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Byron Shire
March 28, 2023

Concerns raised over region’s toxic railway tracks

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A stretch of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line. Photo Wayne Penn
A stretch of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line. Photo Wayne Penn

Darren Coyne

Users of a proposed rail trail on the Casino to Murwillumbah line could be exposed to toxic chemicals including arsenic and asbestos, a Lismore councillor has warned.

Cr Neil Marks raised concerns about the toxicity of the track during a debate at the final meeting of the Lismore City Council for the year.

Cr Vanessa Ekins had moved a notice of motion to support a rail trail that was constructed adjacent to future rail-based transport.

Cr Ekins said she was hugely skeptical of recent promises from the state government to invest $80 million in a rail trail.

‘The Nationals stood on the railway platform ten years ago wearing Save our Trains t-shirts but have done absolutely nothing since,’ she said.

Cr Ekins slammed a report into the rail trail proposal saying it did not address issues such as access, maintenance, water and toilet facilities, and carparking for rail trail users.

neil marksBut it was Cr Mark who threw the toxic cocktail into the debate, saying he had spoken with someone who had been involved with testing along the track.

That testing was done to examine whether material salvaged from the disused railway corridor could be useful for other things such as making furniture.

It found that a person would have to be fully suited to be protected from the toxic chemicals that had been used on the materials in the track.

‘There’s no secret in the fact that over the years they’ve used arsenic to kill weeds and termites in the timbers, and that has been pumped all the way along track for 100 years,’ Cr Marks said.

‘If we proceed with a rail trail there would need to be an environmental plan to deal with that.

‘There was testing done on the material from the Woodlawn overpass when it was removed and the result was that those timbers would need to be handled with extreme care.

Cr Marks also said the brakes on trains were made from asbestos so every time a driver put on the brakes, traces of asbestos would be released along the track.

‘Who knows what else has been done along those tracks,’ he said.

Cr Ekins told Echonetdaily that she was disappointed that she was not supported in her push to have a rail trail adjacent to the railway line so that trains could eventually be reintroduced.

‘I was happy that Cr Simon Clough seconded my motion so that we could have the debate because the whole thing has been in the hands of NOROC (Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils) but it has not been before the council,’ she said.

Her motion however was lost, and an amendment moved by Cr Glenys Ritchie supporting just rail trails was passed.

Cr Ekins voted against Cr Ritchie’s amended motion, siding with conservative councillors Neil Marks and Greg Bennett.

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  1. The debate last night was a farce. Clr Ekins motion was opposed by the person who seconded it, Clr Clough. Not a good start to a motion. Then it was amended to be something utterly different to the intention of the original ‘rails with trails’ motion, as in trails without rails. The Councillors 8/3 voting to support the destruction of the railway line and effectively remove all chances of trains returning here. Councillor Bennett is to be applauded for standing up on behalf of the community and their greater need for rail transport (over bike tracks) and Councillor Marx also for rightly throwing a spanner in the works pointing out these very real contamination issues. Rail supporters via Trains on our Tracks (TOOT) and Northern Rivers Railway Action Group (NRRAG) have worked very hard to this point to accommodate rail trail plans by trying to provide a compromise of sharing the corridor, a rails with trails option, but this has not been enough to satisfy the Rail Trail lobby who only want to take over the tracks and remove rail utterly from the equation.
    Now it will up to the community to show how much they disapprove of this council decision and send their own clear message to the Transport Minister that despite what local govt might say the people here are very divided over this issue and many will fight long and hard to save this corrridor and the critical infrastructure making possible for future rail travel.

  2. There is something suspicious going on here!. Sol Ibriham is on the NRRT commite, wich should be a conflict of interest. There are also other counsellors from the NRRT group….

    • Sol was not speaking on behalf of the council. Glenys Ritchie is on the committee of the rail trail because she is passionate about the project. Maybe the conflict of interest is that Vanessa Ekins is a member of the Green Party that want trains back no matter what the cost. I think it offensive that you [question whether Sol Ibrahim has a conflict of interest] when there are good people trying to do something great for the region.

  3. Just a correction to your article, Councillor Vanessa Ekins actually voted for my amendment when it became the motion.

    Against we’re Clrs Bennett, Marks and Meineke.

    I thank Clr Ekins for her support for the establishment of a world class rail trail.

