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Byron Shire
February 25, 2021

Tweed rail trail has no social licence

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As pointed out by previous correspondents, the proposal to rip up billions of dollars worth of the Casino to Murwilumbah train line and replace it with an expensive $13 million, over-engineered rail trail from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek has no social licence.

Quite the opposite. Since the closure of services on the C-M rail line in 2004, local people have been calling loudly and clearly for a cost effective, sustainable, accessible, commuter  train service on the line.

For almost eight years, local National Party MPs, and former premier Barry O’Farrell, supported the community and regularly  promised to provide those services, and investigate building the vital rail connection to Coolangatta.

Vague claims from rail trail supporters that a bike track ‘will provide employment and economic benefits’ do not stack up against the actual environmental, social, and economic benefits of a train service, as demonstrated by the Byron zero emissions solar train which had almost 16,000 passengers in the first month of operation.

Repairs to the Byron section of line cost $600,000 per kilometer for a train service accessible to all. As opposed to the estimated $542,000 (!) cost per kilometer to rip up 24km of line for a bike track to be used by a few cyclists. The economics alone are beyond crazy.

A Tweed based civil engineer, with many years experience building rail and roads, has estimated a bike track could be provided beside the train line for as little as $50,000 per kilometer.

This would leave the bulk of the $13m funds to restore the 24ks of line from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek for a light rail service, as demonstrated by the actual cost of repairs to the Byron section of line.

Claims that as the C-M line only serves eight out of ten of the most populated North Coast towns, and is in such bad condition no government will ever return train services, are also dishonest.

Compared to the billions being spent to completely rebuild the Gold Coast line, which was ripped up and the corridor sold off in the 1960s, the cost of returning trains to the C-M corridor is peanuts.

When premier Berejiklian recently announced plans to build the St Marys to Badgeries Creek rail line, she stated the train service would generate up to 200,000 jobs, and enhance economic activity and the livability of the region.

Train services on the C-M line, when connected to Coolangatta, will provide the same benefits in spades for North Coast locals and five million tourists, for minimal cost.

The costs and benefits of a train service on the C-M line have been clearly demonstrated and far outweigh any claimed benefits of a bike track which will cost almost as much.

After so many years fighting for a train service, this community will not stand by while the state government wastes millions  destroying this valuable rail line for a bike track for a hand full of cyclists.

Louise Doran, Ocean Shores

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  1. The claims concerning the rail trail are not vague. They are necessarily estimates of course, but are based on tourist visits and spending data of comparable paths in Victoria, and it is does not show usage is likely to be “ a few cyclists”. Can Ms Doran point to any similar study that shows any environmental, social, and economic benefits of a train service in the Northern River? No study has ever showed any positive economic return on investing in a rail service here. The Railcorp and departmental submissions to the 2004 Legislative Council Inquiry, the 1994 Kearney Sinclair Knight review, the NR transport strategy, the Tweed Shire transport strategy and the Sustain Northern Rivers Transport Survey 2013 all refute the supposed economic, environmental and social benefits of a rail service.
    Claims the rail service serves eight out of ten the most populated North Coast towns are dated and indeed dishonest, and I do not know why Ms Doran persists in making them. It serves just 40% of the population but more importantly does not serve the growth areas, the areas with the largest numbers of households without a car, and the areas with the greatest numbers of elderly. The Human Rights Commissioner states it is the right of all seniors to be able to attend medical and other essential appointments. Seniors are over 80% of transport users, and as they are more likely to live away the line, and all of the hospitals and most other key destinations are located away from it, a train will only shift funding away from better transport that will meet their needs and those of other transport dependent households. Hence the recommendations of the Northern Rivers Social Development Council (NRSDC) were that improved bus services and more disabled-friendly buses were needed, The train was not mentioned , which is what you would expect as it has never been shown it would bring any social benefit.
    I am surprised Ms Doran continues to example the Byron train as public transport for our region. The expected fall off in passengers since the end of the school holidays shows what most of us know – it is a unique pleasant short tourist trip. As the Elements train and station manager said on its introduction ‘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 many to build and upgrade”. Ms Doran cannot accept that advice from those who restored that part of the line, preferring her own opinion that it provides a basis for costing of a government tender to restore the line. In exampling the Byron train Ms Doran continues to ignore the growing use of electric buses that can run for hundreds of kms on renewable power (the ACT is considering if its next fleet purchase will be renewably powered electric buses).
    The tenders will show if anyone can build the rail trail economically beside the line without of course compromising the level, off-road experience that cyclists, walkers and other users expect and value in a rail trail. The funds have been allocated for regional development activities, and approved for a rail trail; if there were any savings it would be unlawful to use them for another purpose such as the provision of public transport. The rail trail will ensure the rail corridor is providing benefits to the community and so protect it from the sell off which is expected for any unused NSW asset.

