Butler Street residents in Byron Bay say they are gearing up to save their street from becoming a bypass after a majority of councillors voted against a proposal to pursue the unused rail corridor.
A motion at last Thursday’s meeting by Cr Duncan Dey requested written confirmation from the state government to ‘make land permanently available within the multi-modal rail corridor’.
But it gained only the support of Dey and the mayor; Crs Ibrahim, Cubis, Woods, Cameron, Wanchap, Spooner and Hunter instead voted against.
And while proceeding the current course reflects advice from the general manager Ken Gainger and staff, the Butler Street Community Network’s Paul Jones says that Council’s failure to ‘fully explore bypass route alternatives’ is a fundamental requirement of their application to state planning for the project approval.
‘We feel Council is its own worst enemy as they are so afraid of appearing to be indecisive and delaying the process that they vote to proceed into a legal and procedural quagmire,’ says Mr Jones.
‘As a result this will certainly have the effect of delaying the outcome and wasting precious financial resources’.
But the town’s chamber of commerce, Byron United, remains hopeful of a rail corridor outcome.
Vice-president Adrian Nelson said in a newsletter to members, ‘What was an encouraging outcome is that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) study for the bypass will need to consider possible alternative options. This may provide for the state-owned and unused land adjacent to the rail line to be considered for multi-modal use.’
During Thursday’s debate, Cr Sol Ibrahim turned directly to the Butler Street residents in the gallery and said, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s too late.’
He said that Council had already allocated and spent much of the $250,000 on exploring the current route.
‘Will the current government say yes? Most likely they will, but we would go back to square one.
‘We don’t have the money for a new EIS. At the start of this council’s term, the bypass was on everyone’s lips. The previous council debated it for four years. All Butler Street residents have known for the last four years if not longer that this was likely.’
It was around that time that Council pest Fast Buck$ interjected from the gallery and demanded to know if a cost analysis of the proposal had been undertaken.
After repeated bellowing by Buck$, the general manager eventually said that the state government asked Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) for one but Council have yet to see it.
Cr Basil Cameron received applause from the gallery when he said that ‘it doesn’t stack up to spend a lot more when we are not going to address the traffic problems in the long term. We are geographically constrained, so it doesn’t matter how many bypasses are built.’
Meanwhile Mr Jones says that he and fellow residents will now ‘object in every possible way to prevent approval of the project EIS submission as Council has left them no alternative.’
He says Council also failed to acknowledge the work done by the GTR proponents in clarifying so many misconceptions and in tabling an innovative proposal that addresses most if not all community, business and environmental concerns.
‘GTR has provided a superior bypass plan that avoids the Shirley Street roundabout bottleneck and enables extension through to Cemetery Road addressing the increasing traffic congestion approaching from the south of town and helping to retune Bangalow Road to far better residential amenity.
‘Butler Street Community Network will continue its work to protect our town’s cultural and built heritage.
‘We love this place in which we live and we will strive to ensure a workable, inspiring bypass solution that will enhance and support our town’s unique people-friendly character.’
n See letters page 11
While proponents of rail trail continue to spruik repurposing the region’s disused railways, Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson (Greens) is calling on ‘potential providers or users of the rail line for proposals and plans that utilise the rail corridor in Byron Shire, while not removing the tracks.’
He’s organised a meeting at the Byron Community Centre, on Thursday July 17 from 6.30pm and says it’s a chance for the community to come and hear what other options may exist for the rail corridor, ‘aside from a far away train return, or the track-removing rail trail proposal.’
The call follows the second government-funded study on the region’s tracks; the first explored the plausibility of returning rail, while the latest released mid-June examined the possibility of rail trails.
And while that report recommended the track’s removal to accomodate rail trail, it also spruiked a possible $200 million per year injection for the region.
Cr Richardson said, ‘Whether it be festival sites seeking ways to bring attendees to a site via public-transport rail-line options, or developers seeking to establish housing clusters along the line, it is also important that possible users of track-based transport options can outline their vision.’
MP ignores light rail
But that view is not shared with local state MP Don Page (Nationals), who recently told Parliament that he is ‘keen to see a rail trail established on the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line,’ and has been lobbying to have the rail trail funded from the $110 million Regional Tourism Fund.
Interestingly, Mr Page failed to tell parliament that the 2013 independent report into returning rail did not include the potential use of light rail.
