future is to allow access to sections of the line for these rail-based uses.

‘This will keep the corridor safe and begin using and maintaining the existing rail infrastructure.

‘Right now we believe that $75 million would be better spent facilitating these types of rail services instead of using the money to rip up the rails.

‘The benefits from tourism alone would far outstrip those from a rail trail.’


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24 COMMENTS

  1. Some very true statements there. This region needs trains and better Public Transport to service the wider community.

    It takes so long to get into Byron Bay, and once you do, you are then tasked with dodging all the bumps and dips in the road, One my lunch went flying because of the extent of the jolt. I was thinking yesterday about how easy it would be for me to get up in the morning, get dressed, pack some lunch and a towel, then go to the Lismore Railway Station, park my car and await the next light rail or rail motor to Byron Bay, then get on the train with my stuff and then sit back, relax and enjoy the relaxing trip to Byron Bay. I would then get off at the station and since the railway station is in the middle of town, it will only be a very short walk to the beach, then I would spend the day at Byron, and come back home to Lismore again on the train, then of course I would drive home. That would be something I would do every Saturday for sure and the best thing is, there are no massive traffic queues to wait in and no massive potholes to dodge. It will be so easy.

    Trains are also needed to reduce pollution levels, the emission of 1 train are half those of 1 car, therefore making trains the eco-friendly option. The Pacific HWY has been voted the worst road in the state for the 4th time in a row, this is another reason we need trains.

  2. Once again, the clear logic of why the passenger rail service (connected to Coolangatta) should be returned is reiterated again. When you read this realistic assessment from Basil, it’s easy to see just how the recent debate and political leadership regarding this issue has been has been so badly handled. Whether it’s a stitchup by the National flatfoots or the meddling influences of vested interests or the at times arrogant proclamations of the Rail Trail lobby, the plain reality of intelligence is always there. Reinstate the passenger rail service in ways that are useful and relevant to local communities and be mindful of how transport will be needed over the next 50 to 100 years by connecting to the airport. It’s just so pathetic that current powerbrokers refuse to accept the inevitable logic to this. Election in March 2015? Hmmmm….

  3. Yes that’s the way it used to be. As a teenager, parents would drop us off in the morning and pick us up in the afternoon after a day at the beach. A rail trail is a nice idea but can only be used by a limited sector of the community. Trains are available for everyone.

  4. Very interesting points raised by Basil. However The Ritz Rail use to run on the said line some 13 years ago – it stopped as patronage was very low. I question why/how this would be any different now on existing corridor?
    Connecting to Qld via Gold Coast – very sensible, however you would have to prevent people from driving their cars into Byron in order to take up the train on mass. This is not going to happen.
    On the flip side – living in Byron Bay, would my family ride their bikes on a railtrail to Bangalow or Murwillumbah? Yes, maybe once a year. To Lismore or Casino? No never.
    Re reailtrail disbursement of tourist – maybe to towns close to Byron and to the festival sites, but i doubt large numbers would use the full line.

    • Do not compare with the Ritz rail – it was never intended to be an affordable public transport alternative but an up market railway experience. Maybe if it were to operate today it would be more successful.

  5. With the continuous rise in fuel prices and steady decline in funds spent on road maintenance, it is totally in our best interests to have adequate alternatives to transport. I would most definitely drive less and take the train more often to reduce my overall transport spending. If the rail is recommenced and allowed transport to Gold Coast and then Brisbane, and potentially as far as Sydney, I would pretty much halt my driving on these major thoroughfares altogether.

    Further to this debate, the environmental impact that the train would add, would be much less than the regular road use that is currently in effect.

    I believe that rail reinstated would be used by many in the areas, not only local but tourism in general. Allowing the use of facilities further from Byron Bay and expanding the Tourist industry to further outlying areas.

