Newcastle rail cut: a fake solution in search of a real problem

Last Christmas Day I rode what might be the last train out of Newcastle station – a handsome heritage terminus alongside the historic core of NSW’s second-biggest city. It was 11:22 on a brutally steamy night, and the occasion had an air of unreality rather than sadness and inevitability.

A handful of anti-closure activists outnumbered two hastily-drafted Young Liberals wielding pro-closure placards. The departing train drivers said cheerfully, as they left, “See you back here in three months” (or in the case of a lone realist, “12 months”).

Around the globe, direct CBD-to-CBD inter-city rail is the gold standard. It’s what governments aspire to and pay billions to get. Between Sydney and Newcastle we already have this boon, but the Baird government is insanely determined to throw it all away, permanently cut the last, vital 2.5 kilometres, and sell the narrow rail corridor – the only remaining non-undermined land in the Newcastle CBD on which high rise can be built – to a developer clique.

Nobody knows what will happen next. Just before Christmas, Newcastle’s Save Our Rail group took the government to the Supreme Court, seeking an injunction against the closure on the grounds that the 1988 Transport Administration Act requires a specific act of parliament to authorise the closure of a rail line. The government responded by having its Hunter Development Corporation compulsorily acquire the line, with effect from Boxing Day, in the hope that it could then rip out the tracks. The court ruled that this device, while legal, simply made HDC a rail infrastructure owner, and therefore subject to the same Act. Rail services were suspended, but the essential infrastructure remains.

The government has appealed the Supreme Court decision, but if this fails, Baird is in an ugly position. He could put a closure bill before parliament but the upper house has so far scorned the case for closure – the situation that drove the government to resort to a shabby legal work-around persists.

So the line remains, and the public, forced to lose time transferring to buses at Hamilton, grind slowly to and from the beaches, the university, the entertainment venues, the specialty shops, their jobs and homes, gazing in frustration at the line they once rode, in five minutes or less, to their destination. Worse, the temporary bus solution is a foretaste of the inconvenience and the permanent 15-minute time penalty that will result from the promised light rail replacement.

The tragedy is that Newcastle and the Hunter would actually get a real, sustainable, economic boost if the available funds were instead spent on bringing the Sydney–Newcastle rail journey below two hours.

Imagine the boost to Newcastle’s economy if the rail trip between Central and Newcastle CBD – one of the most scenic in Australia – took just an hour and a half. Newcastle would gain from closer economic integration with Sydney, and the charming medium-rise CBD would become one of NSW’s most popular tourist drawcards.

In Europe, on an intercity route as important as Sydney-Newcastle, that sort of running time would have been attained, as a matter of course, decades ago, through a combination of strategic track amplification, straightened alignments, better signalling and faster trains.

Between Hornsby and Gosford, the Main Northern Line traverses some difficult terrain but over most of the route the rail easement is generous and long sections pass through relatively flat country where track quadruplication could be easily accomplished without disruption to rail services.

This revolution in intercity travel could be accomplished in as little as seven years, in three stages, each making dramatic cuts to journey time. And those benefits would also flow to the Central Coast and the Hunter Valley.

It beggars belief that, after all the revelations of bribery, influence peddling, nest-feathering, conflict of interest, and corruption of process that have emerged from ICAC and the recent Legislative Council inquiry into Newcastle planning, Baird could even contemplate pressing on with a madness that benefits only a tiny handful of his business constituency.

Read the full article at The Fifth Estate.