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Walking the disused railway line

Along the abandoned railway from Mullum to Billinudgel. Photo David Bayley

Paul Bibby

The old abandoned train tunnel rises out of the bush like the gaping mouth of some ancient animal.

Engulfed by lantana on both sides, it doesn’t come into view until you’re about ten metres away, having hacked and scrambled through the undergrowth.

When you hit the tunnel there’s a strong sense of having stumbled across someone’s lair.

And that’s exactly what it is.

About 20 metres into the void, someone or some people have built what can best be described as a cage, though it’s probably more about keeping people out rather than keeping them in.

Dozens of tree branches have been interlaced to form two ‘walls’ about five metres apart creating an enclosed space.

Inside the cage are mattresses and bedding, an old couch, empty bottles, plastic bags and a carpet of old wrappers and newspaper.

There’s enough room to slip around the side of the first wall, step carefully over the possessions, and escape out through another gap on the other side.

A few steps farther and you’re out the other side, back into the light…

Track transformed

Fourteen years after the closure of the Murwillumbah line, the track has been transformed.

As the seemingly endless debate over the future of the rail corridor continues to rage, the line itself is quietly evolving into a wild and rotting but fascinating place.

Nature has well and truly moved in, and so have the fringes of the local community.

The track between Mullumbimby and Ocean Shores is so overgrown it took my companion and myself five hours to make the journey.

We had to leave the rails for large stretches because they were too overgrown, finding alternative routes alongside until the scrub cleared.

The rails, not surprisingly, are covered with deep, red rust that in places seems to have eaten most of the way through.

The sleepers are in various stages of decay, ranging from slightly degraded to a rotten, splintered mess.

In a few places they have been simply shoved aside by camphor laurel trees that have somehow managed to force their way up through the track’s rocky foundations.

The rail bridges spanning the Brunswick River and its tributaries are in a similarly parlous state. The sleepers are particularly rotted here, and are completely missing in some places.

With rotting support timbers, you don’t have to be an engineer to see that they’re not structurally sound.

So what does this mean for the future of the line and the debate between those who want it used for its original purpose and those who would prefer a picturesque bike and walking track?

It’s clear from even a short walk along the track that re-opening the line for heavy rail would require completely tearing up some parts of the track and rebuilding it.

Some stretches where the rail corridor has been better maintained are evidently in much better shape and would require less work, but in the bushy areas nature appears to have taken over almost completely.

Returning all of these stretches to useable rail line would cost tens if not hundreds of millions, not to mention the ongoing cost of maintenance.

But it’s evident from the experience of other local shires that converting the line into a walking and bike track wouldn’t be cheap either.

Preliminary costings released by Lismore Council recently put a $15m price tag on turning the stretch of track from Casino to Lismore into a rail trail.

It led Lismore councillor Greg Bennett to ask, ‘does anyone else think this is absolutely ridiculous?’.

‘Why would the state government even consider funding this waste of taxpayers’ money?’ Cr Bennett asked.

‘Surely $15 million would go a long way to restoring trains to the Lismore/Casino line.’

The Echo can’t comment on the state of that particular stretch of line, but having seen the state of the rails between Mullumbimby and Ocean Shores, it is easy to imagine $15m being swallowed up very quickly.

Nature taking over

And the longer the government authorities wait the more expensive any major project will become because nature is slowly gobbling up what’s left of the line.

Having said that, an ambitious government planning to put trains back on this section of track, or indeed a walking track, wouldn’t have to start completely from scratch.

The most basic foundations of the rail corridor appear to still be intact.

It’s a tribute to the original engineers and workers that there have been no major mudslides, rockfalls or obvious failures of the rail cuttings.

The tunnels, too, appear to be completely intact.

Which helps to explain why they have attracted so much human attention.

Each of the three tunnels we encountered had evidently been used as a place to sleep, to party, and to create.

The second tunnel we encountered – a beautiful, 100m-long cathedral-like structure – was adorned with about a dozen pieces of retro tunnel art.

The artists had taken advantage of the huge ‘canvas’ to spray old-school 1980s-style New York subway-style pieces with ornate, garish backgrounds.

The still-vibrant colours suggested some were little more than a year or two old.

Given that the most likely outcome for the line, at least in the short-to-medium term, is the status quo, it seems likely that the fringe dwellers will be allowed to continue their activities largely uninterrupted.

