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.’