According to Hansard’s transcription from June 19, he said, ‘[The report] indicated that any combination of train services on the line would not meet the public transport needs of the region because two of the three largest urban areas – Ballina and Tweed Heads – would not be serviced.’
He said that Treasury and Infrastructure NSW ‘are currently examining the [current rail trail] report to verify the consultant’s cost-benefit analysis and after this is done I am confident further announcements regarding funding for this project will be made by this government.’
Meanwhile the mayor says, ‘It is time now for the community to join the discussion of how best to provide transport options for our community, especially our youth.’
‘It is time for all those who have formalised or well-considered ideas or projects that utilise the rail tracks to come forward and share them with the wider community.’
The Pacific Highway’s Ballina to Woolgoolga upgrade will be constructed through the middle of the region’s most intact koala colony after the state government approved the proposed western route last week.
And in response to public concerns over the endangered marsupial, the NSW roads and freight minister Duncan Gay announced that ‘a team of experts will be brought together to develop a detailed koala management plan’ for the upgrade. He says the appointment, ‘allows the next stages of early work to start, while the overall project is considered by the federal department of the environment.’
In a letter from Mr Gay to local MP Don Page (Nationals), the roads and freight minister explained why his department has ignored public calls to keep the highway’s current alignment. The minister said the route suggested by koala advocates was not ideal. ‘While a shorter route, the southern section cuts into Broadwater National Park, which has also been identified as having an important koala population.’
He also claimed such a route would be along a flood plain, would traverse underlying soft soils and therefore earth fill would be required.
‘It would require acquisition of high-yield canefields, residences and farm infrastructure… and would pose a considerable engineering risk at a much greater cost.’
But koala campaigner Garry Owers claims widening the existing highway would be the quickest and cheapest solution and would affect far fewer koalas. ‘They just have to add more lanes which they have room for, and it can be done quickly.’
Mr Owers, who works at Richmond River County Council, says he has studied acid sulfate soils and specialises in wetlands.
‘Contrary to the minister’s claims, trimming the road’s edge would not result in having to acquire a lot of canefields and residences.’
More significantly, Mr Owers says the minister’s proposal would see more flooding risk than the aligning with the current highway.
‘Dingle Creek is subject to three-metre flooding, which is far greater than the route along the current alignment,’ he says.
Mr Owers concluded by saying that by 2005 he suspected the government had already made the current plans and was just playing lip service to give the appearance of consultation.
Meanwhile Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass says she is concerned about the long-term decline in koala numbers as well as the actual construction phase.
‘There are no mitigation measures while the road is being built,’ she says. ‘During the construction of the section at St Helena in Ewingsdale, RMS (Road Maritime Services) records only roadkill as impacting on koala populations.
‘Our experience from this is that there will be a spike in mortality rates. Other places where upgrades have been done, for example at the Yelgun to Chinderah upgrade in the early 2000s, we were hearing that the numbers of koalas dropped dramatically.
‘But generally population decline takes time; you can construct underpasses etc but there’s no guarantees on maintaining the populations.’
It’s good news for rail trail enthusiasts, but not for those wanting light rail: a state government-commissioned study released Friday gives a strong case for a regional rail trail but suggests removing existing track to accommodate foot and cycle traffic, ‘in a majority of locations’.
The Casino to Murwillumbah Rail Trail Study comes in at 68 pages, cost $80,000 according to the deputy premier’s office, and estimates a rail trail will cost $75.5 million and that it would add 88,320 visitors the region per annum.
Consultancy company Arup was commissioned after the Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study was released in 2011.
But that study, which cost an astonishing $2m and totalled 130 pages, inexplicably omitted light rail as an option, only surveyed a small percentage of the entire line, bloated costs and estimations which were at odds with previous studies, and largely ignored Byron Bay’s traffic congestion and exceptionally high tourist numbers.
$750k spent on lines
And while the state government and rail contractor John Holland refused to disclose to The Echo the cost and quality of rail maintenance work – if any – being undertaken in the area, the new rail trail study claims that there is an ‘approximate annual budget of $750,000 allocated for the purpose of maintaining the corridor.’
Byron a focal point
The report suggests removing the existing track to accommodate foot and cycle traffic, dashing the hopes of the line co-existing with light rail.
‘In a majority of locations,’ the report says, ‘the removal of track, sleepers and ballast material will be required, where a trail cannot be economically formed adjacent to the existing line and remain within the existing railway corridor boundary.’
