SOR submission on rezoning transport corridor

SAVE OUR RAIL INCORPORATED SUBMISSION 20-10-2017

NEWCASTLE CITY COUNCIL PLANNING PROPOSAL PP2016 / 00004

REZONING TRANSPORT CORRIDOR

Save Our Rail urges councillors to reject this Development Application requiring the rezoning of Newcastle’s transport corridor.  It is the group’s firm belief that cities need direct transport to bring people to them as well as systems that allow easy movement within the local area. Reserving the corridor could prove valuable in future city planning. Allowing development on it would permanently cripple Newcastle’s prospects as a successful modern city.

 

INTRODUCTION

In December 2012 the NSW Government made the controversial decision to close the Newcastle Rail Line with then Planning Minister Hazzard promising the corridor would remain in public hands stating on ABC “I can make it clear 100% that our intent is it stays in public ownership…no intent at all to go handing it over to developers … guaranteed no doubt about it, it stays in public ownership, must remain as a potential corridor.”

The rail line was closed in Dec 2014 despite a Supreme Court ruling that the closure breached the law. The Baird Lib/Nat Government changed the law in 2015 and immediately ripped up the line.

Now, despite Hazzard’s promise, the corridor is the subject of a Development Application to have it rezoned for development. It is the responsibility of the Newcastle City Council to make a decision as to whether the current zoning SP2 (Transport infrastructure: Trains) is retained or the corridor is rezoned for building and other uses.  Some background information is included in relation to the removal of rail from the corridor so that councillors are fully aware of the impacts that decision has had and the necessity for this corridor to be able to again be used for public transport in the future.

This is a crucial decision and will impact on the future viability of the city and its regional communities.  Councillors will need to carefully consider every aspect of this issue to ensure the needs of all members of the community are taken into account.

 

CLOSURE OF THE NEWCASTLE RAIL LINE

The ill-advised decision to close the rail line was made at the insistence of politicians who were found by ICAC to have been compromised yet the Government was unwilling to listen to experts, the findings of a parliamentary inquiry or to proposals from community groups and proceeded to act on that tainted developer driven advice.

Traffic and transport engineers presented arguments about the adverse effects of such a move, even Tim Fischer Lib/Nat former Deputy Prime Minister advised against it. Peter Schinnick, who as chair of Hunter Business Chamber, had pushed for a rail cut and even disallowed the SOR president speaking time at a public meeting, after moving to Melbourne apparently experienced an epiphany.  In 2011 he told Newcastle Herald that if the University opened an inner city campus it would need the rail line.

Eminent academics in transport and sustainability opposed the rail cut.

Prof. Peter Newman (Murdoch University) who had been instrumental in the WA Government reversing the closure of the Fremantle to Perth rail, wrote in Herald articles:

The business community who want this change (truncation of the rail line) are creating the very conditions of uncertainty that undermine city centres. Trains make centres work.”

“It’s not tunnel vision; rail means business.”  “Rail creates certainty for investment.”

Prof. Graham Currie (Monash University, Melbourne) who was commissioned by Newcastle City Council to review reports advocating the rail closure, concluded:

The passenger rail services in the Hunter Region are a high quality feature of the region’s public transport system. Many cities of substantially greater size than Newcastle lack rail services and would covet the opportunity for such a substantive resource, as a means for providing public transport into the future. Newcastle is clearly gifted in the physical and natural resources it possesses. It is unfortunate that its sustainable transport system is to be discarded so easily based on what can factually be described as biased, flawed and misrepresented advice.” 

Save Our Rail (SOR) had conducted workshops in various locations to determine the transport needs of the community including the wider Hunter Valley towns and cities.  The resulting proposals provided   solutions to perceived problems caused by the presence of the rail line, including additional safer, more attractive crossings, raising the line at Stewart Avenue as a “sky train” to separate it from the road and using old tram corridors to extend transport further into the outer suburbs.

SOR contends that a sky train could alleviate the current Stewart Avenue congestion and that our Westrans proposal to re-use western tram corridors continues to be relevant.

Kellogg Brown Root (KBR) had warned of the impact of a rail truncation on the city of Newcastle as follows: “Any removal of the heavy rail line would mean the preservation of the CBD’s role as the regional centre would be compromised.” It suggested alternative centres, such as Maitland or Lake Macquarie would replace Newcastle as the major centre for business and leisure.

 

IMPACTS OF THE CLOSURE OF THE RAIL LINE

Since the closure of the rail line direct to Newcastle Station the following negative effects have been reported and need to be taken into account as indications of the need for a return of a form of direct transport into Newcastle.

  • Slower trip to reach inner Newcastle destinations and uncertainty of delay affecting those with a need for punctuality and causing many to drive, adding to traffic volume and need for more parking.
  • Patronage of public transport fell by more than 50% following the rail truncation. (Australian Bureau of Statistics)  This has resulted in more car use and increased traffic congestion.
  • Difficulties experienced by disabled passengers, frail aged and those with low mobility in changing mode prior to destination. This category includes passengers with heavy or bulky luggage and families with prams.
  • Business decline has occurred due to customers’ inability to travel in from regional towns. This was predicted by Prof Peter Newman and the KBR report.
  • Tourism has declined. Beachside backpacker hostels reported fewer bookings; one major hostel closed.
  • Loss of parking – this has been huge and is associated with the plan to build the light rail on Hunter and Scott Streets instead of the more practical alternative of putting it in the corridor.
  • Need for additional transport with opening of university campus opposite the closed Civic Station. Students are reporting great difficulty in getting to lectures in the new campus by public transport, as it is impossible to judge the time of arrival. Many are driving cars because of the need for punctuality.
  • Traffic engineer, Ron Brown reported increased traffic and congestion. He considers that street running the light rail rather than installing it in the dedicated transport corridor will have the effect of lengthening the queues at Stewart Avenue, already extending beyond the Carrington roundabout.

