The cost to establish a privately owned diesel rail shuttle service from Byron Bay’s Arts and Industry Estate into town has put the credibility of a $2m government-funded rail study into question.
At around $300,000 per kilometre, the 3.4 km railway project planned by the North Byron Beach Resort will come in just under $1m, according to manager Jeremy Holmes.
He told The Echo that only one in seven sleepers need replacing, along with repairs to the Belongil Creek bridge, platform construction and upgrades to level crossings at Kendall and Shirley Streets. And a 100-seater two-car currently being restored is, ‘Technically not light rail, but is regarded as lighter than normal rail,’ he said. Ongoing costs would be subsidised by a passenger fare in the order of $3 for a one-way journey, according to the resort’s website.
No government analysis
So what does the 2013 government-funded Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study say about railcar shuttle costings and viability?
While no detailed analysis of light rail or rail shuttle was undertaken, consultants Arup claimed that the estimated construction cost to ‘reinstate rail line to a level suitable for XPT services’ from Mullumbimby to Byron Bay would be $202,326,700.
Light rail and rail shuttle costings were not analysed, according to the report, because, ‘It has also been recognised that a rail commuter service (either light or heavy rail) would not be viable without a significant level of ongoing government subsidy’ [page 8]. Additionally the report concluded, ‘Light rail provides fewer transport benefits than heavy rail’ [page 67].
But those comments are at odds with findings from a 2004 Tweed Shire Council study which compared XPT (heavy rail) and railcar shuttle. Included in the Arup report, it claimed railcar shuttle could be ‘implemented with little or no impact to current main line services.’
Overall, the Tweed Council report found it provides a ‘good rail service at frequencies that are relevant to customers’, despite the assets ‘being in poor condition’.
The Echo asked MP Don Page (Nationals) if he was concerned with the lack of costing analysis for rail shuttle in the rail report, and whether it could result in skewing poor public transport outcomes.
He replied that the section of rail between town and the North Byron Resort is in fairly good shape.
‘It’s much better than in other places including through the Tyagarah area, which is in very bad shape.
‘The costings in the transport study were only one factor which led to the conclusion that any combination of trains, regardless of cost, would not meet the public transport needs of the northern rivers region.
‘Rail not being able to serve two of the three largest populated centres (Ballina and Tweed) was a major reason trains were ruled out, as was likely patronage levels.
‘The original transport study was not skewed towards a rail trail. The rail trail proposal was subject to a separate study later on which said if trains aren’t viable at this point in time, rail trail is a good option.’
Byron Council’s position
And with the most recent government-funded rail trail study supporting the removal of the tracks, what is Byron Shire Council’s position?
At the October 9, 2014 Council meeting, Cr Ibrahim put forward a contentious motion that saw Council writing to minister Don Page ‘fully supporting’ the Northern Rivers Rail Trail (NRRT) project, despite it being far from united; the vote was 5–4.
But the motion also says, ‘In the preparation of the concept plan and design for the rail trail, considerations of multiple uses such as that already approved for the North Beach development [should] be incorporated.’
Cr Ibrahim told The Echo the motion was about ‘securing regional investment’, referring to the promise of $75m from the government and the recent rail trail study.
‘I had it on good advice that the northern rivers was in a good position to secure a massive investment in regional tourism, the precise sort of tourism that our own strategy is aiming for.
‘I campaigned for the rail trail and many people I spoke to during the campaign told me that the rail trail was a no- brainer, and that trains would never come back for the simple reason that hardly anyone would catch them.
‘It was time for a resolution just about the rail trail so we could join our [Council] neighbours in supporting the project.’
No accurate information
But mayor Simon Richardson told The Echo that, ‘The whole rail corridor debate has been underpinned by a lack of accurate information and a lack of goodwill from protagonists to find a solution for the good of all the community.’
‘When thinking about the most important piece of infrastructure we have in the shire, isn’t it rational to do our due diligence and look at all the options, cost and design them, and then choose the best option?
‘I applaud the efforts of NRRT to turn a disused piece of infrastructure into something that may be used by ten per cent of residents and ten per cent of visitors. Ten per cent is better than zero per cent. But is that the best Byron can get?
‘Shouldn’t we expect that costings be provided about services that may be used by the other 90 per cent?’
‘With some of the TOOT leadership not wanting to have a trackless transport service costed even if it meant a light rail service would be costed also, and the NRRT leadership not wanting their stated belief of a rail-based service alongside a rail trail to be costed either, the opportunity to get out of the trenches and to shake hands rather than fists, for the good of all the community, has been lost.’
The mayor added the only winners would be the state government, as they could ‘finally kill the albatross of broken public transport promises that has been hanging around their necks.’