  2. In response to Peter Hatfield, can he produce figures for even one rail trail which has generated any revenue to cover the significant maintenance costs over time? Or any figures for the numbers of users of a rail trail, excluding local casual users and tourists already in the region for other reasons? Can he point to a successful new business that has arisen because of rail trail users, not one funded by the rail trail Government grant?

    If train services do not produce any social benefits in getting people to work, students to colleges and schools, enabling tourists to explore our regions, reducing traffic on the road system, enabling people to travel to distant health centres, or just to visit friends and relations, why do all Governments spend taxpayers money to operate them? Lets save some money by closing all those non-beneficial rail services throughout Sydney and other cities in Australia.

    • Robin The estimates for use of the rail trail are based on the numbers of tourists the percentage who are rail trail users in areas with comparable rail trails, and are outlined in detailed at 3.3.1 of the Casino to Murwillumbah Rail Trail Study Final Report, including referencing of the various sources of numbers of what they refer to quaintly as “visitations” to those other rail trails. Some who come to use the rail trail will of course enjoy other attractions and vice versa , but there has been a strong growth in people travelling to destination for the primary purpose of enjoying a rail trail and that has led to councils in Victoria competing to fund extensions of their initial rail trails.
      As with most roads, our footpaths and other recreational paths thee is not normally any fee charged to use a rail trail – the benefits flow from users’ spending. At 3.5.3 of the study the direct benefits are described. Based on case studies of two Victorian and four NZ trails and the average spending of users was $204 per day. The report does not show individual business start ups but the plainly that level of spending is a substantial if not critical boost to small business along the trail. I am not aware of any rail trail funding provided directly to any business. One business type I can point to as directly an outcome of the rail trail are the shuttle services that carry groups and bikes to one end of the trail. I spoke recently with one such service in Wangaratta and was told the business was growing with the increased trail use, and while it was busiest in their peak spring and autumn season, they had steady patronage year round, even though NE Victoria can be hotter than here in summer and is much colder in winter.
      The rail trial maintenance costs are taken into account in the Rail Trail Study’s finding of a positive cost to benefit ratio. The rail trail maintenance is not much greater than the cost of maintaining the unused rail corridor and I have never read one compliant about the $10m we have spent since 2004 maintaining the unused rail corridor. If it were not for the likelihood of a rail trail, that ongoing cost of keeping the corridor for rail which would discount any unidentified future rail use, would be a prompt for NSW government to apply its new methodology for assessing underused assets and legislating so it can sell it off.
      The benefits you ascribe to rail are of transport services – that they are rail does not provide any further benefit in our area and brings a number of disbenifits. Since rail is more expensive than road transport, it necessarily comes at the expense of other transport, can only be re-routed at huge cost, cannot be as easily timetabled to meet conflicting needs, and leaves more people having to change to and from trains and buses. The overall result of rail would be fewer services, longer waits, more changes and longer trips, creating greater inequity in transport particularly for our older population who do not live near the rail line. The reason governments invest in rail in cities is because rail can shift the large population faster than road transport on the busiest corridors and along with good bus services it reduces the high cost of the externalities of car use in cities – point-of-use pollution, congestion, and parking and road space and resultant urban sprawl. These are comparatively small costs in our region, and as the Legislative Council inquiry was told and the Casino Murwillumbah corridor study found, a two hourly rail service would have hardly any measurable impact on car use. The greatest cost of car use here is dependency and the isolation of those who do not use cars. Since more car journeys are made away from the rail corridor – indeed very few car journeys are only along the corridor – and 75% of households without a car are not near the corridor, that social isolation is again much better addressed by road-based public transport. .

