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Byron Shire
March 2, 2021

Mullum, Byron Bay rail with trail moves forward

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The debate over the future of the Shire’s decommissioned rail line flared again at last week’s Council meeting, with councillors considering spending another $200,000 on the dream of getting trains back on the degraded line.

With Council set to allocate further funds to the project at its next budget review, Councillor Alan Hunter unsuccessfully moved that the plan be shelved until a benefactor with deep pockets could be found.

Walking the Banglaow to Byron rails. Photo Benjamin Gilmore.

‘We need to stop talking about putting a train on the tracks until we get someone who’s going to underwrite our expenses, or to pick it up and build it,’ Cr Hunter said during an at-times fiery meeting.   

‘There’s no way forward with the train – it’s just a sink-hole for money.

‘What we do have is clear support for the bike and walking trail. There’s support here, in other Shires, across the country and around the world’.

A report from Council staff tabled at the meeting recommended that further funds be allocated to the project to fund the development of a ‘robust business case’ and to determine the amount of work needed to make the line train-ready.

Private consultants Arcadis Australia have made a proposal to Council to undertake a structural assessment of the 12-plus bridges on the line using a ‘digital methodology’.

The company, which has previously been hired by Council to work on the rail project, quoted $200,000 for the work.

However, it has been suggested that the company significantly underestimated the number of bridges on the line, and that the cost of the assessment could be closer to $500,000.

$500k in reports

‘Already in this [term of] Council we’ve spent $380,000. Now, just to get this new report done it’s going to cost $500,000,’ Cr Hunter said.

But a majority of councillors disagreed.

Greens Mayor, Simon Richardson, moved that the original staff recommendation be put, and this passed by five votes to three.

‘We keep hearing how expensive this is going to be, but no state government is going to spend tens of millions on a bike path [along the railway line] when most of the community doesn’t want it,’ Mayor Richardson said.

‘The cost of upgrading it to a bike path is similar to the cost of making it fit for a train shuttle of under 10 tonnes. 

‘The bike trail people have been quietly supporting this [bringing back the trains] because they know that getting a financially feasible vehicle on there first is the best way to go.’

The motion that was passed reads, ‘That Council considers a budget allocation at the September quarterly review to undertake further work on the Rail with Trail on the corridor between Mullumbimby and Byron Bay’. 

Crs Hackett, Spooner, and Hunter voted against the amendment. 

In favour were Crs Richardson, Martin, Ndiaye, Cameron, Lyon and Coorey.


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15 COMMENTS

  1. Fiddling while Rome is burning!
    The real issue is managing “over tourism”.
    BSC is currently on a downward spiral of traffic jams, overcrowded beaches, highly expensive accommodation and greedy landlords.
    Get real and deal with the key issues, please.

  2. The Very Light Rail vehicles Arcadis proposed are somehow half the weight of any existing rail technology with an axle load of four tonnes and a vehicle weight of ten tonnes. (Apparently they have 2.5 axles.)

    No VLR vehicles exist anywhere in the world despite the Arcadis report (August 2019) claiming they were “currently being tested in the UK”. They included images of several VLR vehicles, but they all turned out to be nothing more than computer renderings of “concept vehicles”. The Dudley VLR Research Centre is still an artist impression eight years on although the timeline on their website shows “project completion” as “July 2019”.

    These VLRs are supposed to be run on the tracks where “between five and ten percent” and “ultimately twenty five percent” of sleepers need to be replaced. The costings for the project are done at five percent and the enormous delayed costs never considered. No costs are included for any rail replacements despite large sections being buried under thick vegetation for more than a decade and an acknowledgement that some sections may need to be replaced. No signaling costs are included.

    These miniature trams would have a maximum speed of 50 kph and seat about 20 people. They are initially to be run on the single track between Byron and Mullumbimby. As there are no sidings they could only run a couple of services each way per hour. Incredibly, they believe this is somehow going to address the traffic nightmare on Ewingsdale Road.

    Fares on privately operated railways such as the existing Byron Solar train are typically $1.30 per kilometre making the trip to Mullumbimby about $40 return. Keep in mind that in its first year of operation the Byron Train cost three times as much to run as was collected in fares, resulting in a $500,000 lost for the year. (They no longer publish their financial returns.) The losses are covered by Elements Resort and the operation is heavily dependent on volunteers.

    Meanwhile the council plan is to subsidise locals by charging tourists even more. At Gympie’s Mary Valley Rattler the tourists pay $62 for a slightly longer journey while another $40 is contributed for each passenger by Gympie ratepayers. Like typical rail projects it has experienced enormous cost blowouts and become a financial black hole, reaching a point where the proponents are like gamblers who have invested too much to stop.

    If I were a Byron Ratepayer I would be very worried. The council will squander millions on this fairytale before realty finally sinks in.

