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Byron Shire
March 30, 2023

Great train robbery

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Louise Doran, Ocean Shores

The thousands of people who turned out to ride on the first (solar) train service in Byron Bay since the great train robbery almost 14 years ago demonstrate the overwhelming community support for the return of train services to the north coast.

When north coast train services were cut in 2004, the same incompetent minister for (no) transport planned to stop the Armidale train service. Fortunately their tenacious local independent MP, Tony Windsor, was not going to allow his electorate to be deprived of a vital transport service. The Armidale train was saved and it’s still running.

The uninformed claims that the north coast population, including five million tourists, is not large enough to ensure the viability of regular commuter train service on the Casino to Murwillumbah line is laughable. As is the ridiculous argument that spending tens of millions to rip up the valuable rail line for a bike trail will provide public transport for all.

The often repeated claim that providing a train service would be too expensive has been shown to be rubbish. As we see, the cost to the environment and community amenity of not having a train service is massive.

There’s nothing green or sustainable about championing mega-developments, regardless of how affordable the housing may be, when there’s no basic infrastructure to support those developments.

How much more development and people can be squeezed into Byron Shire and onto our roads before tourists find somewhere more pleasant and affordable to go and the local economy collapses?

The Labor Party, and the Liberal/National parties need to tell the north coast community what their plan is to deal with the increasing traffic congestion and toxic emissions from that traffic which, on their own projections, will double in less than a decade.

Above all, it is hard to fathom the callous disregard of politicians for the number of lives lost and devastating injuries sustained in road accidents, especially at this time of year. The horrific state road toll for this Christmas holiday period is almost double that of 2016.

Traffic congestion, toxic emissions and lack of safe, sustainable public transport are issues having a needless, detrimental impact on the local environment and community, but it seems all political parties are captive to the corporates, who have power to dictate policy way out of proportion to their numbers, thanks to the millions they donate to political parties.

Consequently, political parties are paying lip service to climate change, protecting the environment while allowing the electorate to be over developed and deprived of necessary services.

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  1. The thousands of people who turned out to ride on the 3km the Elements train – including as you know those wearing their Northern Rivers Rail Trail tee-shirts – were there to enjoy a tourist train. But the small contingent who cannot accept the Elements train for what it is and imagine it is the basis of a solution to the region’s transport needs do so the face of all the sound advice on transport planning and the environmental and social impacts of modern transport.

    The operators of the Elements train have no intention of extending the service. As the Elements train and station manager, Brian Flannery is quoted as stating that ‘while it was “the way of the future” for rail, he thought it unlikely rail would service other parts of the region. “Rail costs a lot of money to build and upgrade’. The solar power is ideal for a short tourist run but apparently cannot deliver the day-long operation on renewables of modern electric buses such as those just bought by the ACT government.

    The only political party pushing for a train is the Greens and it is argues for a publicly owned Government provided rail service. The ACT Labor government was forced by its coalition with the Greens to build such a light rail against the advice of its feasibility studies, the Productivity Commission and the Grattan Institute that showed a light rail would provide poorer value and more inequitable transport than rapid buses. It justified the high cost by citing urban development benefits, and has planned for much heavier concentrations of higher density housing and other development along the rail line. If heaven forbid the Green left were in a similar position in NSW and your demos and lobbying were heeded, a NSW Labor government might be tempted to invest the billions it would take to restore the rail and connect it via the Tweed Coast from QLD, if they could pay for it through Gold Coast style higher density Mega-development along the line. Only then would you have the population of 200,000 within 400 metres walking distance Australian transport academic and light rail advocate Ginn considers argues is needed for light rail. Be careful of what you wish for Louise!