    Also there have been many rail trails constructed both in Australia and overseas which I am confident have dealt with the issue of any substances or chemicals used on the rail formation. We will benefit from their experience.

  4. I’m sure the 1000s of other rail trails in other states and overseas have successfully dealt with the toxic chemical cocktail leftovers in the old sleepers and ballast. This is a great outcome, a trail beside the rail is not possible on 80% of the single track line that travels through rugged and inaccessible terrain. Besides reintroducing the trains has been repeatedly found to be not viable.

  5. too bad the Arup rail trail study cost estimate of over $75 million didn’t include any environmental studies, or handling & disposing of contaminated materials. They also excluded the rest areas, toilets, water, carparking and fencing from the whole project. Landowners are supposed to pay for the fencing, and who pays for the rest of it to be up to scratch? Once they realise they can’t afford any of it, the corridor can be closed and sold off. and they think we’re being silly wanting to put a train back on it. truth is, putting a train on the tracks is the only thing that will keep it safe

  6. I commend Mayor Jenny Dowell for running a very well organised council meeting. Every one kept to time and apart from a few minor incidents people generally respected one another. Thankyou also to Glenys Ritchie who spoke very well for the rail trail. Cr Ekins eventually supported Glenys’ amended motion.
    As for toxic chemicals – the problem where it exists would require a similar treatment for both trail and train. However, if it were to be a rail trail, after the rails and sleepers are removed, it might be possible to isolate some of the “toxins” by covering them with concrete or bitumen pavement.

  7. I question whether the votes for a bike, walking, horse, wheelchairs, motorised scooters, segways, children on skate boards I am sure also, for transport as the Pro-rail trail & MPs – our Representatives call this track, have set in motion the destroying of our rail transport but were not based on real facts from the ARUP STUDY & associated studies. Will they admit that they haven’t really read all? No, of course not, they haven’t up till now, so why now? Prepare for the 6-8 lane freeways with their semis, b-doubles, triples, caravans, extras buses that we are told we are getting – that’s the transport for the future, vans, cars, cars, cars, all other types of trucks and now whose land will be grabbed for these 6-8 lane highways that wont be that far ‘down the track’ – into the future now will it! No 20-30 yrs that our MPs & RTs try to have us believe for maybe trains.The Ballina/Byron/Gateway Airport now has a shuttle bus to pick people up from their homes – for a stress-free ride to the Ballina Airport – of course, with increased traffic gridlock. Now, whenever pro-train people say this for shuttle buses from convenient pickup points, they are hounded down – oh don’t be so stupid! Rail Trailers say the trains should go to Goonellabah and onto Ballina. Well, planes do not go to Goonellabah do they! Get ready for traffic gridlock with the Commonwealth Games in 2018. Bike etc transport – wow. Bikes are fun – not basic, needed real transport. Jillian Spring

    • You do realize that Ballina,Cumbeland,Wollongbar,Alstonville and Goonelabah are major population growth areas ? And as such are in demand of a train . I have not seen major growth between Bexhill,Clunes,Booyong, Nashua,Binna Burra or Mooball ,Burringar ,Stokers Sidings .
      Yes give a slow train to the none growth areas really seems like a great idea!

  8. Train lines must follow population corridors, university’s ,hospitals,air ports or work on a HUb system. Most of the old corridor does not follow these principals.
    On the toxic and asbestos problems then heaven help all the people living within 50 metres of the corridor but mostly the train stations as that is the major braking area. I notice a preschool located close by in Mullum,the council chambers and many houses. Housing prices will plummet if you are located next to the toxic wastelands by the sounds of it. The best solution is to cap it with either bitumen or concrete to encapsulate this toxic mix. Then after you have have capped it a beautiful world class rail trail will appear.
    Thanks to Councillor Marks for pushing the rail trail in an obscure way.

  9. After nearly thirty years in Australia I went back to Germany for a visit last year. To my surprise the old abandoned train tracks where I used to jog along had been revamped and are now a vital mode of transport to get to the next bigger towns and airport without getting stuck in traffic. Also one gets to see things you don’t get to see from the road.
    Another observation are the big amount of windmills stretching their majestic wings towards the sky. I cannot say I found them ugly. It’s not only the transport and the energy industries that are more alternative and progressive in Europe also is the government encouraging it’s citizens to reduce their meat consumption to reduce the extremely negative impact this industry has on climate change. (I like my piece of steak too.)
    It is a crying shame that beautiful, gorgeous Australia is controlled by a greedy minority with only their own advantage in mind.

