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Byron Shire
June 7, 2023

Rail line decisions political, not rational

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Comments  from letter writers that the ‘reasons for the discontinuation of rail services to the far north coast were largely economic’ are incorrect.

The discontinuation of the Casino to Murwillumbah service was purely political. It was  what an incompetent  Minister for (no) Transport could get away with.

At the time the state government also tried to discontinue the Armidale XPT service, but their local independent Member of Parliament was able to put a stop to that and they still have their train service.

The population of Armidale is not growing at the rate of the north coast and neither does it have almost two million visitors per year.

NSW rail services have been largely neglected for many decades while our governments have spent huge amounts upgrading highways and building toll roads to keep the powerful road transport lobby group, including road construction companies, happy.

Of course this would have nothing to do with the millions of dollars these corporations are able to donate to political parties.

The 2004 NSW Legislative Council Inquiry into the closure of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail service made some important recommendations.

Recommendation No. 4 states clearly: that the NSW government introduce a new, regular commuter rail service from Casino to Murwillumbah, which would connect at Casino with the XPT service from Sydney.

Recommendation No. 7 states: that the NSW government, in co-operation with the Queensland government, commission a new study to examine the viability of extending the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line to Coolangatta to link with the proposed South East Queensland railway line and upgraded Gold Coast rail services.

Had a commuter service on the Casino-Murwillumbah line been introduced in 2004, instead of allowing the line to degrade, it would have cost very little, certainly no more, and possibly less, than the  uncomfortable buses people hate.

Since 2004 the number of vehicles coming across the border at Tweed Heads has increased from 42,000 per day to 67,000 currently, and are projected to increase to 115,000 per day by 2026.

Given the traffic congestion north coast towns are currently experiencing, and the emissions produced by this traffic, our local politicians need to tell us what is their plan to deal with this massive increase in traffic and reduce emissions?

It appears  they are all happy to allow the Casino to Murwillumbah line to be destroyed rather demand the government provide the train services we need as recommended in 2004.

Louise Doran, Ocean Shores

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  1. On March 22 2003, the Australian Labor Party led by Bob Carr won a third four-year term against the Liberal-National Coalition led by John Brogden.
    In 2004, the Casino to Murwillumbah Railway Service was discontinued.
    From this news report below the local train stopped because of economic, political and democratic reasons.
    In 2004, the rail system in Sydney was chaotic and money was spent in Sydney and money cut to the Casino/Murwillumbah line. So Labor cut money to the National Party in this regional area as maintenance on the rail line had already been run down as it had been on City rail lines. We are still in the same problem in 2016. In the city, expansion and growth exceeds the amount spent on infrastructure, so the city begins to disintegrate. Who would live there?

    From Fairfax newspapers:
    By Joseph Kerr, Transport Reporter
    April 7, 2004
    The Government will spend billions trying to fix Sydney’s rail system, including a new train program dwarfing the disastrous Millennium train project.

    Yesterday’s mini-budget left the proposed bus transitway network in Sydney’s north-west facing a 12-month delay and North Coast train travellers stung by the scrapping of CountryLink trains from Casino to Murwillumbah – a review of the line’s future had been promised in December.

    But after years of transport problems the Government yesterday announced it would spend $2.5 billion over the next six years trying to fix CityRail.

    Announcing the Government’s plan to break the network into five segments, the Treasurer, Michael Egan, pledged $1 billion on the “rail clearways” program, which is intended to make the notoriously unreliable system run more easily.

    An extra $300 million will be spent on passenger rail in the 2004-05 year, including $80 million on projects that will start to break up the Sydney network and $25 million on periodic maintenance, a RailCorp spokeswoman said.