    Fortunately both parties know such rail-led over-development would not be popular here, and they have ample advice to dismiss funding rail services on public transport grounds. The North Coast Regional Plan shows quite low growth estimates for the centres along the line and for the foreseeable future we will have nothing like the population needed near the line to support commuter rail; most of the key destinations are not near it either. Government’s advice from Arup, the lead consultant for the Gold Coast light rail, is that it would cost $900 million to re-open the line – and you have never provided a properly costed credible alternative estimate – and then you face higher recurrent costs of the order of double or triple. The Kearney report in the 1990s, the advice form government agencies to the Legislative Committee inquiry in 2004, the more recent Casino Murwillumbah corridor study – all argued that rail services are expensive, would not have any significant traffic, or environmental benefits, and would bring sharp equity disbenefits in public transport spending and provision in the region. That is why the Northern Rivers Social Development Council (NRSDC) submission to the Government’s inquiry in 2016 into access to transport for seniors and disadvantaged people in regional NSW, did not mention the train or the rail, but offered practical and affordable suggestions on how to make the buses more accessible.

    You argue that we should engage in the political tactics of Tony Windsor, tactics that contributed to wasteful infrastructure spending in the New England condemned recently by the Gratton Institute. Windsor’s redirection of funding for higher priority needs in NSW just because he could was a blatant abuse of power. I find it extraordinary, indeed sad, that you are promoting this selfish pork-barrelling for our area.

    There is no evidence to suggest that restoring rail services here will have any impact on the road toll. The statistical evidence shows trains in countries like ours are no safer than buses and in the C-M Corridor study found a commuter train service would reduce traffic by less than 2% and less than better buses would. The politicians you call callous have markedly reduced the road toll with recent heavy investments in reduplicating the Pacific Highway, improvements long delayed by the sort of political diversion of funding to the New England that you seem to admire.

    Most people have long had the sense to know our road network can provide better transport here, but of course not everyone has access to or prefers to use a car. It is time Louise to join Tamara Smith’s push for a more caring, equitable solution to their transport needs, one that can be made accessible for the disabled and elderly, which is just as safe and environmentally beneficial: and serves all of our region, not just the markedly younger households that are more likely to be have and use a car in the Byron Shire and other places along the line.

  2. Just a few more detailed criticisms of your well meaning but errant epistle Louise. The five million tourists a year you refer to in the region would only add on average a few tens of thousands at any one time to our population and most of that additional population would have been captured in the 2016 Census. You still do not have the hundreds of thousands of people living close to stations along the line that are needed to justify commuter rail. Although of course it busier at festival times and on weekends the tourist population around the Bay is more evenly spread through the year than it is in most resorts; towns like Ballina more dependent on family tourists have a sharper tourist peak at this time, but because we have a better planned road system with dispersed and sufficient parking and judicious use of traffic lights the town has little difficulty coping. And I would wonder would you want to divert public transport money aimed at proving the best services to the elderly, disabled and low income people to provide a government subsidised train services to tourists?
    On your repeated comments on governments responding to donations to political parties, who would donate to stop commuter rail? Our roads are improved because most voters drive cars and they demand safer better roads. Most road construction firms would accept the Arup advice that commuter rail will make little difference to the use of cars, so whether there is a rail service or not makes little difference to them.
    Can you also advise when any rail tail supporter argued: “… that spending tens of millions to rip up the valuable rail line for a bike trail will provide public transport for all”. I think you will find that what some, including me, have argued is that better road transport can provide public transport for all our region, a conclusion that stands whether the rail trial is built or not (though I would agree the rail trail has been useful in getting people to confront the transport issues). .
    Finally rather than asking the Government what its plans are for transport why not read the Northern Rivers Transport Strategy and the Northern Rivers Regional Plan which spell out its policies, policies that you would expect Labor to broadly agree with. Why not instead ask the Byron Shire when it is going to come up with an analysis of its transport needs so it has a well informed transport strategy on which to base decisions on the Byron Line and the integration of rail services like it and the Elements Train with existing bus services like the Blanche’s Sunrise Beach service, the use of the railway station precinct and the location of bus parking. As it stands the Byron Shire dated transport strategy starts with what it presumes is an answer – some sort of a rail service – without having a definition or prioritisation of the transport needs it is meant to be providing.


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