The debate over the future of the track will continue and nature will continue her inevitable course, reclaiming the line and returning it – sleeper by sleeper – back to the earth.

 


31 responses to “Walking the disused railway line”

  1. Len Heggarty says:

    The leaves of green grow, bind and envelope the Casino to Murwillumbva ralway line in undergrowth and steals it away in decay that has eaten and overgrown a long worn-out sleeper and railway line spike as the alarm sounds in town that this line could be crossed out to be a rail trail.

    • Tim Shanasy says:

      Byron Shire Council,, Where Are You ??

      Still stuck on The Byron Line to Nowhere ??
      Getting very embarrassed with our neighbouring Shires getting their acts together promoting the Rail Trail?
      You certainly should be.. !!

      We need you to support the activation of our decrepit corridor, by actively encouraging state and federal funding to make the corridor available for locals and tourists via a world class Rail Trail.
      This is the most effective way to hold it in public hands for whatever future use we may need it for.

      Stop the prohibitive nostalgia dreams and wake up to the Green solution. A Rail Trail.

      You’ll be so glad you did..

  2. Greg Clitheroe says:

    The vegetation and rusty rails are the least of the problems. Numerous century-old wooden trestle bridges are in various stages of decay. It is nonsense for anyone to propose that the rails will ever return to service.

    Even if it were rebuilt, the line could never meet modern commuter transport needs. It is built on a nineteenth century alignment with many tight bends that would be limited to 80 kph even if the line were in new condition. Terminating at Murwillumbah it doesn’t even connect places that people need to travel.

    Completely undaunted by the billion dollar price to restore the existing line, many rail proponents advocate extending the line to Coolangatta. This multi-billion dollar proposition involves construction across the Tweed River floodplain, requiring millions of tonnes of materials to be quarried and transported, negotiating acid sulphate soils and a tunnel under Tweed Heads. The financial, social and environment costs are prohibitive, especially when existing bus services frequently operate at less then ten percent of their passenger capacity.

    The only viable future for this valuable public resource is a world class rail trail. The sooner it is built the sooner we will reap the benefits. The Tweed section has already been fully funded. Byron Shire is wasting everyone’s time investigating a dual rail and trail option.

  3. rowly taylor says:

    From memory the rail ceased operating in 2006 with the last Silver service Blue Train ,a tourist venture traveling from Murwullumbah to Lismore and return aimed for Asian tourists.
    State Rail had Toyota Land Cruisers that were equipped with rail wheels as well as standard road wheels,used to maintain the tracks which would be useful in clearing the tracks as a community project.
    I have maintained about a 200m x 20m section next to the rail line for about 14 years,ever since they stopped spraying with herbicide.An 80KVA DC power cable is buried under this land and runs I believe to QLD.Mowing this land once a week for about 6 months of the year is quite a chore.
    The bridge across Brunswick River is metal,with concrete sleepers and foundations.
    I would love to see the rail line used again,perhaps with light coaches pulled by a Toyota.
    Cheers All….Rowly

  4. Roma Newton says:

    Re Our disused Rail line: “Why would the state Government even consider funding this waste of taxpayers’ money” ? asked Cr Bennett (TDN 4/4/18).

    The actual, real question is: Why would the state Government even consider ever removing it ? With our local population growing, and continuing to grow at a faster rate than any other region in Australia – there should be no question about its urgent restoration. Too expensive? A lame excuse.

    Start a Northern Rivers Lottery – following the example of the Opera House Lottery in Sydney, and not only will we soon see a first class rail line with top class carriages, but also adequate money to pay all who work on it.

    Everything and all will prosper … traffic will be less clogged, visitors and tourists will pour in, accommodation will be filled and shop keepers profits will rise.

    Come on “TOOT”. Let’s get it going . . .

    • marie lawton says:

      Roma, did you actually read this article?

