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Byron Shire
November 29, 2021

A short history of our rail corridor debate

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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. 

Walking the Banglaow to Byron rails. Photo Benjamin Gilmore.

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.


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12 COMMENTS

  1. Ha, ha David … the main point and the only point is to travel by rail from Casino to Murwillumbah and back again. When you miss that point the article is biased one way or another.

  2. beware not to lean any further towards fossil fuel lovers’ terrain – you might topple into an oil well.
    many nations (france, germany, japan) manage to upgrade their railway system to 2021 standard. it’s possible.

    • It’s good to look at other countries to see where we may be able to improve our services, however I’m not sure how applicable it is to quote what other countires like Germany (65m people and land 45% the size of NSW), France (83m people and land 69% the size of NSW), and Japan (126m people and 49% the size of NSW) are doing in relation to rail – when they all have much larger populations with a proportionately much smaller area per person to service.

    • Puffing Billy is subsidised to the tune of several million dollars each year and operates with the assistance of 600 volunteers and a high number of paid employees. It is managed by a Board. It requires quite a large input of Government Grants just to keep running and operates on a passenger/fare return of approximately $30.00 per person.
      A rail trail has an initial cost that varies depending on construction methods but is substantially less than the construction cost for a railway. Volunteer numbers could be counted in the tens, not hundreds and many of the users are multiple day visitors, not day trippers.
      Have a read of the Puffing Billy Financial Report https://puffingbilly.com.au/wp-content/uploads/PUFFING-BILLY-ANNUAL-REPORT-2020.pdf and see if you can muster that sort of funding and volunteer base to operate a tourist train.

      • Ok John, but how much money does that train generate for the Victorian economy each year? Are you aware of its significance as a tourist attraction? Your criticism of the train on purely economical grounds is incredibly blinkered and over-simplified. Yes it is heavily subsidised, yes a lot is involved to keep it running, but you will find that pales in comparison to what it gives back to the local community. The same is true of the Valley Rattler in Gympie and the Kuranda scenic railway. Go and talk to the locals, they all agree they are invaluable tourist assets and key to the economic success of the areas. They are invaluable to local economies and make substantial contribution, hence why they keep getting subsidised! Your perspective focuses exclusively on one side of the coin. It always irks me when rail trail advocates attack these tourist trains purely on economic basis. It is abundantly clear they have not visited the local communities and seen the contribution these trains make. If they had an understanding of that, they would not be so quick to bag them in their incomplete opinions!

        You’re comparing apples and oranges butting tourist trains against rail trails. They are two fundamentally different things and as such your comparison is misleading. Rail trails have merit, but so do tourist trains. Rail trails are not always cheap to maintain and their contribution to the community can be very good. In the same way tourist trains can and generally are massive boons, but you conveniently gloss over that aspect!

    • The Kuranda train is an expensive private tourist service. Locals and backpackers catch private and Cairns council buses to get to Kuranda . No one is proposing funding such tourist a service on the former and now partly closed Casino to Murwillumbah line. Byron Shire would like to but it does not have a strategic partner to run a tourist train. The draft Shire transport plan does not envisage a transport role for the next decade and Basil Cameron admits it’s a long term plan
      The reality is unless the council moves to get funding to clear the corridor and build a a walking and cycling path, the corridor and the rails will sit there unused until the Government gifts or sells it off.

  3. The rail trail will be a great benefit for the community along the route and one day, when the State Govt coughs up the money for a train service, then a proper dual carriageway route that allows a train to travel at speed can be built, but it won’t use great swathes of the old route that meanders and by-passes population centres, go through tunnels or around tight curves. That will take GENERATIONS to come about. In the meantime the rail trail will bring green, low impact and sustainable benefits for the people of the district. The choice is either a dead unused rail line or a rail trail. Either way there will be no trains along the whole line. Sure, the Solar train must remain. That operator has indicated they have no plans nor desire to extend their service anywhere else. Rail trails are proven and are growing and being extended the world over. They are clean, green and people centric. They revitalise small communities. The Northern Rivers rail trail will attract many existing visitors and generate a new segment of visitors to the towns and villages along the old rail route. Locals will use it and love it too. Combined with e-bikes, e-trikes and e-wheelchairs, it could open up a whole new world of safe, scenic, serene recreation and short commutes for many. Tim Coen – Rail Trails for NSW

  4. Oh Dear ! Where to start ?
    The vested interests are becoming hysterical but… rail transport is and will remain THE most economical and ergonomically efficient method of transport, especially so for freight. The existing corridor is a fantastic legacy that the ‘usual culprits’ are determined to waste on the fantasy of a tourist bike and horsey trail. Whether the vested interests will admit it or not, it isn’t about travel between Casino and Murwillumbah, the choice is between the restoration of a fabulous asset for transport and connection between Brisbane and Sydney through the local infrastructure or the shortsighted, short term, dinky little tourist trap for travelers who may never reappear in pre-pandemic numbers.
    Where is the state and federal overview that should negate this parochial propaganda campaign ? G”)

    • Exactly Ken. I agree completely. Rail trail advocates will try their absolute hardest to beat down any suggestion that the railway has merit, to limit the discussion and ensure vested interests have a good narrative to thrive in. I know for a fact a good few rail trail proponents have vested interests in the project. Plenty more that will show themselves in good time
      I’m sure.

      • There is no railway or plan for a railway to “beat down”. The line has been closed at either end, and no one is interested in funding a rail service between Bentley and Crabbes Creek. It is not the railway we are concerned about but those who would rather leave the rails there and the corridor unused, and not open the vacant corridor land to the community and visitors for walking and cycling . What we object to was put very well put this week by one rail supporter on social media in respect of commencement of work of the Tweed Rail Trail: “hope the new rail company scuttles your short sited (sic) plans and bugger council”.
        A number of supporters of the rail trail are indeed involved in the tourist industry. The objective apart from providing recreation and transport options, is to encourage spending and employment in our area. That’s why governments fund rail trails. What is the problem with generating incomes and employment in communities along the line? But perhaps the more important question for you to answer is what benefit you are offering our community by leaving the rails on an unused corridor for an indefinite future?

    • Rail advocates are always on about the mythical “vested interests” that they never name nor have evidence for.
      Railways in sparse sparse rural populations are financial black holes but those who want them don’t care who pays the billions of dollars as long as it isn’t them.

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