  6. Plenty of impressive statistics from Cr Cameron, but nowhere have I seen an estimate of the fares that would have to be charged to cover operating cost let alone the vast cost of re-instating and upgrading the line to modern standards. Are TOOTS too afraid that the real fares will scare off support? After school children travel free, and seniors/pension and benefit recipients travel at near free, full fare travellers will have to make up the difference. Who will pay $10, $20, $25 per trip? It is fantasy to think that a government will spend money on any transport project that will never even cover it’s cost. (Remember why the line was closed)
    Don’t be taken in by the lovely idea of a line to the Gold Coast. Not a hope in hell when there is a freeway already going straight there.
    Also the statement about emissions from trains andcars is totally wrong. Comparisons made are generally comparing a fully loaded train and a car. A near empty train would actually emit more carbon per passenger per kilometre.

  7. Bring back our trains, and finger like bike trails leading off from train line, to interesting spots, so bikers can put their bike on a train and get on and off to ride and sight see.

  8. Yay Basil
    A fantastic clear statement of why keeping the railway tracks and bringing back a commuter train makes perfect sense. I used to catch the train to Byron for the day to go to the beach. I could also catch a train to Byron at night go out to dinner, have a dance and not have to drive home on the dangerous Bangalow Rd. I never ever go to Byron these days because there’s so many cars and trucks on the road.
    The reason the govt said the train wasn’t being was because they changed the timetable so it was no longer possible to make these trips.

  9. They will talking about this for years I have loved in Murwillubah for 26 years I did not move to a regional area than expect to have the public transport they have in a city I own a car that’s why I moved here. If you stand on the roundabout near Murwillumbah railway station watch which way the trafic is going and the majority is going north. So for Murwillumbah a rivercat service as they have in Brisbane would be far cheaper and friendly to the Enviroment than building a train line to connect to Coolangatta. All these thing will never happen because of the small population and can someone tell me when was the last time a regular commuter service ran between Murwillumbah and Lismore apart from the motor rail and XPT ? Which was one a day hardly a train for a day at the beach.

  10. Yes…yes…yes! Absolutely agree. We need better public transport and we absolutely need the trains.
    A regional rail system with a connection to the Gold Coast and on to Brisbane and the airport is what we’ve got to aim for.
    How many times do we see car accidents involving P-platers and young people getting killed because there is not sufficient public transport and they have no choice than to drive cars that they are not mature enough to handle.
    And ideally all the road freight should be transported on rail to get the B-doubles off the highways.
    Trains on our tracks can’t come soon enough!!!

  11. Whenever TOOT goes on about returning the trains they talk up the benefit of connecting to Queensland and their rail system which is planned to run to Coolangatta. What they always fail to mention however is that there is no rail reserve between Murwillumbah and the border. The old rail line was sold off in 1973.
    This means connecting to the Queensland line would first mean buying up a 37km stretch of land, 100m wide, which would go through Banora Point and Tweed Heads.
    In 2008, when working for another local paper, I wrote an article with an urban planning expert from Griffith Uni who put the cost of buying up the land – before any track is laid, before bridges over the Tweed River and Terranora Inlet are built, before lawsuits are settled with people who suddenly find trains running through their back gardens – at $1 billion.
    TOOT knows this and never talks about it. Why? Because if anyone thinks the NSW government is going to throw $1 billion at connecting a train line to Queensland which will carry 20-odd commuters a day and no freight (they have the inland rail corridor for that) they have taken one too many drives to Nimbin.
    Basil acknowledges that Rail Trails are best suited to ‘declining rural areas,’ seemingly implying that such a description does not apply to the Far North Coast. Really Bas? Have you been more than 10km out of the Byron Bubble in the last decade? Mooball, Stoker’s Siding, Murwillumbah, Casino, Lismore – just a few communities which are crying out for the benefits tourists will bring. And those tourists do not want to come to our region and get on trains to visit other town centres. They want to walk the trails at Minyon Falls, visit the deserted beaches between Pottsville and Wooyung and climb Mt Warning. They will hire cars or get on tourist buses to do so.
    It really is time for TOOT to drop their crusade. Stop throwing around figures like “$75 million” when they know the true cost is much, much higher. Trains make no sense in the current economic environment with the very low population density of our region. The Rail Trail is a great, environmentally friendly and sustainable idea which will benefit the entire area and could possibly develop into one of the country’s great ‘must do’ tourist activities. And it will preserve the existing corridor for some time in the future when a train does make sense.