  2. It is unsurprising the New England service was not closed but might not that be the political decision? The recent Grattan Institute report on political infrastructure spending pointed out that the new England Highway had received disproportionate funding compared with its usage, suggesting that that was done for political reasons. Certainly something does need to be done about the poor state of public transport in the Northern Rivers, but there is an outlined int he Northern Rivers Transport Plan of practical, sensible and economical suggestions, focused on improving bus services, that would benefit those int he region, particularly those in the areas which house the greatest numbers of transport deprived people (the Ballina and Tweed Coasts). Reinstating the train service to Murwillumbah will do nothing to improve linkages to the Gold Coast; It would be very costly to extend the line to Coolangatta; unless very expensive dual gauge bogies were used it would entail a change of train; and it would be a very roundabout route compared with a bus straight up the Pacific Highway from the main population in the Southern part of our region. Rather than trying to rake over the coals of past battles to save a transport that was built to link a dairy economy with the main goods and passenger traffic flowing through the port at the Bay, lets develop a bus-based transport system that meets the needs of people, particularly those in the populous parts of the the region, who need fast and direct linkages to Lismore, Brisbane the Gold Coast and the two main airports, and more frequent commuter services than train ever did or could provide. Perhaps there is a marginal role for the rail line as part of providing the transport needs for the minority who live along it, but can we not focus our lobbying on the main game, stop distracting progressive politicians and councilors with the train, and get them to start providing decent public transport for us all.

  3. I thought it would also be useful to directly address your comments “the buses that people hate” and the suggestion they are not comfortable. The PwC report to the Tweed Council around the time the line closed, noted that use of the train over time had declined, but bus use had stayed around the same. The recent public survey into transport found the main impediment of take-up of public transport was timetabling issues – when and where the transport, how often and for how long in the day and week. The availability of a train was well down the list. The experience in other places is that while many people do prefer trains, they are very happy to use well timetabled bus services, with good disabled and cycle accessibility now available, well promoted by governemnt and by community advocates who are genuinely concerned about sustainable transport. Between Canberra and Sydney there are two small Country link trains a day that only carry a fraction of the number of passengers carried by some two score express coaches each way. The coaches are not only far more frequent they are faster, unsubsidied, and much cheaper, and as well as Central they go where most people want to go – to Sydney airport . On the matter of comfort I have mentioned several times in the Echo traveling by Country link coach and train from Canberra to Melbourne – that I found the bus was very comfortable – and perhaps some might think that is just my biased opinion. I note though that on that journey passengers can catch the coach the half hour from Canberra to Yass and hop on the Melbourne train from there. However most of the people on my coach did as I did, and stayed on the coach, traveling by the coach over the longer journey on country roads to Cootamundra and catching the Melbourne train there (the economy cost is the same). People in general don’t love coaches – they are not very sexy contraptions – but the people who actually use them do find they are comfortable and they do provide a level of frequency that larger trains cannot match, so people do actually use them.

  4. Now it cost twice as much for the Buses to ferry the passages to Casino to connect the trains from Brisbane to Murwillumbah to Lismore then Casino also it cost twice as much to pay the Drivers than the trains, so do you think the Govt did the right decisions to discontinued the Murwillumbah to Casino in 2004? if the Train is still running , the Govt would have saves some money to themselves !!

    • People might pay more on buses depending on levels of subsidy but the cost of the train services are a lot more than buses – and this includes the costs of traffic congestion costs, road safety and environmental costs (noting the latter too are generally lower for buses). There is much nostalgia for the train but people forget the high proportion of users were on concessional fares and so heavily subsidised. I suspect with each year the train gets cheaper, smoother and faster – in people’s memories – and it just serves as a distraction from getting decent transport in the region. If even a part of that subsidies on rail were applied to a comprehensive network of buses and coaches the NR area could have the public transport system its transport-dependent people need and deserve. As it stands people in the NR are paying for the high cost of rail services for others int he state, but we and our local members and councils are not lobbying to get decent public transport for our area – is it any wonder we are being ripped off.

