Community takes fight for rail to the Supreme Court

Issue 
Newcastle rail line was illegally closed on Boxing Day.

Supporters of maintaining the rail line into Newcastle are hopeful that their fight against NSW government’s plans to remove the line into the CBD will prevail.

The community has fought for more than a decade against state government attempts to cut the rail into the city centre. Developers have long wanted to exploit the city centre’s prime rail line land as it has never been mined and is considered ideal for multi-story developments. Their mates in the NSW parliament have been only too keen to help out.

On July 17, the Supreme Court finished hearing an appeal against the line’s closure bought by Save Our Rail. President of Save our Rail (SOR), Joan Dawson, told Green Left Weekly: “The Baird government is wasting public money on a raft of highly qualified legal representatives. But SOR has presented a credible case against the government’s secretive plans to replace the rail corridor with massive buildings”.

SOR was formed in 2003 and has been active ever since. On Boxing Day last year, the NSW government illegally closed the line into Newcastle. The law requires that a rail line can only be closed by an Act of parliament. This never happened.

To avoid its statutory requirements, the government had “vested” ownership of the land on December 18 from the state rail entity to Hunter Development Corporation (HDC). That way, it would be HDC closing the rail, not the government circumventing the law.

But the Supreme Court ruled that HDC was therefore a “rail operator” and was bound by Transport Administration Act 1988.

The NSW government met on Christmas Day to rescind that ownership agreement, thus ensuring that HDC owned the overhead wires only and Railcorp retained the rail line.

As HDC was not now a “rail operator”, it disabled the line by removing the overhead wires, boom gates and other infrastructure. It then created temporary road crossings by covering the line with road base and turf. Dawson said the effect was an immediate 5% drop in trade, which led to shops closing or cutting staff.

At the appeal Tim Robertson, acting for HDC, said the line was not closed if only a section of it was removed. To this, Judge Meagher responded that “it would depend if you want to get to Newcastle Station by train”.

Robertson said the new interchange, out of town at Wickham, had already been built — a claim howled down by SOR supporters.

SOR’s barrister Shane Prince argued the government had used spin to evade a law designed to protect public rail lines from closure. He said the Transport Administration Act 1988 was designed to protect public rail lines throughout NSW so that they could not be sold off for private use and profit.

The three judges will now consider the matter.

“We've already won in the 'court of public opinion',” Dawson said, “because we've presented a credible case against the government's efforts to replace trains with buildings.

“The Baird government’s weapons have been secrecy, deception and a huge waste of public money.

“The Appeal relied on interpretations and definitions in the Transport Administration Act, as well as the idea that the Growth Centres (Development Corporations) Act 1974 and the Compulsory Acquisitions (Just Terms Compensation) Act 1991 would override it.

“Robertson, used every trick in the book to waste time and confuse the three judges.

“If the Baird government wins the appeal, the Newcastle rail corridor will be flogged off to developers.

“The ramifications will be felt state-wide: all rail lines and other public spaces in NSW could come under the same pressure.

“SOR believes that taller buildings — which are unable be built on undermined land — will sprout up along the disused rail corridor.

“We are also concerned that public monies are being wasted removing a line, which could be better spent on providing faster and more frequent services to Sydney and other identified Hunter projects.

“We will not give up the fight. The future of Newcastle City and the need of Hunter communities to access the beach and city amenities is too important,” Dawson said.

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