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Byron Shire
February 25, 2021

Trains, rails and questions of multi-use trails

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The unused rails run from Murwillumbah,
to Casino. Outside of towns they become overgrown and often impassable. Photo Aslan Shand.

Vaughn Allan

The question of what to do with the disused rail corridor remains a hot debate 15 years after the last train ran. Rail trail, rail only, rail with trail; it seems the only thing people can agree on is that the corridor is being squandered while it sits unused. Council have backed a rail with trail vision, having commissioned a report; the Multi-Use Rail Corridor Study (MURC), to rally the community behind a vision, and to convince the State Government to back the idea. Unpacking any option that includes rail services, we’re faced with new questions: What sort of rail service do we want? How would it work? And, who’s going to pay for it? These questions remain unanswered, and until they are, the corridor is likely to continue its quiet degradation.

Three different rail options continue to swirl around the debate. The first is returning regional services, like the old XPT services that ran before its closure. Second, is a desire for a commuter service that replaces current transport trips between townships, potentially linking up with regional services at each end. The third option is a historic railway service that provides a unique tourist experience; an expanded version of the existing solar train service that runs between Byron and Bayshore Drive. All three options have vastly different service levels and operating models that make them ‘stack up’.

Only Byron Shire

The MURC report is actually very explicit in what it’s assessing. It only looks at running services on 35km of track within the Byron Shire, with rail services running between 40–60km/h; therefore most of the patronage will come from tourists. This leaves us with a choice between a local commuter service or an historic railway service.

You might be asking at this point, ‘Why can’t we have both?’ Here we come back to those two questions raised before; ‘How would it work?’ and ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’

A commuter service requires high frequency trains, run by professional staff, with attractive fares to lure people to use the service. This requires subsidy from government to cover the costs. Train fares only make up 15 per cent of NSW Train’s operating expenses. The truth is that commuter rail services never make their money back. The reason why such services are provided is because they return a benefit to the communities they serve, not because they return a profit.

Photo David Lisle

Lacks detailed costing

The MURC report outlines a commuter-like service based on current regional NSW rail fares, mostly used by tourists. Patronage is forecast using capital city rail studies, including the figures that predict large proportions of the patrons to major festivals being expected to switch from driving to the rail service. Park and ride facilities are essential for tourists using the service. Nominal costs are provided, but details on the costs required to meet the forecast patronage are lacking. A service with commuter levels of service, requiring peak capacity during festival periods, with cheap fares would only be possible with deep subsidies.

No funding support

The report’s authors believe that the project would return a net positive benefit to the community. A net positive benefit, however, does not mean that it doesn’t require subsidies. Any proposal put forward by Council must have a reasonable chance of being supported by either state or federal funding bodies. This proposal does not.

There is a further challenge for a commuter rail service in Byron Bay. Even with frequent and cheap services, it’s difficult to compete with decades of car-oriented development. Outside of a few peak periods when traffic on Ewingsdale and Bangalow Roads backs up, driving will likely remain quicker. When people do get to town, there’s enough free or cheap parking to make that small wait in traffic worth it. This is not an article about the car vs train argument, but about highlighting the challenge inherent to a rail service of competing against decades of prioritised car use.

An historic railway service is a different beast, entirely. There are many successful rail services across Australia that operate this kind of service, including right here in Byron Bay. They’re able to achieve this by doing several things differently. First, they’re almost entirely volunteer run. Second, they use railcars that are cheap to operate (like the Solar Train!). Third, they charge premium fares that are able to cover the operations and maintenance costs. And finally, they use fundraising and government grants for major upgrades and track extensions.

Despite these advantages, bolting commuter services onto an historic rail service comes with its own unique challenges. Bendigo, in regional Victoria, provides us with a timely example. In 2009, and again in 2018, they sought to expand their long-running historic tram service to lure the town’s many drivers to commute using the tram instead. They offered reduced fares, increased services, and ran a public campaign. The experiment was short-lived. The network is too small to be able to effectively take enough people where they want to go more conveniently than their existing car commute. However, heritage rail services can provide increased services during holiday and festival periods, and with modest subsidies from council or festival operators. Tickets could be attractively priced, though admittedly delivering a service similar to the existing festival bus services.