    • Great reply. The councillors arguments in support of trains appears to be poorly researched or deliberately omits significant problems with reinstating trains. This area is an excellent example of a “declining rural area”.

  12. I support the Rail Trails project and hope that it will be implemented as soon as possible. Geoff Meers’s responses to the Echo’s questions were informed and to the point. On the other hand Basil Cameron’s assertions were for the most part vague or inaccurate. What are we to deduce from the fact that we are within a major national transport corridor.’? Sure, a fast and frequent rail service might be nice. But that’s unlikely to occur on the existing track, which is tortuous and not direct. Not to mention that it doesn’t connect growth centres like Ballina and Lennox Head. And where is the evidence that the rail trail will be privatised?

    Reducing congestion on our roads is a worthy aim. But I doubt that reintroducing trains here will solve the problem. Other countries have gone for park-and-ride, something I found very effective in England and Scotland. Trains are great for high population densities like London and Paris. And if you want light rail look at the driverless small two carriage trains that whizz around Kuala Lumpur. Not the heavy-weight trundling trams that are now on the Gold Coast.

    He also says that ‘stations are located in the centre of these communities’. I’d hardly call Lismore station at the centre of anything. It’s on the wrong side of the river and remote to the CBD, the Council, the hospital, the university and the shopping square. And this is the point. As the name implies stations are fixed whereas buses are flexible and routes can be easily changed to meet new developments.

    Another point Cr Cameron has not mentioned is that a rail trail addresses the issues of health and safety. We are after all in the middle of an obesity epidemic and few people want to take the risk of cycling on our roads. The gentle grades of the old line make cycling very appealing with a benefit to locals young and old. It would also be an attraction to tourists.

    If the Council was really forward thinking it would embrace rail trails like other parts of the world have. Putting trains back on the existing corridor would be a giant step backwards.

  13. is an ever expanding sydney sustainable? distributing population without appropriate infrastructure isn’t going to fly. I live in beautiful isolation. Tweed Council openly acknowledges as socially deprived. no public transport, hospital and school half an hour away. A hospital capable of more than a bandaid 1 hour away. high time our elected representatives remembered there is more to nsw. A rail link to Qld is logical for Northern Rivers to access work, health and education, basic services. government capable of strategy and planning to diversify population in nsw…is that asking too much?

  14. Having ridden the beautiful rail trails in Victoria, I would have thought a Northern Rivers Rail Trail was a no-brainer. Totally sustainable, a vibrant addition to the eco-tourism in the area, and a great way to encourage local residents (especially families) to be active and healthy. The trains lost money last time, they’re not viable in the foreseeable future, why don’t people just let it go and campaign for a better bus service and roads?

  15. People seem to have an unrealistic idea about how useful the trains would be if they were put back on the tracks. There will not enough demand for them to run regularly throughout the day so for a vast majority of people they will not be a feasible way of getting about. The most they would be is a tourist attraction just like the rail trail. However I think a rail trail is much more likely to attract tourists than a train. We live in such a gorgeous part of the world. It doesn’t take a marketing guru to see how easily a rail trail could be promoted.

    I really hope the community embraces the idea of a rail trail so that it comes to fruition.

    • I wish rail trailers would do some research for once. Trains failed from 2002 to 2004 as the NSW Govt. wanted more money for its precious Sydney so it slashed the timetable so it only ran 1 time a day, and we all no that a timetable like that wont fly, so the Govt. was setting it up to fail. If you look back you can see the extreme popularity of this rail service, with the Gold Coast Motorail gathering 51,000 bookings in the year of service. Trains where extremely popular and useful in the Northern Rivers, the only problem was the narrow minded politicians who only care about Sydney!

      Do some research rail trailers!