But it’s not all bad news; the study says, ‘Byron Bay forms the focal point for the rail trail and it would be logical to consider Byron Bay as the starting point for the rail trail development.’ Additionally, the ‘section from Murwillumbah to the shire boundary at Yelgun could be timed for delivery to coincide with a similar progression north from Byron Bay.’
Grab The Rail supported
Surprisingly the report supports the Grab The Rail proposal, which is at odds with mayor Simon Richard- son’s advice and position.
Grab The Rail, made up largely of residents likely to be adversely affected by a Butler Street bypass, is promoting, ‘an alternative vehicular bypass through Byron Bay town centre utilising a section of the rail corridor from the existing Shirley Street level crossing to Old Bangalow Road level crossing, a length of approximately 2.5km.’
Unlike other sections of the 130km track, it is ‘considered likely that a shared corridor could be laid out that meets the needs of both a rail trail and road bypass.’
Byron’s light rail
Ironically, the fossil fuel sector is leading the charge for light rail in Byron Shire.
QLD-based coal min- ing baron and owner of the North Byron Beach Resort, Brian Flannery, has plans to establish a railmotor service ‘between the existing Byron Bay station and the proposed North Byron Beach Resort located to the north of Bay- shore Drive.’
Entitled ‘Byron Bay Community and Tourist Rail Shuttle’, the report says that as the corridor width is ‘generous’, it will be ‘likely allow for both rail and trail to co-exist for the majority of the proposed operating route.’
Meanwhile, ‘Tweed Shire Council are promoting the connection between Murwillumbah Station and the Tweed Regional Gallery as the ideal “pilot” for the development of the trail.’ Remarkably the report,authored by James Robinson, suggests that the northern rivers region partner with its ‘emerging gas industry’ to help fund the project. ‘For example BHP Billiton contributed over $200,000 to the Victorian Coast to Crater Rail Trail.’
Funded by gas?
But local state MP Don Page (Nationals) told The Echo, ‘The rail trail will be in no way coming from anything to do with gas.’
‘It will be funded by state and hopefully federal government. I’ve done the submission to the state government and I’ve been talking to [fellow Nationals federal MP] Kevin Hogan regarding a federal contribution. The state government announced on Friday a Regional Tourism Fund which contains $110m, [and] I expect after Treasury checks out the Arup report they will indicate the state government’s response financially. I expect this to be positive.’
As for maintenance costs, the report’s author estimates between $6,800 to $8,900 per annum per km. ‘At 130km, this indicates an operating and main- tenance cost of $884,000 to $1,157,000 per annum’.
Meanwhile Greens NSW MP, Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC, slammed the study as a ‘blatant exercise in justifying a pre-determined outcome.’
‘The estimated cost of the rail trail will be $75 million, which comes to around $600,000 per km’, Ms Faruqi said. ‘Railway lines in regional Victoria have been reinstated at half the estimated cost per kilometre of this rail trail.’
The report can be found at http://bit.ly/TXZ9RM.
There were accusations of ‘blatant misleading information’ over a staff report on Byron Bay’s bypass at last Thursday’s Council public access.
Paul Jones from Grab The Rail (GTR) told a stunned gallery that the bypass report prejudiced his group’s efforts to seek the disused railway as an option.
An awkward silence follwed his speech – councillors were asked if they had any questions, but there were none.
Resident group GTR consists mainly of Butler Street residents who will be adversely affected by Council’s plans to build a Byron bypass up their street, through wetlands and then crossing over the dis- used railway at Mitre 10.
Mr Jones was supported by six other members and claimed there would be ‘no compensation’ over the expected massive increase of traffic past their houses.
‘Initial figures from traffic modelling say it will jump from 80 to 3,000 a day in one direction – so double that to get the estimation.’
He also questioned why the bypass was not included as part of Byron Bay’s Master Plan terms of reference (TOR).
‘We need an integrated approach to this,’ he said.
While Council’s media spokesperson agreed the masterplan did not specifically include the bypass in the masterplan’s TOR, they told The Echo, ‘The bypass is within the indicative study area map included in the Re- quest for expressions of interest (EOI) document and will have significant influences on the masterplan content in regards to how we move about, and through, Byron Bay.’