Sustainable options

A proper evaluation of where the rail and trail can coexist side-by-side and the operational limits of the Solar Train will be needed before determining if an extension of the service is possible. Currently, the Solar Train is unlikely to have the power to make it up a sizeable hill, like the one to Bangalow. Council should look to preserve the track where possible, to allow the Solar Train to extend, sustainably, over time. For the rest, Council should follow the surrounding councils in starting works to connect townships with the rail trail, allowing the tourist and community benefits to start flowing. A vision that recognises the political and economic realities of the rail corridor is needed; there is a chance for rail to play a part, just not the kind some may have been hoping for.

♦ Vaughn Allan is a transport analyst based in Melbourne who regularly visits Byron Shire.


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6 COMMENTS

  1. PS: That should read the bike track is costing $596,000 per kilometre, repairs to the line in Byron cost $660,000 per kilometre for a train.

  2. Its 15 years since the last train ran to Mullumbimby. One year my sister brought her kids up from Melbourne on the old old XPT service to visit our Aunt Margaret ‘Tom” Koeb. Like Byron, Beaudesert Shire Council (now Scenic Rim) opted to refurbish its rail line. The venture failed, not because it was a bad idea or that it wasn’t needed but because every contractor in the district put in excessive bids for the work. But that is ‘free’ enterprise for you always at the public’s expense. The shire spent a lot on a locomotive only to be forced to sell it at a loss when the railway went bust.

    • I don’t think you can compare Beaudesert to Byron Shire. How many tourists do they get a year? Byron gets over 2.2 million. I’m no expert, but I’d say the markets and demographics are utterly different. Based on the levels of tourists alone I think any rail service in Byron Shire has a good chance at a solid footing. It could work perfectly with this ‘rail trail’ path next to it, both mutually complimenting each other while thinking outside the box. The Byron Shire way!

    • Ian says: “The venture failed, not because it was a bad idea or that it wasn’t needed but because every contractor in the district put in excessive bids for the work. But that is ‘free’ enterprise for you always at the public’s expense.”

      This claim begs a question. Did multiple professional contractors vying for the work in an open tender process all get it wrong, or were the original expectations of costs by railway enthusiasts far to optimistic? The tenderers ended up putting in a lot of planning work for nothing which I’m sure was not their goal

      The same stories are repeated at every heritage railway project, including the Byron Solar Train which cost a few times as much as projected, with fares now seventy percent higher than its opening two years ago. Then there is the notorious Mary Valley Rattler where the local council continues to pour millions of dollars of ratepayer funds into the project. It was closed for five years after two serious derailments caused by inadequate line work and was reinstated on a much less ambitious 23 km length of track. Come to think of it, government rail projects have the same problem with the Sydney light rail extension coming in at more than two and a half times its budget.

      We can look forward to the same issues with the project proposed by the Byron Council. Several million dollars will be squandered on that pipe dream before reality bites. Years of opportunity for a rail trail will also be lost.

      • What a load of half-baked doom and gloom.
        Beaudesert Rail was a volunteer-run group, and I don’t think Council had much involvement at all. Aside from a one-off $200,000 grant in the early 2000’s. There’s also no comparison between Beaudesert and Byron Shire.

        Your attack on the solar train is unfair. Cost increase is to be expected when the decision is made to convert to world-first solar operation. It’s again expected dealing with world-first technology. Combine that with the challenges of adapting it to fit in vintage rollingstock and naturally there will be difficulties and blowouts. Keep in mind the preliminary figures for the train did not include any costs for solar power upgrade nor the associated infrastructure required, so looking at initial estimates and comparing them to the final costs is invalid. It should be noted the “seventy percent fare increase” was the change from $3 to $5. That’s right, $2 difference. Still completely affordable for the 3km journey, so I don’t think its changed usership very much. Your omission of context is a bit melodramatic. Then again, the solar train is 3km long, running between two points in one town. It’s a unique operation, and for a train of its length/service area obviously fares will be reviewed from time to time. The constant reference to it as if it entirely and solely represents what a train on the entire 132km of track would be like is just misleading. Also, opening in mid December 2017 means it opened over three years ago, not two.

