In 2003, the Waterfall train disaster cost the lives of seven people and injured many others. It changed attitudes to railway safety in NSW; it was the catalyst for wide-ranging changes to equipment and procedures and it might well have influenced the decision to suspend services on the Casino to Murwillumbah branch line in 2004.
If a train were ever reintroduced on the Casino to Murwillumbah line, it would be a safe, modern, fast, electrified twin-track service of a similar standard to City Rail. No NSW Government (of any political persuasion) will ever fund a sub-standard rail service; no amount of tinkering will ever achieve the safety, efficiency or convenience standards that would be required.
Not even the ballast is reusable. Failed drainage systems and rising clay sediments have contaminated the aggregate preventing it from locking together as the strength beneath the rails. Regardless of any other consideration, the slate would need to be wiped clean, hence the more than $900 million required to rebuild the corridor from scratch; the over 100 wooden bridges and nine tunnels that would never pass modern safety standards and the fabled connection to Coolangatta are indeed moot points.
The NSW Government’s own research data indicates that even with the vast public transport options to be had within metropolitan Sydney only 15 per cent of all commuters use it, citing convenience, comfort, privacy and personal security as the main reasons for driving. Sydneysiders it seems will endure mind-numbing traffic jams to avoid public transport. Here in the northern rivers, we talk of traffic snarls at peak hour as though is was worse than Parramatta Road, or as if we had some god-given right to drive at 100km/hour even during those brief windows when everyone wants to use the road at the same time. Would 15 per cent of the commuters in the northern rivers get out of their cars and commute by train? If they did, even when it was cold and wet or desperately hot, would that still be sufficient to justify the costs of rebuilding the corridor, from scratch? Empty buses seem to indicate not. The location of Lismore Station alone would be a major disincentive and not even a new station at a new location would get passengers any closer to jobs, shopping, hospitals or the university.
A future train linked to Queensland should be integrated with the Pacific Highway, with parking, bus feeder services and community transport to connect the region. Through traffic and freight that does not benefit our region at all gets squeezed into a narrow corridor that will reduce the negative impact on our lifestyles. The NSW Government policy to preserve northern NSW as ‘a region of villages’ differentiates our region from Southern Queensland. Many key issues involving this policy and integrating public transport with Queensland are outlined in the (very sensible and succinct) ‘Cross Border Transport Taskforce’ discussion paper, 2007.
We do need a better road between Lismore and Bangalow with more overtaking lanes, we need a bypass for Byron Bay town centre and a diversion of the Bruxner Highway around Lismore. Combine these projects with the soon to be completed Pacific Highway upgrades and add a modern passenger rail service aligned with the motorway as the longer-range strategy, our region would be well served for both the short-term (roads) and long-term (road and rail).
For now, roads are flexible; they take people and freight wherever they want to go and they allow us to avoid the double or triple handling of passengers and freight. In the near future, when sustainably fueled vehicles become commonplace, we will be glad we made the right decision to invest in roads.
Will Jeffery, Nimbin