But perhaps the most damning accusation was that council staff incorrectly stated that there is a lack of support for the disused railway becoming a bypass. On page 68 of its April 10, 2014 ordinary meet- ing, the report by staff states, ‘Preliminary advice received from John Holland, who man- age the rail corridor on behalf of the State Rail Authority, and ARUP (consultants under- taking the rail trail feasibility study) indicates that neither favour the rail corridor bypass alignment option.’
But Mr Jones told The Echo, ‘From my direct approach to John Holland’s property man- ager Stan Knight-Smith and Transport NSW Country Rail manager Dan Champness, that statement is misleading as both managers said that the department was open to ideas, had many arrangements whereby other activities were accommodated within railway property, and the Arup study outcomes could be highly influential in how a beneficial arrangement may come about.’
He also says staff contra- dict themselves on page 69, which says, ‘...such approval [for potential uses of rail corridor other than for rail] was forthcoming at a time when trains still used the rail line and according to the environmental impact study (EIS) was possible...’
As for possible compensation, Mr Jones said, ‘RMS is said to be compensating householders whom they cannot mitigate impacts from their roadworks for the full market cost of their property. Council has little or no means of mitigating the impacts of noise, vibration, air pollution, light pollution and vehicle danger when they put a main road down an existing back street. Grab the Rail has sought a bypass/ service road route that can allow mitigation of all these impacts with homes situated along the route.
Mr Jones says councillors are making decisions based on staff reports and are not fully informed.
‘No mention has been made to date of compensation other than when Grab the Rail first made its proposal and staff tried to use that argument against our route – which we demonstrated was nonsense. So in terms of likely compensation costs, councillors have remained uninformed, even unaware.’
As for leasing or acquiring railway land for a bypass, Mr Jones said, ‘Council cannot fund the bypass, so the major cost will need to be managed by the state government.’
‘In any event, land may not
need to be purchased; lease- hold is certainly feasible and Transport NSW certainly has an eye for a beneficial relation- ship whereby they may find some relief from the maintenance and liabilities associated with the disused corridor.’
During Council’s meeting last Thursday, the mayor did attempt a motion that would see a letter written to the rail authorities to request a change of use but was advised against it by general manager Ken Gainger. The Echo had not received a return call or email from media representatives of John Holland or Arup before going to press.
A promising proposal to divert traffic past Byron Bay’s First Sun caravan park and past the swimming pool fell into a heap at Thursday’s meeting after some councillors appeared confused with what they were voting on.
While Cr Rose Wanchap’s motion appeared to be supported by most councillors, there was an air of panic when the mayor put it to the vote.
As usual Cr Simon Richardson called the vote at lightning speed.
Cr Rose Wanchap told The Echo, ‘I thought by connecting it to an existing large body of work it would be as- sured of earlier implementation, but alas that is not to be.’
She says that due to the flub, the motion will have to wait three months before re- submission. Alternatively Ms Wanchap said she can ‘take it via one of the traffic com- mittees for presentation to Council after that review’.
Regardless, Ms Wanchap says she sees it as a ‘very affordable solution to the pre- sent bottleneck that could be implemented this year, at least before the next silly sea- son if not sooner.’
‘It seems a waste to have a very substantial road through the First Sun Caravan Park that could be utilised to keep traffic moving. At the moment it provides income from a handful of campers while our town is blocked from all directions trying to accommodate buses, tourists and residents as they cruise around, lapping town looking for parking spots.
‘It is clear from numerous traffic surveys that 85 per cent of the traffic is caused by day trippers and tourists and they just want to get to the beach.’
Her motion requested that a staff report ‘be provided as to the feasibility and cost of creating two lanes into Byron along Shirley Street from the Woolworths Service Station in to the Jonson/Lawson
Street roundabout with one lane turning left and connect- ing via the First Sun Caravan Park with Bay Street at the northern end.’ Instead, councillors voted to continue with the current bypass option of up Butler Street, through wet- lands and crossing the dis- used railway at Mitre 10.
The NSW government has failed to include the northern rivers in a recent state-wide press release spruiking its commitment to regional transport.
The western, central west, Murray and Murrumbidgee, New England and north west and central coast regions of NSW were all promoted as areas worthwhile of infrastructure investment.
But not us.
However, a document was released by the coalition on December 19, entitled Northern Rivers Regional Transport Plan.