  3. We could still have a great public transport option that is not exactly a train, but it is much cheaper to get up and running!! These are large train like carriages that hold up to 300 people, are electric, driverless and run on a road using a GPS and a painted line. They are already used in China. So instead of laying down expensive tracks we could just lay down asphalt and paint it with a blue line, done!!
    Check it out: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/11/06/worlds-first-driverless-trackless-train-launches-china-zhuzhou-transport-design/

    • What would be the point of having a 300 seat vehicle when buses with a seating capacity of more than fifty usually run with only a handful of passengers?

      But yes, rails are very expensive infrastructure and completely inflexible as the needs of a region change. The Casino-Murwillumbah rail corridor was designed to meet the needs of the region in the late nineteenth century when transport usually meant a horse and cart or a boat. Since then the greatest population growth has been along the coast, well away from the the old corridor.

      Trains came from an era when engines were so heavy that rails were the only way to support them. They are still the best way to move heavy bulk materials. In modern times their other strength is the ability to operate at very high speeds with ordinary rail reaching speeds of 140 kph while high speed rail can operate at 300 kph or more. To achieve these speeds the track curves must have very large radius measured in kilometres. The old corridor has many curves with a radius down to 400 metres or less.

      The old corridor is no longer useful for trains but its gentle gradients and isolation from high speed traffic make them perfect for cycling and walking, allowing people of ordinary fitness to travel very great distances. Electric bicycles make the trail accessible to everyone. It would be perfectly practical to commute from Mullumbumby or Bangalow to Byron on an electric bike.

    • Parissa Bouas has bought intelligence into the debate. Instead of focussing on copying a far outdated system and now finally we have a solution

  4. We’ve waited long enough to find out that trains are not financially viable in this region. Meanwhile, in other parts of Australia, carbon-neutral eco-tourism is booming with rail trails becoming more and more popular. One has only to look at the Warburton Trail in Vic to see what it has done for the towns along that old train line. Pubs, cafes, bike shops – all booming. Our Mayor is so caught up listening to the very vocal “old guard” of Byron greens supporters, that he doesn’t see that there is a silent majority right under his nose that not only support a rail trail, but who would actually use it as well. Has a proper survey of what locals want actually been done, or is the mayor just going off hearsay or cherry-picked data?

  5. Insanity. Spending more and more money on reports and expecting a different outcome.
    And these people talk like there is no public transport, when in reality there are in fact buses running every day that go far more places that a railway will ever go, using existing infrastructure at far less cost to the taxpayers of NSW.

    Just get on with it and build a safe rail tail for runners, walkers and cyclists between Byron and Mullum.

  6. There are 26 bridges between Byron Bay and Mullumbimby. Three are concrete, one part steel, part timber, and the rest timber. I have located and photographed all of these bridges in recent weeks. All of the timber spanning structures need very significant repairs or more likely replacement.

    Arcadis quoted to do a structural assessment of 7 bridges (not 12) for ~$200k. At that rate it would cost ~$650k to assess 23 bridges.

  7. It’s interesting how the same group can be labelled by the same person as the voice of the community in one context but a noisy minority in another.

    There has never been, to my knowledge, a reliable measure of how many support which option. Even if a majority have a nostalgic desire to once again hear trains on the tracks, is this sufficient basis for governments, local, state and federal, to make decisions or is it incumbent on them to make sound economic and environmental judgements based on all the information available?

    Does Council know that they will get state government (as the owners) approval to utilise the tracks for the envisaged purposes? If they are confident that approval will be forthcoming for a trail beside rail option why not first pursue the relatively inexpensive bike/walk trail first to give fairly immediate and hugely beneficial electric vehicle access from Mullumbimby to Byron Bay as well as some test of usage and feasibility?

    While they are at it they could look at doing the same for the last part of the Suffolk to Byron Bay bike track that would give a far superior alternative to that planned?

    • Another question that does not appear to have been addressed is whether any suitably qualified and professionally indemnified railway engineer would ever put their name to a certificate confirming the safety of operation on a line that had been patched up with just one in twenty sleepers replaced as suggested by Arcadis.

      Without this there is no way the miniature trams could be allowed to operate, much less be able to obtain public liability insurance. This would seem to be an enormous risk to the project with the potential for millions to be wasted and end up with nothing at all to show for it. I am deeply concerned that a small number of passionate but naïve rail enthusiasts have the attention of most of the council who are functioning in a confirmation bias mode while failing to identify the critical risk factors of which there are many.

      This happened in Gympie’s Mary Valley Rattler project. Overly optimistic ambitions for the extent of the track and how it could be cheaply repaired collapsed after two serious derailments resulted in the closure of the line for five years despite ten million dollars having already been spent. Another eight million dollars was then spent on a less ambitious track length.

