Last train out of Newcastle

January 16, 2015

It’s 8pm and I’m sitting in the main section of the carriage. A weathered, middle-aged man in a tracksuit and peak hat is swaying around by the doors, muttering. I watch him out of the corner of my eye as he ambles over.

“How’s it going?” He slurs.

“Yeah good mate.”

The train soon shudders to a stop, the doors open and he springs out like some manic racehorse into the night.

Strange conversations with strange people, chance encounters with old friends, tearful goodbyes on the platform. These are just some of the many colourful memories the Newcastle train line has given me. And now that it’s gone, I’m more than a little wistful. I’m annoyed; pretty fucking annoyed.

The state government insists that the train line divides what should be the CBD from the waterfront, and that ripping it up is essential to the “revitalisation” of the city.

Newcastle city’s revitalisation is a grand and mythical project, pushed by countless political parties and private consortiums over the past few decades.

It now involves a new university campus without any car parks, the construction of multiple high rise apartments and the lifting of height restriction on new buildings; all to revive Hunter Street and resurrect the inner city to its rightful place as a commercial utopia.

Big property developers are already champing at the bit, as the managing director of Colliers International Newcastle, Chris Chapman, put it: “One of the boys in the office hoped it would be Darby Street on steroids.”

However, facing the government and obstructing its grand plan is the local community. The government, in response, has attempted to assuage their doubts. A new light rail system has been proposed and some plans have called for the old rail line to be converted into a shared green corridor.
The light rail proposal has been, quite rightly, greeted with scepticism. Will a light rail system, built sometime in the distant future, be enough to sustain Newcastle’s bustling metropolis? How will local jobs and businesses survive in the meantime?

Debate continues as to whether the promise of a green corridor will be fulfilled, or if this prime real estate will be sold off to big developers. The community is clearly unconvinced.

On December 14 thousands marched against what the government politely calls the “truncation”, and brought any further dismantling to a close by court order. The legality of the entire project is now being examined.

The government seems clearly in the wrong, and what they’re doing is in direct contradiction to the will of the community. So why is this happening?
Remember when Treasurer Joe Hockey insisted on radio that the poor don’t drive? He copped a lot of shit for that comment, but there is a little insight to be gained here. 

Yes, many of the workers of this country do indeed rely on cars to get from place to place. But next time you take the train or bus, have a look at your fellow passengers. Depending on which line you travel, you’ll see the homeless, immigrants and Aboriginal people. You’ll see students, low paid workers and pensioners. But unless there’s the media to be courted you won’t find a politician on a train.

Perhaps the problem is that the private school educated, luxury car driving elite that runs this country doesn’t understand public transport. Perhaps it’s something more sinister. Consider the fact that both the local state member and Lord Mayor of Newcastle have both been found corrupt and dismissed for taking bribes from property developers.

Either way, the lines have been drawn and two sides in this issue have clearly emerged. And looking at the world around us, we come once again to an awful conclusion. This is just the latest battle in a long campaign, between self-interested politicians and millionaire businessmen on one hand, and the people on the other. This fight is not just about the railway.

It’s about universal healthcare, affordable university and an unemployment safety net; that is, everything that the working people of this country have been able to pry from the hands of the rich and powerful over the past century. The work of our grandfathers is being ripped up before our eyes, and it is our children who will suffer.

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