    • Peter Hatfield says:

      The reason the NSW and Commonwealth governments funded stage one of the Tweed rail trail is that it is backed up with a well documented study that argues persuasively that it will provide a good recreational experience and a positive benefits for its cost from estimated large numbers of visiting users – perhaps Cr Bennnet ought to read it. The NSW government is not considering removing the corridor but it is not considering re-opening the line because in its words: “… studies by successive governments have found it would not meet current or future transport needs”. That is because our area’s population, particularly the older transport dependent population, is growing away from the line and not along the rail corridor, and the rail line does not serve the destinations people need to visit , leaving people with longer journeys involving long waits for the train and connecting buses. We need to keep in mind that any public transport use here will be marginal and have little impact on car use. However if with an appropriate ticket for locals can be found for what would likely be an expensive tourist rail on the Byron Line it might attract some people who could drive to the line and use it to go into the three Byron Shire towns, but it needs to be carefully planned to supplement to be a good network of regular buses that go to the many destinations like Byron hospital and Bangalow away from the line. Although it is not explicit in its terms of reference I have been assured by Simon Richardson that this will be considered in the feasibility for the Byron Line , as will the original Byron Line concept that a rail service can work with the establishment of a rail trail. That could relieve a little of the congestion in those towns – especially in the Bay – but as Ballina shows not as much as removing the rail corridor could 🙂

  5. FarmerDan says:

    Thanks, Paul, for an unexpectedly good piece of investigative journalism. Kudos to the Echo!

    Those I’ve spoken to from TOOT and NRRAG haven’t been near any sort of railway for years. It’s good to hear some real facts.

    The line was shut down in the face of intensive lobbying from pressure groups because even vote-hungry politicians could see that it was a huge drain on the public purse.

    I have repeatedly asked those few train acolytes I can find which schools, roads, and hospitals they would take money from to fund their love of nostalgia. None has ever explained this.

    Greg Bennett and those who share his view don’t seem to understand that tourism is a major contributor to our region. A rail trail will bring more free-spending visitors, keep them in the area longer, and generate jobs all along the way. The sooner it stretches from Casino to Murwillumbah, the better.

    • Wayne Brown says:

      The above story is not in any way a piece of “factual information”. It is an ill-informed opinion piece at best and lacks any expert input. The above article is based purely on assumption. The simple fact is most of the line could easily be cleared with roundup and a mulching head on a hi-rail vehicle. This was done on the line in Byron Bay and within weeks it was cleared fully of vegetation.

      It’s interesting you also choose to completely ignore the numerous benefits of rail, and instead focus on the possible benefits that may arise from a rail trail in a best-case scenario. It’s interesting you also choose to ignore that rail in this region was actually very profitable before the timetable was changed in the 90’s. Perhaps it’s time the rail trail advocates had a think about which areas (i.e. schools, hospitals, etc.) would be worse off so they can have their recreational activity of cycling funded?

      • marie lawton says:

        Sounds like you might be assuming the rest of the line is like the short Elements section in Byron Bay? You might need to go for a walk yourself Wayne and check out the other 97 percent of it.

      • Peter Hatfield says:

        Rail buffs repeat endlessly the reference to a rail service making a profit, but putting aside that they never reference where that assertion comes from, that was three decades ago. The rail closed because it was running at a loss and patronage was declining. The suggestion that better timetabled service led to the 2004 PwC proposal, which also required a large subsidy, and it was found by Railcorp to be under costed and understaffed, and overestimated patronage. The Arup study similarly found a commuter rail service was not viable. How many studies need to be done before some people will believe the Elements train and . that station manager who said recently it was unlikely rail would service other parts of the region. “Rail costs a lot of many to build and upgrade “. The benefits of the rail trail are not confined to a best case scenario – the study shows a positive rate of return at much lower than the anticipated usage. There will not be any schools or hospitals disadvantaged by funding of the rail trail – it is not money allocated for health and education. The Tweed stage one is being funded form NSW and Commonwealth regional development windows; if our rail trail had not been funded the money would be available for other regional development projects – likely in other places- that were not judged to offer the same value as our rail trail. As a resident of Ballina I am proud that my council has spent on similar infrastructure that brings families and others to walk and cycle around our beautiful town – it was one of the reasons I chose Ballina for my home. Similarly rail trail advocates have no need be concerned about funding that will being visitors and spending into our region; nor should they be concerned that their activity involves recreation that can bring health and social benefits to anyone who cycles or walks along the trial .

        • Wayne Brown says:

          So Peter, that also means that no money would be taken from schools and hospitals to fund rail (as incorrectly implied by FarmerDan) as it is not money allocated for Health and Education.