  3. You are absolutely correct Louise, the rail trail has no social license.

    Removing any option for public transport in this region, to suit the whims of a potential 4% of visitors, would be a crime.

  4. What a wonderful improvement for our population’s public transport needs if the $13 million in funding, allocated for regional development activities, could be directed towards improved bus services and more disabled-friendly buses, and possibly the growing use of electric buses that can run for hundreds of kms on renewable power.

  5. As a casino resident I totally agree that there is no social benefit from a rail trail. Casino residents especially need much improved public transport. Not an elitist few tourists who will just use the coastal section of the trail trail.. Farmers are especially concerned about security bio security and weed control.

    • All residents in the Northern Rivers need better public transport Therese, not just those along the rail corridor, which is why it does not make sense to shift large sums away from existing or potential road transport to fund a rail service. The social benefits of funding the rail trail stem from the employment it generates along the line and the independence, security and sense of inclusion employment brings. As a liekly start or finish point Casino is well placed to benefit too . It would be an ideal base for the sort of shuttle bus services that operate at other rail trails, and doubtless the odd celebratory lemonade or shandy will be sold in the town too.

      I am not sure what you mean by elitist; anyone of any age with a bike or a pair of sandshoes can use a rail trial.

      There is no evidence to support the contention that rail trials are a bio-hazard; passing cars or trains generate far more dust that carries pathogens than a slow moving cycle or walker. Along the South Burnett rail trail they do restrict movement of horses across a tick line and farmers would need to consider if that is an issue here. Readers should be aware that NSW Farmers is working on having disused rail corridors passed to adjoining farmers; supposed bio-security issues are frequently raised by farmers in the per-approval stage of rail rails but are rarely heard following implementation.

  6. If people aren’t using buses then why would the government put a multi million dollar train system on the steam age alignment track ? The Trainy McTrainface in Byron Bay had 10 people get off and 6 people got on at 11.15am on a very busy Monday morning (today). Getting people (workers) out of their cars requires a minimum of 1/2 hourly arrival and departure from every station along the line which is impossible on single line track . And don’t start talking about passing lines as they don’t work in peak hour . Getting thousands of patrons in and out of the festivals in both directions and in 15 minute intervals requires more than a nostalgic slow winding reminiscing train ride in a 1950s Trainy McTrainface. Once the Byron Bay Bypass with its level crossing is built the old Northern Rivers railway line is cut forever as per the Cross Border Transport Taskforce 2009 document. TOOTs and NRRAG are so blinkered in their direction and didn’t read this document, leaving them with no fall back and egg on their face . Get real and work towards a future train system that will will get people out of cars and freight off our roads for our children , we don’t need another white elephant heritage tourist train.

  7. Geoff, I could not agree more, we need to get people out of cars, heavy transport of our roads and have some vision for our children’s future. We need to come up with viable public transport options for this region first and foremost. And then everyone can get behind a rail trail!

  8. Geoff, I could not agree more, we need to get people out of cars, heavy transport of our roads, and have some vision for our children’s future. We need to come up with viable public transport options for this region first and foremost. And then everyone can get behind a rail trail!

  9. I would call $75,000 raised in support of the Rail Trail “social license” as I would the “communityrun” petitions, which, based on today’s figures show 77% to 23% in favour of a Rail Trail. These indisputable figures, which are in the public domain, represent measurable “social license” unlike the hearsay and uncorroborated “facts” that are frequently referenced by NRRAG and TOOT.