Fastest growing region in NSW
It was among eight other NSW transport studies released just before the holiday break, and is available at www.transport.nsw.gov.au.
Surprisingly, the omission of our region in government promotions comes despite the report admitting that the northern rivers is the fastest-growing region in NSW, ‘at about 0.9 per cent per year.’
Additionally, the 52-page document lifts material from the previous Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study, released early in 2013.
As for statistics, the report says approximately 48 per cent of the northern rivers population is concentrated within the four centres of Tweed Heads, Ballina, Lismore and Casino. And we are an ageing bunch, as ‘the proportion of the population aged 65 or over is expected to increase from 19 per cent in 2011 to 28 per cent in 2031.’
Not only that, but our region ‘has an above average level of social disadvantage compared to the NSW median.’
And while the report points to the Lismore and Byron Bay road corridor as continuing ‘to see the most demand for travel,’ there were no plans to improve that road except ‘Road safety works relating to decommissioning of fixed speed cameras at Bangalow Road, Clunes.’ The report claims that cost is $381,900.
The disused railway line that runs from Casino to Murwillumbah – and which also runs between Lismore and Byron – was barely touched upon, but mention was made of developing ‘service plans to encourage public transport use to connect to festivals in the northern rivers region.’
A future high-speed rail corridor was also vaguely referred to, but no plans as yet: currently the government only wants to ‘identify and protect a future high-speed rail corridor between Brisbane, the northern rivers region and Sydney.’
Wow, gripping stuff huh?
Statements such as ‘We will work’ were repeated 17 times. There are endless unspecific costings, time-frames, locations and commitments. I wonder how much this report cost?
For example, there is, ‘ongoing investment in maintenance to improve safety and reliability on the rail network.’
But where and how much?
There was the introduction of NSW TrainLink, however, which ‘operates services to the northern rivers region, and for the first time provides a dedicated organisation focused on improving services for our rail customers in regional NSW.’ The report claims $389 million will go to ‘support and improve rural and regional bus services.’
As for the Byron Shire, the report claims a total of $1,721,136 was spent improving our roads, yet our Shire did not benefit from grants that were awarded to other shires for boating, transit centres, interchanges and cycleways. In contrast, Ballina received $3,136,645 in funding for all that.
However, we should probably be thankful we have a huge highway that we can soon barrel down.
Call me cynical, but reading such repetitive guff reminds me of BBC’s Yes Minister.
Roads are used because the railways have long been abandoned by governments who are beholden to fossil fuel and transport corporations. So the focus is of the report is, you guessed it, roads.
The two people that are presently responsible for this are minister for transport, Gladys Berejiklian, and minister for roads and ports, Duncan Gay.
Funding availability for a feasibility study into a rail trail on the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line has been announced by minister for the north coast, Don Page.
Northern Rivers Rail Trail Inc (NRRT Inc) warmly welcomed the announcement, however train advocate Karin Kolbe from TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks) voiced concerns that the tracks would be covered and a temporary bike path constructed over the rails. She told The Echo, ‘We need to have our bike tracks beside the rail, or to take our bikes on the train.’
Mr Page, when asked if he advocated a rail trail beside the rail or on the railways, said, ‘The rail trail would be for the most part on the existing track area and certainly within the rail corridor.’
Mr Page also said he would guarantee public land would not be sold if the project was to happen.
‘The corridor will be kept intact, not sold, and be preserved for the possible re-introduction of rail services, should a viable economic model for trains become available at some stage in the future. The potential benefits for tourism and employment are significant.’
The previous rail study of the region, which cost $2m, was blasted back in March by the Greens and TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks) for its narrow terms of reference, the exclusion of light rail, lack of comprehensive ground truthing and a bloated figure of repair comparative to an earlier Price Waterhouse Coopers report in 2004.
And despite criticism of a flawed report, Mr Page referred to the 130-page Casino to Murwillumbah Train Study and backed his party by claiming rail is not an option as it ‘wouldn’t meet the current or future public transport needs of the region because two of the three largest centres (Ballina and Tweed Heads) would not be served.’
NRRT just shy of 5,000 supporters
Meanwhile NRRT secretary Steve Martin said the issue of covering over or removing existing tracks for a rail trail is a complex one and something which he hopes to have an answer on soon.
He said however of his not-for-profit group, ‘We now have close to 5,000 community supporters, as well as backing from local government, tourism and chambers of commerce.’