          You too have chosen to ignore the benefits of rail and instead focus on economical viability, whilst then ignoring the uneconomical and unviable nature of the rail trail before trumpeting it’s possible benefits. Both trains and rail trails would not be viable. That said however, at least trains would generate some direct revenue that could then be re-invested back into the infrastructure.

          • Greg Clitheroe says:

            The train service would operate at a loss so far from being a source of revenue it would continue to be a burden on tax payers. That is after spending a billion dollars on reinstating the line.

          • Peter Hatfield says:

            That is correct Wayne. Health and Education are funded from other budget allocations and it is not lawful to use funds form one allocation for other than its intended purpose. The funding if not spent here would go to other regional development activities – perhaps other rail trials – and since bids for grants come form all over NSW or Australia, most likely elsewhere (or they can be returned to consolidated revenue if there is no other suitable purpose).

      • Matty says:

        Wayne I’m from Vic and agree , the Bairnsdale to traralgon line suffered the same fate 25 odd years ago and after being closed about twelve or fourteen years it was reopened on trial . Bus patronage in that time on the circuit was dismal as people simply prefer trains to driving , buses are only a choice by most that have no other . The train returned on trial after tracks were cleared and basic maintenance done on a strictly trial basis , community was told if the patronage did not follow through and it remained unviable the line would be permanently closed and removed to become a rail trail like the maffra to traralgon line .
        The patronage in the last 8-10 years on this line has been soo good with just a three up/ three down service major infrastructure and line upgrade is commencing on huge timber span bridges like the Avon bridge aswell as new velocity trains and increased two hourly services , this will replace the 40 odd year old train set and significantly speed up the service .
        I do not see why this couldn’t be replicated on the line through Lismore with equal succession as the towns the Bairnsdale line services are all equal or smaller than . Trains keep people local and link elderly , disabled and low income people to regional centres far better than buses .
        I’ll add our Traralgon-Melb line is currently on a ten day maintenance and infrastructure closure and the train replacement bus patronage in just this short period results in only twenty-five percent of people that would travel by train .
        Over and over here in Gippsland Weser what’s tragic and terrible decision it was to reduce rail all those years ago and continue to see it keeping the country and city well connected , my houses market value is also substantially increased as it’s on a rail line .

    • marie lawton says:

      You are right FarmerDan. Our main industry now is tourism. Bring on the rail trail. It is rail trail or we lose the corridor to nature.
      The State Government seems to have lots of money for these type of projects at the moment so we shouldn’t let the opportunity slip us by.

  6. Wayne Brown says:

    It should be remembered that the track north of Mullumbimby has the most bad bits. Casino to Lismore cannot be compared to this section as there are no trees on the Casino – Lismore section and the track is in need of very little to be back in action.

    The $15 million figure comes from the expensive practice of removing the rails, sleepers and ballast and putting down a gravel track in it’s place. If the Casino to Lismore rail trail is put beside the tracks, it could be done for millions less, and the $15 million allocated for the current rail trail proposal could go a long way in restoring the track from Casino to Lismore, which is already in good condition with no major work required to fix it.

    It should also be remembered that the section of track that is now operational used by the Byron Solar Train was once heavily overgrown, however the line was cleared with roundup and a mulching head within weeks. Nothing is impossible.

  7. Doug says:

    I was alive when the old line used to service the Snowy Mountains scheme was re-opened in a similar time to the time the Murbah-Casino line has been closed. That line was used for years before being de-commissioned again after the Snowy scheme was closed.
    It is definitely possible to re-commission the N Coast line. It will be needed in the future (when the population increases some more).

    As I have stated before, I think we need to extend the Qld gauge railway from the Gold Coast to eventually terminate at Casino. This could be done a section at a time from the Qld end.

  8. Milton says:

    What has been described here is an observation of wasted opportunity, negligence and heartbreak. It’s true that with every passing day, the cost to repair increases. So this piece could be described as witnessing a crime. It’s just so sad that North coast communities are ( currently) unable to make Sydney listen (when Sydney is up to it’s neck with other transport dramas). Betrayed by previous politicians, surely the times are inevitably moving towards an enlightened consciousness that acknowledges the transport demands of the future. So those sleepers will have to be fixed. And the bridges. And the ferals kicked out of the tunnels.

  9. Kathleen Blanks says:

    Good for you, for fully investigating this. The line ought never to have been closed.