      Fares are now more than double the original projections and still require subsidies from ratepayers while continuing to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. The Council has loaned the project a million dollars and last year made an unconditional commitment to continuing financial support for another three years. Now the project is seeking a further ten million dollar loan despite being unable to even break even let alone service a debt.

  8. Liz L, re: the Suffolk to Byron cycleway:

    The railway corridor doesn’t run past the schools on Tennyson St, nor does it connect to the Beachcomber/Pacific Vista neighbourhood. The on-road and off-road cycleways planned for Bangalow Rd picks up residents who live either side of Bangalow Rd and connects through to the shared path on Tennyson St that runs path the public school and community school.

    So I would disagree with you there. The Bangalow Rd route is far superior, unless you want get to Sunrise in a hurry.

    • David, I ride the path often and know its pitfalls. The off-road track is not a track but a shared footpath, extremely narrow in places and with concealed driveways. It’s generally necessary to wait at every intersection on the off-road shared footpath because there is always traffic banked up across the track, giving way to the traffic in Bangalow Rd. This stop start aspect make it tedious for anyone trying to meet a deadline, dangerous for young riders and a far from pleasurable ride for leisure. The on-road section will afford less safety than a track that runs on the rail corridor and will take scarce parking space.

      There’s surely much to commend a track that would link well with the one that gives access to Sunrise, the industrial estate and, if all goes to plan, Mullumbimby. Regardless of these links it would give safe, fast, efficient access to the centre of town for work, shopping, appointments etc. I’d say these are more common destinations from the south that Beachcomber and Pacific Vista.

      I agree that we need good cycle access to major locations. We are supposed to be a green shire and we certainly want to get cars off our roads. There are pedestrian crossings in Johnson St that could link to other, safer access to the schools for the time these kids are commuting. Given our congestion issues It’s surely worth our while to have a network that accommodates this short extra journey.

  9. Simon Richardson says: ‘The bike trail people have been quietly supporting this [bringing back the trains] because they know that getting a financially feasible vehicle on there first is the best way to go.’

    Really? I don’t know any rail trail (it isn’t a “bike trail”) people who think this way.

    If it is ‘the best way to go’ why has Tweed Shire been ready to ramp up to construction of their trail for two years just waiting for the legislation, while Byron Shire only has nothing more than an incredibly expensive report that is obviously nonsense to anyone who reads it intelligently? (And the intent to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more on reports.)

    The best way to go would have been for Byron Council to have accepted Tweed’s offer four years ago to include the section between Crabbes Creek and Billinudgel in their trail project. What an opportunity squandered, especially for the people of north Byron Shire. What a lack of vision by the Byron councillors involved.. Of course it doesn’t matter to Richardson because he is not running for election again. His delusional railway plans and the ensuing financial black hole will become someone else’s problems.

    Financially viable vehicle? That is as ridiculous as the idea that tourists are going to pay premium fares to subsidise local users.

  10. I’d like to clarify that I appreciate that Council are making concerted attempts to improve bike lanes from Suffolk Park to Byron Bay. The new track, to date, is great in many ways though having road crossings Is not ideal. The real challenge is from the High School into Byron Bay as there existing road and footpath infrastructure imposes impossible constraints. Where is it to go?

    The rail corridor though offers a fantastic opportunity as it does for cycle, mobility vehicle travel around the shire. It’s a bit much to have these possibilities as the whims of elitist. Since when has the good old proletarian bicycle been elitist?

    • Elitist, probably since it became a purely recreational past-time for tourists, in the interests of tourism operators, as opposed to proletariats.
      I’m not totally convinced either way, but I think the loss of trains was massive for us incoming generations. We learned to love hitch-hiking around Byron, but I’m sure we would have preferred an alternative at times – getting picked up by cops isn’t ideal, but neither is getting killed on the highway.
      Maybe buses would do, if they weren’t so expensive, slow and infrequent. I prefer the idea of bringing my bike on the train.
      Most importantly, I don’t think a rail trail is a genuine “green transport” proposal as long as cyclists don’t have safe access to existing roads. I’ve cycled in the shire and through cities and countryside in various other countries. Exclusive cycleways are sometimes direct, but never get you all the way from A to B, and if I want to save energy, I’ll often choose the straightest line.
      The way people drive in the shire is horrendous for one. I don’t remember ever going out on my bike without being made to feel like I don’t exist. What happened to the public awareness campaigns?
      Planning is far too shy of pedestrianising roads. That cycle lane on the highway is madness – not because cyclists shouldn’t be there, but because cars are encouraged to pass within a metre at 100kph. In such circumstances, the car lane needs to be shared, cyclists need priority in that lane, and it needs to marked accordingly, so that drivers have to slow until a cyclist moves to the side or there’s an opening in the fast lane.
      The same has to be for all the departmental roads. cyclists need to be encouraged by signage or markings to occupy a full lane instead of hugging the crumbling margins.
      All this before a rail trail is “green” or “proletariat”.

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