NRRT was formed by a steering committee comprising local business philanthropists, known as the Sourdough Group, as well as volunteers and councillors and people working in the tourism industry.
Its chairperson, Pat Grier, says, ‘The rail trail would act as the spine that links a network of communities, regional towns and villages.’
‘It would provide the platform for economic development, new businesses and jobs for the region.’
Claims that the region’s abandoned Casino to Murwillumbah railway line is being maintained to a limited degree by a major building contractor have been questioned.
Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson has requested details from the NSW transport department on what sort of maintenance the rail contractor is doing.
Cr Richardson’s mayoral minute from last Thursday’s council meeting follows claims to Echonetdaily by the transport department and the minister responsible that the abandoned line is being maintained.
The department, which granted the contract to rail construction giant John Holland, has refused to provide to The Echo any evidence, such as reports, in order to verify that limited maintenance has been undertaken on the railway line since it was last used in 2004. A spokesperson for the department was only prepared to say that John Holland Rail ‘undertakes safety inspections and limited maintenance work including minor vegetation work at selected sites’.
Similarly, the minister for transport, Gladys Berejiklian, played the issue down.
When asked to provide any evidence of what work has been completed in the region, Mrs Berejiklian instead repeated much the same line as her department.
‘I’m advised that maintenance work on the Casino to Murwillumbah line is limited to an inspection of the line each year and includes monitoring and treatment of noxious weeds and any other work required to ensure the safety of the public,’ she said.
And despite four days’ notice on the question, much correspondence and a promise that a response would come from John Holland, the company’s media representative said, at the last minute, that she could not reply in time, due to ‘being under contract with Transport for NSW which needs to approve our media statements’.
But what’s the cost to taxpayers? John Holland claims on its website it’s being paid $1.5 billion over ten years, or $150,000,000 a year to maintain NSW railways.
This includes ‘2,700 kilometres of operational freight and passenger lines and 3,100 kilometres of non-operational lines,’ plus 3,300km of disused line.
At a total of 9,100km, this represents $16,483 per km of track, per year, including ‘27,000 hectares of land, 600 rail under-bridges and 384 road over-bridges’.
As a rough comparison, rail infrastructure construction and maintenance company, the Downer Group, is being paid $10,625 per kilometre of track per annum over 12 years, for a track that is used for interstate freight.
Additionally, the recent $2 million rail study released by the coalition was slammed for its ‘lack of long-term vision’ in NSW Parliament last week by Greens MP and transport spokesperson Cate Faehrmann.
Ms Faehrmann also took aim at its restricted ‘terms of reference’, which were heavily weighted towards a result favouring abandoning rail services in the region.
‘Only 75 of 187 bridges were inspected,’ she said, ‘representing an incomplete picture of the line’s true state of repair, compared with PricewaterhouseCoopers inspecting every bridge in 2004’.
The MLC also said it was a ‘quite frankly unbelievable’ estimated repair bill of $900 million, as, ‘in 2004 PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated it would cost $30 million’.
She says her parliamentary inquiry into rail infrastructure project costing revealed rail projects ‘cost some 15 per cent more in NSW than in the rest of Australia’.
Byron’s ongoing traffic congestion and 1.5 million annual visitor numbers were also mentioned. ‘The growth in tourist visits from southeast Queensland to Byron Bay has meant that road traffic can reach gridlock on any summer’s day,’ Ms Faehrmann said.
‘A ten-minute car journey from the highway into Byron can easily extend to 45 minutes. Buses would be similarly afflicted.’
But oddly, Mrs Berejiklian told The Echo that in regard to the shire’s visitor numbers, ‘the needs and travel patterns of tourists were considered in detail in the development of the study, and it found tourists do not form a large proportion of public transport users’.
While the mayoral minute claims there are omissions in the report over light rail and other issues, Mrs Berejiklian talked light rail down saying it ‘was included in the long list of options considered in the study and it was found to deliver fewer benefits than other modes of transport’.
Cr Richardson also plans to ‘facilitate a meeting with potential user groups to consider Byron Shire options’.
Local Nationals MP Don Page has not commented on the report other than to tell The Echo at the time of its release that ‘the report speaks for itself’.
Along with all north coast Nationals MPs, he ran on a campaign in 2007 of returning rail, but then changed his campaign to a ‘rail study’ for the 2011 election.
