Story & photo David Lisle
The debate over our disused rail corridor has long gone stale. It is acrimonious, ideological, and exhibits a strong tendency to avoid key points. Everyone loves trains, but regrettably, train love will not return trains to our tracks.
The development of railroads was a signal feature of the industrial revolution. A century and a half later, deep in the digital age, we still cling desperately to the idea of trains – the embodiment of nineteenth century progress. The Murwillumbah branch line was built in 1894; its closure 110 years later was viewed as theft, regional neglect perpetuated by corrupt, self-interested, city politicians.
When the XPT ceased running between Murwillumbah and Casino in 2004, I missed, for a brief while, the train’s whistle as it passed the level crossing in Mullumbimby. But those of us who actually caught the train realised its replacement with a bus to Casino was no big deal. The train was certainly a preferable mode of conveyance, yet the effect was the same. You were reliably delivered to Casino and the Sydney train.
The community was slow to react to the branch line’s closure, probably because of its trifling impact. A few train activists briefly waved placards and intoned slogans. Then the guns fell silent.
The rail-trail debate was kindled in 2012 when a condition assessment, by engineers ARUP, determined that the train’s return required nearly a billion dollars’ worth of track works. A further report, by NSW transport, recommended enhanced bus services as the most effective means of improving public transport in the area. The corridor’s great promise as a rail-trail was also noted.
The Sourdough Group, a local business consultancy, soon began advocating for the disused corridor to become a cycle and walking trail (aka rail-trail). A year later, in 2014, the NSW government undertook a feasibility study which found the cost of building the trail could be quickly recouped. It ‘committed’ to funding the project but this commitment wilted in the face of community disagreement about the corridor.
Sold off or saved?
The prospect of a rail-trail had reinvigorated the train lobby. Although a key concern of rail-trail proponents was preserving the corridor for future generations, they were accused of wanting the corridor sold off, and attacked for having ‘vested interests’, being ‘corporate backed’, pursuing ‘hidden agendas’, and being against public transport. At times it was as if rail-trail proponents had stolen the train, along with the hopes and aspirations of the denizens of the North Coast.
The Nationals were pro-rail-trail and the Greens pro-train. To many, this proved the rail-trail was a shonky deep-state conspiracy.
The rail line’s closure was justified on the basis of low patronage and looming maintenance costs. These fiscal grounds hinted strongly at Macquarie Street’s reluctance to spend money. Yet the call to ‘bring back the train’ soon became ‘give us a commuter rail service’. Despite the clear signal that fiscal largesse would not be forthcoming, the indefatigable soldiers of the rail renaissance decided this was the hill they would die on.
Bringing the train back was never really about the worthy objective of public transport. It was always about bringing the train back. Nostalgia and symbolism were the paramount concern, not people’s material interests, such as transport access. Otherwise, these campaigners might have called for expanded bus services.
A few years ago the deep-pocketed resort at Belongil put a solar train on the line to convey its well-healed patrons three kilometres, at bicycle speed, into Byron Bay. The train lobby, including most councillors, rejoiced. This development was ‘movement at the station’ – evidence, that they believed, a commuter service was a fait accompli.
Byron Council engaged Arcadis to report into the feasibility of reactivating the rail corridor within the Shire, and are now pursuing a project called The Byron Line. Arcadis evaluated six different multi-modal uses of the corridor. The report seemed skewed against track removal and towards novelty, although its terms of reference are illusive. Owing to the excessive cost of restoring the track, Council favours using either a hi-rail vehicle, something like a Toyota Coaster, capable of 25–35 km/h on rail, and road travel too; or a hyper-light new rail technology for which a prototype is being developed in the UK.
The report’s fine print reveals such minutiae as the need to replace the steel rail-bridge over the river in Mullumbimby with a reinforced concrete structure, an engineering and financial feat a rail-trail would not require.
Council is ‘continuing to identify further funding opportunities’ for their multimodal extravaganza, while conceding ‘there is currently no funding for rail with trail’. They consider the rail-trail a plaything for tourists, yet downplay the low-key economic development it promises, and its potential to enable human-powered local transport. A bike and walking track is envisaged beside the rail ‘where feasible’ – wherever there is not a bridge, cutting, tunnel, viaduct or swamp. The Byron Line might become a rail-trail, sans rail, and trail. An empty promise.
After years of dithering, the other councils along the corridor have recently turned away from the train lobby. The rail-trail is now coming at Byron from two directions. Tweed Shire Council and Richmond Valley Council have shovel ready projects, fully funded by state and federal governments, currently out to tender or in design. Lismore Council is seeking funding for their section.
Byron Shire may well become a laughing stock. The purist in the middle of the corridor whose quixotic mission, to bring the train back, hobbles the rail-trail.
Politics may well be the art of the possible, but it’s also about compromise. Pursuing policy perfectionism is a most uncertain strategy. Occasionally, something good is better than nothing perfect. Our community has been offered a choice: either one bicycle and walking track or zero trains. We chose the latter.