The Northern Rail line is the main rail line that was used for passenger and freight rail services between Sydney and Brisbane until the late 1980s.
Many residents of the New England region have fond memories of their trips between these destinations for business, family, and recreational purposes.
The state government decision to terminate trains running north from Armidale meant not only the loss of easily accessible trains for the residents, but also an iconic public transport service which made travel more comfortable, enjoyable and meaningful.
The loss of this service substantially reduced the connectivity between regions, businesses, families, and friends by creating an unnecessary barrier. It also removed a driver of further population and business growth in the region.
The loss of train services beyond Armidale created not only a physical gap in the available transport infrastructure but also various 'myths' in the minds of many locals. The latter is reflected in comments such as 'a train will never return', 'it is too expensive to bring back', and 'going by car is more convenient'.
The plans by the Armidale Regional Council (ARC) and Glen Innes Severn Council (GISC) to proceed with the New England Rail Trail (NERT) have generated renewed enthusiasm amongst those who would like to see the return of train travel.
Discussions are taking place in the social media and within community groups. Several petitions seeking the retention of the rail line for future development are also being circulated in the New England community.
Those who support the New England Rail Trail claim that this is the better option to utilise the unused rail corridor resulting in thousands of visitors, mainly cyclists, to the region. In fact, the estimate included in the NERT Plan (2019) is that the rail trail will attract 15,000-day visitors, 14,000 overnight stayers and 35000 local users annually (after four years of operation).
While the basis of this estimate is questionable in the absence of any corresponding econometric modelling, the assumptions behind such estimation need to be critically scrutinised.
One scenario in the original business case prepared by Halliburton Associates (2018) for the Armidale Regional Council (ARC) suggests that a cyclist who comes to Armidale to ride the rail trail will do so in 2-3 days, one segment at a time allowing for overnight stays.
If he/she decides to ride the whole length in one go and leave the area or go to another location for a trail ride, the case collapses due to loss of projected accommodation and spending income in the region i.e. 5.8 million annually.
If the cyclist decides to ride one section then go home, the same outcome can be expected. In such circumstances, the projected income to the region will not be realised.
There is another important fact to consider. The business case by Halliburton is built by comparing the proposed New England Rail Trail (NERT) and its future economic prospects and social dividend with existing rail trails elsewhere in other states and New Zealand.
In these cases, the rail trails can be easily accessed by rail, or there are other enticements, such as key tourism generators such as wineries or outstanding natural scenery. These are the pull factors for cyclists to visit the area in the first place.
However, along the NERT path between Armidale and Glen Innes there are no such attractions, it is in fact quite devoid of much natural beauty. If a cyclist wants to reach the area by train from Sydney, that journey takes about eight hours.
Some argue as to why people from other parts of NSW will want to ride the NERT at all? They ask how the visitor numbers estimated in the business case could actually be achieved when the NE Rail Trail is not comparable to those listed by Halliburton.
It is concerning to vigilant members of the community that the rail trail proposal sponsored by the two councils requires a legislative amendment to the NSW Transport Act 1988 passed through the NSW Parliament closing the northern rail line.
This amendment to close the rail line is expected at any time in the first half of this year. Government and rail trail proponents argue that the rail corridor will remain in public hands for future use by rail projects, by which they mean the rail corridor will be turned into Crown land and remain in the hands of Transport NSW and/or the holding authority.
The concern from the perspective of train supporters is that by implementing the NE rail trail plan and closing the rail line by legislative amendment will be the death knell for any future introduction of train services north of Armidale. They argue that once the line is closed, it will be very difficult to have it returned to rail operation because much of the infrastructure will be destroyed in creating a rail trail.
The future costs of re-construction will also be far greater. If there is no political will now, how can we expect renewed political will to invest in the rail line far into the future with a rail trail in place on the existing rail corridor?
A key condition set by the NSW government to approve the NE Rail Trail is that the councils have to show 'overwhelming community support' for the plan. For this purpose, Armidale Regional Council (ARC) conducted a Community Engagement exercise in 2021. A report prepared by council staff was presented to the ARC meeting held on February 23. It states that a majority of those who participated in various community meetings supported a rail trail.
These meetings were held in Armidale, Guyra, Ben Lomond and Black Mountain. However, the findings from these meetings are not supported by any hard evidence whatsoever, either in the executive summary or in the report.
Of the 376 landholders along the proposed rail trail informed by letter about the community engagement meetings that were organised by ARC staff, just 13 percent (about 49 persons) attended.
This is hardly a representative group. One meeting organised by the Visions for New England 2040 - a community group - at the Armidale Bowling Club as a Q and A session, has also been included even though this was not organised by the ARC.
At this specific meeting, none of the 40 attendees were asked whether or not they supported rail trail or a train service between the two towns, yet the report presented to the ARC states that there was majority support for a rail trail. How did those who compiled the report come to such a conclusion?
Disturbingly, the report states that, "The sentiment around the room was one of general acceptance of the NERT project" when the split of those supporting and opposing the rail trail was 50/50 at the Ben Lomond meeting.
Mainly, the methodology in conducting the ill-named community engagement sessions and the qualifications of the organisers to test respondents' opinions, collect and analyse relevant information are also not elaborated in the available council records.
None of the comments provided by those who are supportive of the retention and re-development of rail line between Armidale and Ben Lomond, including the author, were specifically noted in the report. Therefore, we must question the independence and objectivity of the data gathering and analysing methodology used by the ARC and reporting of views obtained via the community engagement process relating to the New England Rail Trail.
ARC is in an unenviable and I must say compromised position of having to promote the rail trail on one hand, and having to conduct an independent and objective community engagement processon on the other.
When looking at the report, lack of objectivity in the process, analysis and reporting can be noted as explained above.
Another major problem is the clear lack of political will on the part of the state government and the two councils in the New England region to think beyond the short term and focus on the long-term infrastructure needs of the area.
An independent feasibility study is essential to ascertain the costs definitively and the state government needs to come to the party and fund such a study for the benefit of all concerned. In fact, the Community Consultation report prepared by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet (2018) suggested the two councils undertake such a study involving all options. Instead, they proceeded to focus on the rail trail.
We have a state government and ministers for regional NSW, infrastructure and active transport, as well as transport who are not interested in extending rail services in the New England region in any form in the foreseeable future, in fact until 2040, so matters become almost impossible for community groups such as the Northern Railway Defenders Forum when no-one is listening.
Only a change of government can bring about change for our communities.
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