  5. The Casino Murwillumbah rail line was first downgraded by Greiner in 1990 when the local train services were replaced by the sydney-centric Xpt which did not travel from town to town during the day. It is no surprise that the Xpt caused the patronage to fall. When the Inquiry into the closure of Xpt in 2004 came out, it recommended that a frequent local service would have been much more beneficial to the local community. But instead of investing in such a service the line has been left to degrade even further, while the buses and roads have taken priority. The biggest downfall of the bus services is that they use those big coaches which are terrible for our roads. Anyone can see how much money has been spent on our roads in the last 10 yrs and yet the potholes keep getting worse and worse. It’s like a bottomless pit for Council funding. Increasing the big buses is going to keep making the roads worse. The big buses weight between 10-20 tonnes, doing as much damage to the roads as thousands of cars at once- far more than the number of cars they remove from the roads. The road maintenance companies that donate to political parties must love it!
    The more potholed and bumpy the roads get, the more dangerous the roads, and the more uncomfortable the bus rides are. The buses are also terribly connected between towns and neighbouring shires, which a train service on the line would be much better at. Imagine not having to change buses between Casino, Lismore, Bangalow, Byron! And having a service that accommodates wheelchairs, walking aids and even bicycles far better than a bus can! These are all very valid points which the Arup study completely failed to acknowledge, making it totally irrelevant to our community. After all, elderly and disabled are the main users of public transport so it should cater for them. Cyclists could also be a great user of a train service if they could take their bike on and off with ease, and on the buses they can’t.
    The Casino Murwillumbah rail line has previously supported every industry in the region including logging, whaling, dairy and local produce, and there is no reason why it cannot support our tourism industry too. I think it would be great to have the rail line extended from Murwillumbah to Coolangatta Airport where there should be a transport interchange and passengers can change to the airport, heavy or light rail and the buses all in one place. It makes so much sense, especially since so many people arriving at the Coolangatta airport travel south into the Northern Rivers.
    Restoring the railway would also be so much cheaper than to keep upgrading our roads, and use less fuel than the buses. The road and oil companies wouldn’t like that though.
    I have to wonder what political motivations some people have for opposing this plan. Perhaps they own property along the highway or near the Ballina airport which they believe they can profit from, if a fantasy new rail line is built there! Peter Hatfield/ Petrus has said before that he owns property at Cumbalum which is near the Ballina Airport!

  6. Thank you Louise Doran,

    It’s good to hear there are people north of Byron fighting for equitable transport. Few people understand the meaning of ‘equitable’, and understandably, if people have not experienced being young and healthy driver, and then can compare it to having health issues, disabilities etc. and not being able to drive, or have friends and family experiencing there things, they may not understand at all.

    Plainly, to Petrus, buses are quite usable by most people, for short times, or because they have no alternative, but for some, even onboard toilets aren’t accessible. I’ve had DVT from not being able to walk around for even just 2.5 hours. I get headaches and nausea after a few hours on a coach, while on a rail journey, I can have medication with a cup of tea, a meal, or even spend time on the Internet and do reading.

    Even if the bus system were ‘tidied up’, my limited time is important, as it is to many others taking a journey of an hour or more- trips that people want to do but can’t by bus. There is no way that people can do a trip to Brisbane, or to the coast, from Wiangaree [and much of the Northern Rivers] by bus, and return home by the evening.

    And there doesn’t have to be an either/or mentality. There can always be buses going directly from Ballina to Tweed, but if Tweed Council want to promote residency and tourism in the Tweed Valley, they should be developing rail along the existing rail corridor as was the talk in the eighties.

    Saving $5million or so on maintenence of the whole Casino to Murwillumbah line, a reason given by Labor’s Michael Costa for closing the line in 2004, is nothing compared to all the costs that have arisen from the closure, starting from many extra buses and coaches [well subsidised, and frequently near empty.] The rising road fatalities, their human and economic costs, and all the other limitations that have been occurring, that many may not be aware of, are quite immense, and require a study much more than the Arap study that emphasises how much is lost in fares because pensioners were the main users of the XPT.

    If people had Qld fare pricing [closer to low Sydney fares, but half the XPT fares or less], much more full-fare passengers would use commuter services, as well as students, shoppers and workers going into Mur’bah, Billinudgel industrial [and a connecting Ocean Shore-Bruswick-Mullum bus loop], Mullum, Byron and beyond.

    The main cost of connecting Murwillumbah to Queensland is two bridge/river crossings, not the easy 17km from Mur’bah to Chinderah. These rail crossings will be inevitable [one day] whether a line goes to Mur’bah and/or from Chinderah to Yelgun. In the mean time, many people, including tourists from the Gold Coast could suffer the half hour by non-rail means to Mur’bah, or just get the direct bus to Ballina, if that’s what they want.

    Canberra was a planned city; the population wasn’t there first. Long-term sustainable programs are the way to handle this, not a private profiteering business view. Are hospitals feasible? Thousands are spent on individuals per month for their medications, hospital bills etc. not to mention, taxpayer money spent on IPTAAS, community transport etc. whereas many people could happily use rail instead, as people do, even in some poorer countries around the world.

    NSW is going backwards.

    Petrus, Sydney rail is heavily subsidised; do you think we should get rid of it too?


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