  10. I’d totally agree with the toxicity issue. I have never seen such clouds of bulldust infecting a coastal strip in my life.

  11. What a retrograde move it is to give this rail corridor over to the small minority who cycle relatively long distances. A cost benefit analysis of this proposal would expose this idea for the sham that it really is. Can you visualise thousands, no hundreds, no more than just a few huffing and puffing their way from Byron to Murwillumbah or Byron to Lismore on a stinking hot summers day or during a heavy wet season.
    You pro rail trail people say any new rail should have a new route through growth areas such as Ballina. Well guess what, there was a branch line that went to Ballina once upon a time and it failed in a very short space of time and yes the tracks were ripped up and the corridor absorbed into private property so you can forget that idea just as we can forget any chance of a future light rail on the existing line should you lycra clad pedal pushers have your way and have the tracks removed or covered thereby leaving no possibility of ever having them reinstated.
    Have some vision for our transport and tourism needs into the future and keep your bicycles where they belong on the secondary hinterland roads which abound in this beautiful region. If you want to get off the beaten track buy a mountain bike and travel the old forestry and fire access tracks.

  12. So, currently the cost estimate for the rail trail lies at $75million, Too bad the Rail Trail study DID NOT include things like car parks, Water Stations, rest areas, fencing, toilets, environmental impact studies and toxic waste removal and more.

    So lets add it all up… Carparking = thousands of dollars Rest Areas = thousands and possibly millions of dollars Fencing = Whole corridor = millions of dollars Toilets = millions of dollars Water Stations = Whole corridor and toilets = millions and possibly billions of dollars Environmental Impact Studies = hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars or even more Toxic Waste removal = millions and likely billions of dollars.

    So as you can now see, the figure of $75million has now jumped to probably something in the Billions! The rail trail is simply far too costly!!!!

  13. nice to see such overwhelming concern for the health and good being of cyclists. I strongly suspect though that quite a few of the pro rail lobby would be quite happy to see cyclists suffering from cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis and arsenic poisoning. they have caused so much angst in the community with their attempted takeover of some else’s territory that a slow and lingering death would be more like a Christmas present to those that have suffered from their depradations.

    (Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, confusion, severe diarrhea, and drowsiness. As the poisoning develops, convulsions and changes in fingernail pigmentation called leukonychia striata, Mees’ lines, or Aldrich-Mees’ lines may occur. When the poisoning becomes acute, symptoms may include diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and more convulsions. The organs of the body that are usually affected by arsenic poisoning are the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver. The final result of arsenic poisoning is coma and death. Arsenic is related to heart disease (hypertension related cardiovascular), cancer, stroke (cerebrovascular diseases), chronic lower respiratory diseases, and diabetes.)

    There will be those who question this as a smoke screen. Most pro rail people would be happy to see these types despatched first. There would be more arsenic along the rail corridor than asbestos so that is the first and deadliest to strike. If you would like to try a few out for yourself some of these diseases, try burning railway sleepers in an open fireplace. You will quickly learn (as most people who do have fireplaces have already) what the truth is.

  14. Some interesting comments so far. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical in most soils and comes in several forms. It is mainly absorbed in humans by direct contact or absorption by ingesting food. Studies on several other rail lines in Australia have shown arsenic levels to be within acceptable guidelines, even where it has been used for pest control. Asbestos is more likely to be found in areas of heavy braking, such as stations. Victoria has operated Rail Trails for many years and I know of no reports of arsenic poisoning amongst riders. It also has to be remembered, arsenic was a common pesticide for a couple of decades in Australia.
    If this contamination is of concern, I am surprised it hasn’t been raised before, nor has it apparently had any effect on stock now allowed to graze disused rail lines, or on the myriads of railway workers employed a=on these lines over the years of operation.
    It appears to me to be just another grab at straws by the pro rail groups to prevent the adaptive re-use of the rail corridors.

  15. Victoria’s rail trails are built on railway lines much older than this one, and those tracks have been closed for much longer than this track. Our track has only been closed for 10 years, so the chemicals still have quite a strong presence and could do for decades more, whereas Victoria’s abandoned tracks are older so the old chemicals have went back into the soil.


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