Battle ignites for Newcastle rail

Protest in Newcastle, 2005. (Photo: saveourrail.org.au)

The NSW Coalition government announced plans on December 13 last year to cut the Newcastle rail line at Wickham station. As part of the urban renewal strategy document, passengers would have to transfer to buses to complete the last two kilometres of their journey to Newcastle.

A long-running community group, Save Our Rail, has twice stopped former Labor and Coalitions governments' attempts to cut the line.

Here are ten reasons why the campaign needs to continue:

There is no solution proposed for rail users affected by the cut
The plan does not explain how passengers will be shifted from rail to buses at a new Wickham terminus.

There is no room at the Wickham terminus for buses to meet passengers, they will have to board elsewhere. This means that shifting from rail to bus for the last leg of a journey into the city will be difficult, especially during the morning and afternoon peaks hours.

This erodes the key advantage of rail — it is fast and direct.

Cutting the line will cause traffic chaos
Like many other aspects of the urban renewal strategy report, there has been no modelling of the traffic impacts of a new Wickham terminus, of the bus and pedestrian flows from it, of the level crossings closed due to it, and no costing of measures that may be necessary to try and deal with such traffic flow-on effects.

The city campus needs a direct rail connection
The University of Newcastle is building a new city campus near Civic station which is projected to have 8000 students and 1000 staff. Under the proposal, the direct rail connection to the campus will be removed, making it more difficult for students and staff to use public transport.

The plan is Newcastle centric
It does not consider how to boost patronage on trains from feeder areas like Sydney, the Central Coast, Lake Macquarie, Maitland and the Hunter Valley in order to help revitalise Newcastle.

Due to decades of neglect and poor planning the rail service in the Hunter region is not used nearly as much as it could be.

Making the service more accessible and marketing it more effectively could be the answer to Newcastle’s problem of urban renewal.

We can connect the city to the harbour without cutting the line
Save Our Rail has campaigned since 2008 for a level pedestrian crossing built over the line to achieve better connectivity between the city and the harbour. For around $25 million we could have seven new at-grade pedestrian crossings providing ample connectivity.

The plan dictates what Newcastle City Council should be spending its money on
The urban renewal strategy document released by the NSW government depicts images of repaved malls, fountains and water features, trees planted at throughout the city, boulevards, jersey kerbs on Hunter St to better accommodate alfresco dining, and improved cycleways.

Many of these are good ideas, and most of them could be constructed without removing the rail line.

However all of these projects — $58.15million worth — will be constructed using Section 94A developer contributions collected by Newcastle City Council. The state government is effectively telling the city of Newcastle what to spend its money on, when that decision should be left for the people of Newcastle to decide.

The economics don’t stack up
There has been no cost benefit analysis of this latest plan to cut the line.

The $110 million the NSW government has pledged so far towards cutting the line and building a new terminus, and the $10 million it has pledged towards urban renewal projects, is nowhere near enough to make these thing happen.

The ‘green corridor’ is just a ruse
The state government says that the rail corridor will become public space and be utilised as a green corridor. NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard told ABC news on December 14 last year that: "I can make it very clear, 100 per cent, that our intent is that it stays in public ownership for the long haul," he said.
"There's no intent whatsoever to go handing it over to developers.”

Under previous governments the primary objective of cutting the line has been to build developments on the corridor. Property developer GPT has publicly stated their interest in building on the corridor.

There is no reason to trust the government that it will be any different this time.

Money should go to other priorities
The NSW government is cutting heath, school and TAFE budgets and slashing other public sector jobs.

The government should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on social services instead of on an ill-conceived rail cutting plan.

Rail is more environmentally friendly
Heavy electric rail is the spine of an ecologically friendly transport system. It has a very important role to play as we cut our reliance on fossil energy.

Building up public transport patronage in the Hunter will reduce fossil energy use and is a solid strategy for bringing more people into the city.

Rather than removing rail services and making the system vastly less user friendly the NSW government should be improving and promoting the network that will help solve the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change.

[Save Our Rail are holding a Rally at 11am on February 19 at NSW Parliament House. For more info visit saveourrail.org.au .]