        The Valley Rattler is constantly and unfairly bashed by one-eyed rail trail advocates in this area. The above comment is no different. The Rattler ran very successfully for over 14 years as a purely volunteer-run venture. Poor management from the 2012 leadership was the only reason the safety issues and derailments were allowed to occur. Yes, the Rattler costs money to run, but do you know how much it returns to the community? How much economic benefit it it provides to the Mary Valley business and residents? It makes an immense contribution. Ask any Gympie, Amamoor or Dagun (and surrounds) business and they will confirm this. Even ask the local accommodation and farmstay establishments and they will tell you how much business has increased since the Rattler started up again, even in its currently truncated form.

        Again, your attack on all government rail projects is unfair. Sydney Light Rail is tracking poorly due to the incompetence of the Spanish contractor. They’re great at building bridges and renewable energy infrastructure, but clearly hopeless at inner-city light rail. Interesting you ignore the massive success of the Gold Coast Light Rail, which the Qld Government has never looked back from. It’s ongoing success is the reason it has already been extended once to the north, and now again to the south (construction starting soon) as part of the increasingly near connection to Gold Coast Airport. You also completely ignore the immense benefit of rail projects once they are completed, in the same way you cherry-pick your attack on the Rattler and completely ignore the substantial contribution it makes to the local economy.

        • Yes, the cost of the Byron train itself escalated when it changed from the original diesel power to fully electric but the cost of the track repairs was not affected by this change yet still ended up multiple times the original projection. Like Wayne, rail advocates blamed the blowout on incompetence because they could not accept that refurbishing tracks is far more expensive than they hoped and expected. Regardless of the actual fares, the increase is still seventy percent and reflects the much higher than the expected running costs which would surely be about as low as could be had by using a solar power.

          Unfortunately Byron Rail did not continue to publish their passenger numbers and financial figures. We do know in the first year they collected about $250,000 in fares while operations cost $750,000 leading to a half million dollar loss. They claimed 90,000 passengers in the first year. An article at the Transport Heritage NSW website five months later claimed “over 110,000 passengers” had used the train by that time, suggesting a significant fall in use after fares increased to $4 and the novelty had worn off for locals. Fortunately it is subsidised by the resort.

          By 2012 the Mary Valley Rattler was in severe financial distress. Wayne claims mismanagement but the fact is they didn’t have the resources to adequately maintain the track and it was shut down after the two serious derailments. It was salvaged by Gympie Council whose ratepayers have been paying a Rattler levy ever since, contributed about ten million dollars to the project, including a million dollars last year, on top of millions from the Queensland Government, while they are looking for another ten million dollar loan to do what they need to keep running for another two years. It is a seriously ambitious project with a lot of risk.

          While the Rattler certainly contributes immensely to the Gympie economy it should be remembered that Gympie’s tourism focus is on its heritage as one of the oldest cities in Queensland. Their heritage rail club is one of the largest and most established in Australia. According to the Rattler annual report, more than 21,000 hours of volunteer labour (almost an hour per passenger carried) were contributed last year to run three trips a week on a little over twenty kilometre line.

          Our region has nothing like these resources and is known around the world mainly for its lifestyle and beaches. Nothing about heritage, no huge long standing heritage railway club and very little preserved history. Our region needs to build on its strengths. Trying to compete with Gympie for heritage tourism is a recipe for failure.

          Byron’s plan is for an eighteen kilometre railway to Mullumbimby, then an incredibly ambitious service to Bangalow where the tracks traverse some of the most problematic terrain on the corridor. Meanwhile they have just announced there is no money for doing anything towards the train in 2021-2022 budget, so any of it at all is years away, if ever.

          A heritage railway running the fifty kilometres to Murwillumbah or Lismore is not even on the distant horizon and very different from the aspirations of the other shires. How about everyone just lets Tweed and Richmond get on with building their trails to the best standard possible and worry about how Byron is going to get started on their multiuse concept.

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