On a cold wet Wednesday evening in March, a small band of committed train activists gathered at the Mullumbimby Ex-Services Club. It was billed as a major event: a public meeting to launch a new company, Northern Rivers Rail Limited (NRRLtd), and to share its grand plans of bringing trains back to our tracks. Thirty people attended.
Having never previously attended a gathering of trainspotters I was excited. And slightly anxious – my recent commentary in these pages on the rail corridor debate expressed great skepticism about the prospect of trains returning to our tracks.
NRRLtd combines the lobbying might of TOOT and NRRAG (trains on our tracks and Northern Rivers railway action group respectively). Its formal objective is to promote a ‘heritage railway’. By mobilising people power they hope to crowdfund a railway.
NRRLtd should not be confused with a similarly named advocacy group, the Northern Rivers Rail-Trail, formed in 2013 with the aim of preserving the rail corridor by creating a community cycle and walking track.
Historically, TOOT and NRRAG have been vociferous opponents of the proposed rail-trail. A sudden, recent shift however, now sees them embracing the rail-trail, so long as it runs beside the tracks. The train lobby seems to be fighting a rearguard action. It has lost the ear of councils at both ends of the corridor where the rail-trail is currently under construction, but is energised by the impending track removal.
The meeting began with Beth Shelley setting out the rail-lobby’s theory of politics in which the train’s demise can be blamed on the road lobby and our faltering democracy.
A short, stirring, film followed, and then councillor Basil Cameron took the floor and spoke at length about his grand vision for trains on our tracks.
His main points were as follows: We no longer have a train service because of ‘scandalous political games’ and ‘scandalous studies’; We commissioned a study ‘from our perspective’ which proved we need trains. Not actual trains, something more like Toyota Coasters with steel guide-wheels; People have been saying for years the train is never ever coming back but the Elements solar train proves them wrong, ‘what a great innovation’; Byron’s public transport situation is ‘atrocious’; We have ‘extreme gridlock’ and 2.4 million tourists; Transport for NSW (TfNSW) might spend $78 million in the future on the Ewingsdale interchange and a working party is meeting regularly with Council, ‘listening to us like they’ve never listened before’.
Like you probably are now, I was confused about where this was going. But things came into focus when we were shown a video of Simon Richardson (unable to attend in person). Unlike Basil, who is world weary and downbeat, Simon radiates enthusiasm, speaking in ‘vision terms’, his hands busy.
The rail narrative
I soon realised a beguiling scheme had been hatched, and a narrative crafted for our consumption. The idea is to convince TfNSW to spend the $78 million on the Toyota Coaster project instead of the highway interchange.
Simon says if we ‘hold our tongues and talk more about tourism than transport, they will fund it’. The result will be branded ‘public transport’. A bike path can run beside the rails, and everyone will be happy.
Apparently, ‘reactivating the corridor’ will divert so much traffic from Ewingsdale Road that the interchange upgrade will not be required, and the savings can be spent on Toyota Coasters.
According to Basil ‘the railway is actually the spine of an integrated transport network’. He explained how bus routes will radiate off the rail corridor, conveying pas-sengers swiftly into the hills and beyond!
After hearing more about the new rail company, we heard from ‘Tom’, an engineer from Crabbes Creek. He praised the efficiency of trains and spruiked his plan for Tweed Council to build their (fully funded and already under construction) rail-trail off-formation so the trains can run again.
Next, ‘Bill’, an angry protester from the Tweed addressed the gathering, declaring politicians bad and trains good. He said the motor-rail used to hit 150kmph, and threatened civil disobedience if the tracks are ripped up. He reckons they want to profit from the scrap: ‘probably a million dollars’.
Lack of public consultation was a central concern throughout the meeting, as was the popularity of the old motor-rail, and the idea that privately operated buses aren’t really public transport. Some attendees seemed preoccupied with Gold Coast trams.
When Lydia Kindred of NRRLtd explained how the train lobby could deliver a better, more scenic bike path ‘with these raised cycleways so we can retain our tracks’ a voice from up the back boomed ‘Pie in the sky!’.
A bloke at the front rose and said ‘My name’s Duncan Dey, and I’m running for Council as a Greens and we will continue the efforts the current Greens have made. In other words, we support trains on the tracks’. The resulting cheers and vigorous applause were a striking contrast to his languid demeanour.
At times the chook raffle in the next room threatened to completely drown out proceedings. The RSL was a fitting locale for live, unplugged, retail politics. Simon, for whom backing trains apparently played well at the last election, enthused that ‘the track is in great condition’.
Yet populism and leadership are very different things. Simply reflecting the desires of one’s constituents back to them, while making a scapegoat of others, is not enough. Leadership is about having a vision and being able to deliver on it.
This meeting did little to shift my thinking. I am an unapologetic train lover. But I can tell a toy train from a commuter service, and a realistic proposal from bluster.