  10. Martin says:

    It is easy, just fix it.
    We are a clever and rich country that needs a solid public rail transportation system in place on the far north coast to last the next 300 years, that benefits all people.
    Stop putting it off short sighted money grabbing politicians and do something that will make us all proud.
    Make it the best new rail line in the world.

  11. Robcl says:

    Easy fix, Far to valuable to give away to bullshit.
    Bloody hell, get it going. the rail line restored would return so much.
    This region give so much to the coffers, it’s about time something decent was given back..

  12. Geoff Bensley says:

    So love people getting sucked into thinking they will get a 1/2 hourly commuter train during peak work start hours and hourly trains out of peak hours . Sorry TOOTs and NRRAG but on a single line track this won’t happen . The best will be passing loops at the stations and heaven help us if one locomotive is late or breaks down , absolute chaos will occur . And don’t start flogging a dead horse again about this single line alleviating or helping move tens of thousands of punters from the music festivals, get a grip on reality and stop listening to heritage rail rails and train gunzels with a fetish for slow trains . The Gold Coast to Brisbane heavy rail is designed for 160kmh trains and the Mbah to Casino is designed for mostly 85kmh maximum train speed .
    If anyone has seen a regular TOOTs supporter using Trainy McTrainface at Byron Bay I will jump on my horse and ride naked between Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah!

  13. Beth Shelley says:

    Other public services have been neglected for years and need money put into them especially in rural areas. Does this have anything to do with them being Nationals seats perhaps? Health services, TAFE, Child Protection services, Aboriginal services and so many have been neglected and had funding cuts but does that mean we stop saying the people of this region deserve decent, well-managed public services?

    Yes indeed the line has been neglected because that suits the government. Mind you the particular area you mention is one of the worst areas. Casino to Lismore could easily be repaired with minimal cost. The point is we need government that cares about the needs of the people in our communities and fixing up a railway that already exists is still going to be cheaper than building something new. Our communities deserve good, responsive public services and if you believe that everything else falls into place.

  14. Greg Clitheroe says:

    Typical of rail supporters, Roma Newton has a complete disregard for facts. This region is not the fastest growing population in Australia. It doesn’t even rate as a fast growing area. That title goes to parts of Sydney and Melbourne where local rail enthusiasts lament that money is being spent on rail services instead of here.

    Most of the population growth in this region is not even located anywhere near the rail corridor.

    Like other rail proponents, Roma cares nothing about costs in the greedy quest for “a first class rail line” and “top class carriages” to be provided for a handful of public transport users who happen to live near the line. They also typically expect these services to be provided at trivial fare prices.

    The lottery funding proposal just shows how far these people can stray from reality.

  15. Gary Ainsworth says:

    A very sloppy article based very heavily on assumption. The article is clearly lacking in any expert opinion. I would also like to question the accuracy of the above article, as the bridge over the Brunswick River near Mullumbimby is steel with sleepers that are in top condition. The sleepers on that bridge look like new. The bridge is certainly not of crumbling timber construction as incorrectly reported by the article above.

    I must say I am disappointed to see the standard of Echo reporting to reach this biased, inaccurate low.

    • marie lawton says:

      Certainly the bridge you refer to Gary is one of the better ones. However, that is only 1 out of 187.

  16. Adam in Ewingsdale says:

    I am missing something? Are any rail advocates aware of emerging trends in public transport like driverless road trains and shuttles etc? It’s like the iPhone has just been announced and you’re advocating for investment in a new telegraph line.

  17. Len Hend says:

    It is not a surprise to me that this line has closed.
    Many years ago I got off the train at Murwillumbah with about a dozen other people and a few cars.
    The train weighed 700 tons – what a waste of energy..

  18. P Cordeiro says:

    All in favour of fixing it. Let’s get it going.

  19. Dona says:

    Is there planning for public transport infrastructure for Northern NSW?
    Road transport, that it? If you recall it took years for NSW / Qld / Federal to agree to the funding for the upgrade to the highway at the border.
    Sydney as a Mega City wont be pleasant.
    Hesitate to consider Brisbane and Goldie sprawling further, but we already send our kids to uni there, medical specialists too are over the border, so too the cavernous jaws of capitalism (shopping centres). Eventually Qld will come to us.
    Being the forgotten North has benefits, we live in paradise unblemished by concrete, save the coastal strip, but the price is a lack of infrastructure.
    Want change, don’t vote for more of the same.

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