The long awaited and overdue regional rail study released last week has been met with a hostile reception from rail advocate Karin Kolbe while local state MP Don Page has distanced himself from previous election promises.
The report, entitled Casino to Murwillumbah Transport Study, recommends that services remain suspended and ‘rail assets be maintained to a minimum standard only’.
It comes in at 130 pages, cost $2 million and is available at http://bit.ly/15Lo2Du.
The Echo understands that the report’s findings have prompted the state government to shelve any plans to re-instate regional rail services which were discontinued by the then Labor state government in 2004.
Current transport minister Gladys Berejiklian says her government will now consider the findings, ‘as part of our work to finalise the Northern Rivers Regional Transport Plan which we expect to be completed this year.’
But Trains On Our Tracks (TOOT) president Karin Kolbe has called for the report to be scrapped and says it’s a ‘whitewash’. ‘The report relies on old and irrelevant maintenance and patronage figures and costs from 2004 to justify a 2013 decision,’ she says.
Even at the time the study was announced in 2011, Ms Kolbe criticised its terms of reference, which failed to identify any social or environmental benefits.
Mr Page however said last year on ABC radio (June 26, 2012) that he asked his government and minister to ‘broaden the terms of reference of the feasibility study to make it beyond any doubt that the benefits of rail services on the Murwillumbah to Casino line will be properly analysed by the project team.’
These included ‘environmental benefits’, ‘fewer people using cars’ and ‘less greenhouse gases’. There is little to no reference to those terms within the report.
Commitments vary from election to election
The report was a major election commitment for local Ballina MP Don Page, who released a carefully worded media statement at the time saying, ‘the NSW government is committed to providing the right mix of transport services.’
But back in 2007, all regional Nationals MPs were photographed (see back page) wearing t-shirts with the words ‘Yes, you can have your trains back.’ When asked about pre-election commitments to bring trains back in 2007, Mr Page told The Echo, ‘Any commitment made prior to the 2007 election relates to being elected to government in 2007, which didn’t happen. Prior to the 2011 election we committed to doing the feasibility study, which we have honoured.’
In response, Ms Kolbe said, ‘After running hard on the rail question for so many years, many electors did not pick up the subtle shift from “you can have a train” to “you can have a study”.’
As for questions regarding his assessment of the report, a commitment to light rail, or the lack of environmental provisions that he called for, Mr Page did not respond.
Meanwhile, Ms Berejiklian, says that ‘The study recommends investigating improving bus services to provide more people with frequent, cost effective public transport to key destinations, rather than reinstating the rail line.’
Light rail eliminated
Astoundingly, light rail transit was eliminated during preliminary assessment, and instead the study focused
on heavy, or freight, rail. A Transport for NSW spokesperson told The Echo light rail was not explored for a number of reasons. ‘We found light rail would not provide additional benefits to the rail shuttle option and is less effective over longer distances (greater than 20km).
‘A local Byron Bay shuttle was considered; however, we found regular bus services between Sunrise Beach, Byron and Suffolk Park would provide a better and more flexible public transport service.’
Lack of sustainability
Despite the spokesperson claiming that ‘All options considered by the study were subject to a sustainability assessment,’ there is only one small
reference to sustainability. Under ‘Rating Against Sustainability’, the report claims returning the XPT extension to Murwillumbah is ‘expected to have a minor positive sustainability impact.’ And for a Casino to Murwillumbah rail shuttle (light rail), it again claimed a ‘very minor shift [is] predicted from car to the more sustainable public transport mode.’
The word ‘sustainability’ only appears three times throughout the document. Similarly, the words ‘climate change’ are absent. And even in its terms of reference on page 100, it claims incorrectly that ‘The study represents a broadening of the previously announced engineering and cost evaluation to include consideration of economic, social and environmental benefits.’
Regardless of the report’s failure to address rail’s environmental benefits, it provides an insight into future growth projections for the region. It claims, ‘Future growth in the region will occur in the Tweed region, extending southwards along the coast to Ballina. Lismore, Tweed and Ballina are the defined long term major regional centres.’
Also, ‘The population of the northern rivers is estimated to grow to around 367,000 in 2031 with an increase in housing units from 129,000 to 161,000 (Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2012). The majority of growth will be experienced in the coastal corridor in the area between Ballina and Byron, and in particular along the Tweed coast and in Tweed Heads.’