Rethinking the removal of a rail line into the heart of Newcastle

Newcastle has been embroiled in ongoing debate about the removal of a heavy rail line into the heart of Newcastle. This year, the State government announced that the line would close on Box Day and be replaced by buses until a light rail system was built. Yesterday, the Select Committee on the Planning Process in Newcastle and the Broader Hunter Region released its interim report focusing on the rail line.

The committee, consisting of six members of the Legislative Council (two ALP, two Liberal, one Green, one Christian Democrat) has strongly supported the retention of the rail line. In its introduction the committee states:

This report identifies the lack of any coherent economic, social or environmental case for the removal of the heavy rail line… Our conclusion is clear, the rail line should remain.

There is no cogent argument available to support the removal of heavy rail in Newcastle, while in almost every other major city in the country governments are investigating the delivery of more and improved heavy rail as essential transport infrastructure of the 21st century. (Page 1)

The committee, which received 377 submissions and 20 supplementary submissions, suggests:

It is notable that almost every one of the submissions in support of cutting the rail line came from business and/or property interests in the city. Only a small number of Newcastle residents made a submission in support of truncating the rail line.

Overwhelmingly the submissions from the general public and from transport academics were strongly opposed to the cutting of the rail line. The committee did not receive a single submission from a resident of Maitland or the Upper Hunter, a region that relies on the rail line connection to the Newcastle CBD, in support of the rail truncation. (Paragraphs 3.23-24)

This year, Newcastle politicians have been implicated in controversies surrounding illegal donations by property developers. In August 2014:

  • The former Lord Mayor (Jeff McCloy), who is also a property developer, resigned from office after admitting to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that he had made illegal donations to the now former state members for Newcastle and Charlestown.
  • The former state member for Newcastle (Tim Owen) resigned after he admitted lying to ICAC about returning $10,000 he received from Mr. McCloy, which he had actually used to fund his election campaign, and was allegedly aware of receiving money from the property development company Buildev.
  • The former state member for Charelestown (Andrew Cornwell) resigned after he admitted to accepting $20,000 of illegal payments from Mr McCloy and Hunter property developer Hilton Grugeon. (Paragraphs 6.4-5)

While there remains grave concerns about the improper influence by developers in Newcastle planning decisions (which are being investigated by ICAC), the Select committee reported that it had “not received any evidence to prove that those donations had any impact on the decision to truncate the heavy rail or the proposed light rail” (paragraph 6.26).

The committee made eight recommendations:

Recommendation 1 That the NSW Government provide all of the documents listed in the order for papers relating to planning in Newcastle and the Hunter, dated 23 October 2014, by 31 January 2015, as requested by the committee.

Recommendation 2 That no steps be taken to remove Newcastle’s existing rail infrastructure until a peer-reviewed report is obtained by the NSW Government that thoroughly considers the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of the alternative options of removing and retaining the existing rail line.

Recommendation 3 That in undertaking the cost benefit analysis in Recommendation 2, the NSW Government consider a series of alternative options to the removal of the rail line including sinking the rail line, constructing additional overbridges and/or level crossings, landscaping the existing rail corridor and reducing train speeds.

Recommendation 4 That the NSW Government not proceed with the proposed Hunter Street light rail route unless and until supported by a peer-reviewed cost benefit analysis that thoroughly considers not only the retention of the existing rail line but also the provision of light rail on the existing rail corridor.

Recommendation 5 That, if the truncation of the Newcastle heavy rail line proceeds, the NSW Government postpone the date of truncation until construction of the light rail service commences.

Recommendation 6 That, if the truncation of the Newcastle heavy rail line proceeds, the NSW Government ensure that the unused portion of the rail corridor be used only for low scale development associated with community, recreational and public uses.

Recommendation 7 That, if the truncation of the Newcastle heavy rail line proceeds, the NSW Government ensure that any proposed development on the unused portion of the rail corridor be subject to a transparent planning process, under the control and direction of Newcastle City Council, that involves ample opportunity for public consultation.

Recommendation 8 That the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure ensure that the conflicts of interest held by the General Manager of Hunter Development Corporation, Mr Robert Hawes, are consistently managed in accordance with the NSW Planning and Infrastructure Conflicts of Interest Policy and Guidelines.

The two Liberal Party members of the committee did not support the report and provided a dissenting statement in which they disagreed with all recommendations. They strongly disagreed with the statement in the report that “There is no cogent argument available to support the removal of heavy rail in Newcastle.” They argued that

This claim is the precise opposite of huge tracts of factual evidence put to the Committee, including detailed reports prepared by independent economic, transport planning and urban planning experts who examined and recommended removal of the physical rail line barrier that separates the Newcastle CBD from its own harbour, on the basis that it is vital to the City’s future.

The full report (including the dissenting statement) can be found here.

I am a strong supporter (and user) of public transport and other alternatives to cars. Once the train service into the heart of Newcastle has gone, we will not get it back at. Just when we are facing the urgent need to find alternatives to fossil fuels (including petrol, diesel and gas cars); it makes absolutely no sense to me to get rid of a good rail line before we are clear about how we will address our reliance on the car. The rail line should be retained until at least the next election (in March 2015). In the words of the Select committee:

The government presented no viable argument to support the decision to terminate rail services on Boxing Day. The government representatives acknowledged they had no existing plans for the rail corridor after the closure of the rail line and therefore the purported urgency to terminate services can only be seen as running to a political, as opposed to practical, timetable by the government. For the good of the people of Newcastle and the Hunter the existing rail line services should be retained until a considered and well informed decision is made on the future of the rail corridor as proposed in Recommendation 2. At the very minimum the government should not proceed with closing the existing rail line until their alternative light rail is fully funded and approved with a clear timetable for completion. (Paragraph 5.48)

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. The paradox of inconsequence
  2. Encouraging cycling
  3. The Renewable Energy Target
  4. A statistically representative climate change debate
  5. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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