  10. Peter, I have followed up your reference to the NSW Government’s Rail Trail Study and found that 1.9% of all tourists to the Vic. High Country Region are claimed to be the rail trail market, so this has been assumed pro-rata for Northern Rivers. Actually the Vic study is the highest number of tourists amongst all the RT studies quoted, so the NR % could well be considerably lower when it is eventually measurable.

    What leaves me speechless is that the NSW and Federal Governments are prepared to fork out up to $75m of taxpayers money to indulge 1.9% or fewer of regional tourists, while recklessly refusing to fund public transport for 100% of tourists and 100% of regional constituents as is their responsibility to the community.

    I don’t accept your points about buses being an adequate substitute for the train, or the train not serving new development areas. When I used to travel on the XPT I happily traveled 18 kms to get to the station, and was picked up on return. Buses are inaccessible for many people and uncomfortable for long distances.

    I was under the impression there were 169 bridges on the C-M Line, but the Rail Trail Study says 523; as a result I am sure that the funds provided will not reach even half way along the Line. Building a cheaper trail alongside the railway may be the only way it will get completed.

  11. The Victorian High Country Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail was used as a benchmark as it is closest in characteristics to ours. Any estimate can only be that but none of the locations of the other trials has same the proximity to a large city as ours, only the Otago is in an area of comparable scenic and tourist value as our area, and none has the advantage of being able to offer good weather for cycling in the Southern winter period. The first stage was not approved for funding to “indulge” tourists, but because the NSW and Commonwealth governments were persuaded it was a good way to encourage people to travel slowly through the region supporting the economy of the towns and villages in a way other tourists rarely do. I am not sure why you see a need to disparage the likelihood our area can attract this kind of traveller – the values of slow travel like slow food are what many people look for in our area.
    There is no contestability between the funding for a regional development spend like the rail trail and funding for public transport; they are from different budget allocations and no one has proposed a regional development activity using trains.
    Train enthusiasts slip between the costs and benefits of different types of rail to suit the argument. You present arguments for long distance rail , but NRRAG and TOOTs supporters tell us the cost of restoring the line is high because it was estimated on the basis of carrying an XPT, and they are adamant they want only want a light rail commuter service. Such a commuter train would provide any local transport services and would not improve long journeys. Replacing coaches to Casino with a two hourly light commuter rail would make for a longer less comfortable trip:
    • it would be slower than the coaches
    • light rail units do not provide a toilet
    • with a two hour headway and having to meet different commuting requirements to schools and workplace, it would likely require longer waits at Casino
    • it would mean XPT users from Tweed Heads, the Tweed Coast and the Gold Coast would need to wait for local buses and then carry baggage on them, wait again and change to the NR light rail and then wait and change at Casino, adding inconvenience and travel time for the mainly older people travelling from those areas.
    That is why the Northern Rivers Social Development Council focuses on the achievable goal of improving bus and coach services and ensuring they are disability friendly, which you cannot do if you waste your limited funds on rail.
    No NSW government has any plan to shift public transport away from local bus services for the areas with more elderly transport dependent people to provide a commuter rail along a corridor where the relatively young population that is not interested in using public transport. Nor will they give further consideration to spending the $900m they have been told is needed to put an XPT through to Murwillumbah, when for most of those public transport dependent people it would just mean they get off a coach and onto the train at a different station. The NSW government did allocate fund thousands of new bus services this financial year and followed up later in 2017 with thousands more, but because so called public transport advocates here are obsessed with a train that the government rightly advises would not provide good public transport for those that need it we have missed out on real improvements. For long distance transport government needs to consider in the context of the faster XPT replacement if using the completed M1 for express coaches to Grafton or Coffs, will provide a shorter journey for people who live along the coast (just as many Canberrans prefer to catch the Vicrail coach down the Hume freeway from to Albury to connect to the Vicrail train to Melbourne).

  12. Imagine how popular the express coaches will be, for carrying tourists with their bicycles cycles, getting off the XPT at Grafton or Coffs Harbor bound for Murwillumbah (or Crabbes Creek) to hop-off and ride the new rail trail. Bring on those coaches !


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