Rail trail project feedback sought by NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet

DPC executive director Chris Hanger fielded questions at Tenterfield's rail trail community consultation meeting.
DPC executive director Chris Hanger fielded questions at Tenterfield's rail trail community consultation meeting.

A larger-than-expected crowd of more than 70 packed into the Tenterfield Golf Club on Monday, December 11 to express their opinion and concerns on a proposed rail trail for a section of the Greater Northern Rail Line which extends from Armidale to Wallangarra.

The NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) called the meeting to gauge the level of interest in the proposal, and to assemble a database of the issues that would have to be addressed before any proposal could progress.

DPC executive director Chris Hanger emphasised that he was not there to take a position on either side of the argument, but instead to inform those present on legislative and other matters regarding any change to the use of the rail corridor, and to gather information on community sentiment.

The current proposal backed by the Guyra-based New England Rail Trail (NERT) calls for the conversion of only a 34 kilometre section (from Black Mountain to Ben Lomond, straddling Guyra) of the 214 kilometre corridor, and there was some discussion why opinions were being sought in Tenterfield. One rail trail supporter was concerned that negative opinions being expressed by those in the north would impact a project that wouldn’t affect them.

Mr Hanger said legislative amendments to the Transport Administration Act 1988 are required to enable any rail trail project to begin. Depending on the proposal eventually received, parliament may determine how much of the track to close to avoid multiple revisits to the issue, and consider making legislative changes to close the full length of the corridor, thereby impacting all those along its length.

There’s the option of multiple uses along the corridor, with the potential for light rail excursions and tourist steam trains extending past Wallangarra to Tenterfield (with passengers experiencing the gauge change of old) to coexist with rail trails. The state of the Sunnyside Rail Bridge and that across Bluff River, however, would need to be addressed prior even to pedestrian traffic.

While grant money is available to build such tourism projects (with an estimated capital cost of $4.08 million for the NERT project), Mr Hanger said it is usually councils who progress such proposals, acting on behalf of their communities. This is because the project body must prove it can ensure the ongoing viability of the project including maintenance of the corridor in this case, a significant commitment for cash-strapped councils.

More than 70 attended the Tenterfield meeting, with a further 150 expected in Guyra.

More than 70 attended the Tenterfield meeting, with a further 150 expected in Guyra.

Of the three councils through which the corridor passes, Armidale Regional and Glen Innes Severn councils have both committed to exploring the concept, while Tenterfield Shire Council has yet to be formally approached for its input. Typically a council (or coalition of councils) would be granted a license for the use of the rail corridor at a peppercorn lease, becoming responsible for its maintenance and management.

Still the NSW Government supports the potential use of disused rail lines as rail trails, but only where the local community is behind it. Last year $4.9 million was allocated to the Rosewood to Tumbarumba rail trail project, and 30-40 rail trail applications across the state have been received as part of the first round of the $300 million Regional Growth – Environment and Tourism Fund. The government had a goal of doubling tourism visitation to regional NSW by 2021, and rail trails are seen as potential tools to achieve this aim.

“The agribusiness sector is clearly important here (in Tenterfield),” Mr Hanger said.

“But it’s tourism keeping towns alive, and rail trails could be one of the options.”

Mr Hanger allayed concerns about the impact on the Tenterfield Railway Station Museum, saying rail trails needed reasons for people to get off their bikes to be successful and, if anything, a rail trail would draw more people to the museum. 

Tenterfield Railway Preservation Society president Frank McGuiness led a contingent of Railway Museum volunteers.

Tenterfield Railway Preservation Society president Frank McGuiness led a contingent of Railway Museum volunteers.

Several meeting participants were strongly against removing the existing track, fearing it meant the end of any possibility of rail services of any kind. Mr Hanger advised that conversion to a rail trail does not necessarily mean removal of the track, and that ownership of the corridor remains with the NSW Government and a return to transport use is not precluded.

In fact remediation of the line from its current state back into passenger rail use would cost more than remediation from a rail trail, and even then would be the smallest part of any outlay.

While he said the call for a return of the line to scheduled passenger services is ‘extremely unlikely’ to be supported by passenger numbers, Transport for NSW is currently undertaking a review of services and that would be the forum to raise that issue.

A number of property owners adjacent or dissected by the rail line voiced their fears on security, privacy, litter and insurance issues. One landholder said 70 per cent of his weeds control budget is spent on the 40 acres dissected by the rail line, while the remaining 30 per cent served the other 2000 acres. (Improved weed control in the rail corridor, however, has been cited as one of the advantages of a rail trail.)

Tenterfield councillor Tom Peters, who owns land on the rail line and said he already had trouble with trespassers going for a swim then picnicing and leaving rubbish, said he’s fine with a rail trail as long as it stays south.

“Not in my backyard,” he said.

Mr Hanger said if the community is split on the rail trail concept, it is hard for government to move forward. With community support, the government would be looking at the benefit-to-cost ratio and its affordability, with capital contributions expected from other parties.

He said rail trails are not generally stand-alone products, instead integrated with other tourism outlets like museums, cafes, B&Bs, camping sites, etc.

The successful Otago rail trail in New Zealand has multiple towns and activities along its route, the lack of which one woman highlighted in the Black Mountain to Ben Lomond stretch. She said there is not one single business along that length of rail, but this was strongly refuted by another who said Guyra was close enough to benefit.

Meeting participants were encouraged to prioritise their issues in order to gauge community sentiment on the rail trail proposal.

Meeting participants were encouraged to prioritise their issues in order to gauge community sentiment on the rail trail proposal.

Mr Hanger admitted this consultation opportunity has come exceptionally early in the project development process, with proponents having a lot of work ahead of them to present to government a viable plan with community support which addresses all the inherent issues. In the Tumbarumba case this portion of the process took 8-15 years.

While grant money is available now, Mr Hanger said such funding tends to be cyclical and potentially would be available if a viable project was presented.

A summary of opinions expressed at Tenterfield’s meeting leant heavily towards exploring the economic opportunities of a rail trail-led tourism push, with support for ventures promoting active lifestyles. Despite viability concerns, the push to reopen the railway received strong support as did repairs to the existing infrastructure. Biosecurity, trespass and littering issues were the main concerns on any future use of the rail corridor, as were the economic viability of any project.

The DPC team moved onto Guyra for another community consultation meeting on Tuesday where a crowd of 150 was expected. Then all feedback will be collated and presented in a report to government, including online submissions to regionalnsw.business@dpc.nsw.gov.au by December 22.

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