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.