  16. What better way to turn Byron Shire into a developers dream than to reinstate the old corridor.The developers will buy every bit of land along the corridor to turn into housing suburbs ,just like what has happened along the Brisbane to Robina train line.The NSW Government will want “bang for bucks” so will wholeheartedly support the rezoning to supply more fare paying passengers along the low population route.
    Could it be suburbs full of Colourbond Green roofs instead of paddocks of green grass that we will drive past between Yelgun and Clunes? Maybe that is what the political group “The Greens” actually stand for!
    Imagine if the NSW Roads Dept had kept using the old highway ie Friday Hut Rd circa 1890, as the same route today,we would be screaming what a waste of money. But no ,the Roads Dept had the foresight to move the highway twice in the last 130 years to cater for change .
    So do we bring the population to build along the old train corridor or do we build a new train line that follows the growing population area that is from Kingscliff to Pottsville, Ocean Shores/Brunswick Heads to Ballina and Ballina to Lismore?
    Mr Basil Cameron could be a wolf in sheeps clothing ,heaven help us.

    • you think rail trails wont open it up to developers? Can you please stop overestimating the power of trains?

      We wont get a new railway line, this is as good as it gets so we must keep the tracks. has the Northern Rivers got the population of Robina? NO ! By re opening the old corridor it will not make Byron a developers haven, it will fix a number of issues that are in need of fixing in this region. Developers are already lining up for the massive West Byron development proposal.

      Can trail supporters please stop completely overestimating what trains will do and do some research on our factual history with trains and therefore opening their eyes to see what is really going on?

  17. Basil,

    Come to Victoria for a couple of days and I’ll take you riding on some of the rail trails … you’ll see local people using them for a bit of exercise – people that wouldn’t normally rides bikes.

    You’ll see all sorts of tourists – i believe the demographic is described as AB visiting areas they otherwise wouldn’t, and supporting all sorts of local businesses: cafes, accommodation & transport.

    And go talk to a few transport companies – as much as you’d like to reduce the numbers of semis & b-doubles on the Pacific Highway, it’s not going to happen, the days of rail for freight (other than for bulk product from mine to port) are well and truly over.

    The Casino to Murwillumbah will provide all sorts of benefits along it’s course, and might even provide some extra rate income to BSC.

  18. anyone who thinks that having trains in the area would increase development in the area, needs to have a closer look at the Rail Trail proposal. a train service could allow for more housing, but it would not mean that we will get skyscrapers – this is another scare tactic of the rail trail advocates. I am more worried about the development that will happen if we turn it into a rail trail. property owners alongside a rail trail will probably only be interested in creating tourist businesses and tourist accommodation, and not housing for locals that we need. rail trail users will not be going shopping or picking up bits of local art and craft like other tourists do. income from a rail trail will not go back into infrastructure, it will just go straight to private tourism businesses and accommodation. Like as if we don’t have enough of that already! do we really want public funding that is supposed to be used for maintaining the rail, to be solely used to promote private tourist businesses and accommodation?

  19. The chances of any government in the near future forking out to establish and subsidise a regional passenger line are diminishingly small; primarily because passenger numbers and fares will never cover the running cost, let along recoup the initial investment. Even if every one of the 4.6 million visitors to the North Coast Region of NSW in 2013-14 rode the line and spent $10 on fares that would only cover 5% the estimated 900 million need to build the line.

    Preserving the rail corridor as a rail trail at least keeps the land in public hands and provides a regional asset that can be used freely by locals and tourists, has the potential to be a major tourist drawcard as other rail trails have done (eg. in Victoria and New Zealand) and generate jobs and stimulate the local economy by bringing people into many of the small regional towns they might not otherwise visit.

    While a rail ink to Brisbane and the Gold Coast and out west to meet the main north south line to Melbourne sounds very attractive and is obviously extremely attractive to TOOT, we need a bit of a reality check on what is possible and likely relative to a few people might ardently desire.

    Let’s take with both hands the only realistic opportunity we will get to do some useful for the whole region. Let’s put self-interest aside, let’s think beyond our own town and our own individual wants and needs and get behind something that can and will have a much greater impact and something we will all be able to look on with justifiable pride.

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