 

NEED TO RESERVE CORRIDOR FOR FUTURE PUBLIC TRANSPORT

  • The above negative effects caused by the closure of the rail line to Newcastle Station indicate that it will be vital for the city and region to reserve the existing corridor for the purpose of providing some form of future transport into the inner city area if the city is to thrive. This could be a high tech form of future transport, possibly driverless.  To succeed such transport would require a dedicated corridor away from the traffic interruptions that will inevitably be a feature of the street running light rail currently planned, which will be impacted by traffic lights, behind which cars will be queued as well as at every tram stop.
  • Safety will be an issue with accident rates likely to rise in overcrowded streets.
  • There is evidence of a city being strangled due to inadequate public transport and with thousands of additional planned dwellings and expansion of the university gridlock is predicted.
  • This could be somewhat alleviated if the plans are changed to use the existing corridor for the light rail. This would not overcome the forced interchange difficulties but could keep the corridor for a future return of a form of direct long haul transport.
    San Diego operates light rail for faster short distance services and heavy rail providing intercity trains linking to Los Angeles in the same transport corridor.
  • The discovery of the secret Cabinet document 71 indicated that the government had gone against its own research in the decision to put light rail in Hunter and Scott Streets. The document detailed many difficulties in the lack of space for other planned liveability measures including cycle paths as well as the extraordinary additional cost of almost $100million as against locating it in the transport corridor.
  • It is not too late for this decision to be reversed.  Therefore it is essential to retain the current zoning of the corridor. A change of government could have a different outcome and planning needs. After all the Newcastle Rail Line, which had been upgraded including new signalling, concrete sleepers, fencing replacement and extended platforms was completely removed.
  • There is a massive loss of parking in the CBD area, much of it being caused by preparations for locating the light rail in the streets. This is at a time when more cars are being driven into the city as outlined above. The situation will become more critical if the light rail project goes ahead as planned.
  • No cost/benefit analysis has been produced for the light rail project and this issue is currently being taken up with the NSW auditor general. It is being claimed that it is a huge waste of public funding to cram a light rail track of 2 ½ km into a main street when an existing transport corridor, zoned SP2 exists only half a block away, the use of which would save almost $100 million in cost.
  • The matter of the need to resume additional space is creating anxiety about the heritage listed Newcastle Station which is adjacent to the planned route of the light rail. As well there is also the heritage listed AA Co. wall which is reportedly slated for demolition to make the space needed in Scott Street.  The need to create more space in the street indicates the need to use the existing wide corridor instead.
  • Newcastle needs both long haul and short distance transport. The light rail in any location and even if extended into some suburbs will not provide a seamless trip to and from other centres.  It will not have the capability for distance transport even to Hunter regional communities.
  • Initiatives to extend the reach of rail transport from Newcastle to Tamworth via Scone or to Taree via Dungog could become a reality if all the funding is not wasted on the street running tram system. Such initiatives would provide a huge boost to Newcastle businesses and make up for some losses currently being experienced.
  • Temporary uses for the corridor, including a cycle path, could be a way of preserving it for future transport use. The current transport zoning should be maintained so that the space would be available as a vital resource when needed.

 

CONCLUSION

Newcastle City Council is urged to act responsibly in planning for future transport needs as well as addressing immediate community needs.

There has been some inducement provided in seeking to use part of the corridor for low cost housing, a need all would support.  As has been pointed out the proposal for the corridor is only a very minor percentage of the total needs for such housing in the Newcastle LGA. (4%) There are large areas of land that could be made available for this purpose rather than cramming people into such a small congested space, which seems to be a clever ploy to gain the rezoning that others want.

The other inducement is the provision of space to allow the University campus to expand. No one would deny the importance of this institution’s presence in the city. If it does take up an offer to use the corridor it would be an opportunity for creative architecture that could allow community needs and its own need for transport to co-exist with the university’s expansion ambitions.  If buildings are to include provision for rail to run underneath them it will be essential that the space is sufficient for not only light rail but for electric and diesel trains. To only provide for light rail would permanently impose a forced mode transfer on all passengers to destinations east of Wickham.

Premier Berejiklian has referred to “seamless” transport with the light rail project. To have to get off a train with all luggage and personal effects and walk a considerable distance to climb into another vehicle is not commensurate with any definition of “seamless.” The service previously provided to Newcastle Station was seamless and preserving the corridor for transport could allow such a service to be returned in the future.

The Government is requiring evidence that the corridor is needed for transport, however there is no evidence to indicate it is not needed. Vague statements about “revitalisation” do not constitute evidence and the evidence is stacking up that the opposite, “devitalisation” is occurring as in the above observations of adverse effects.

The so-called “boom” in development had already begun in Newcastle and is bound to increase as Sydney’s expansion overflow pushes up the coast. The building of massive apartment blocks does not in itself create a thriving city. Many are left as empty shells while the proceeds are pocketed and the company principals move on. This “boom” needs now to be reflected in raising the prospects of small businesses which are suffering. They need the custom brought in by efficient transport.

There is more to a city than short term profit for developers.  Newcastle has more to offer than new structures that would make it resemble any other city. It has charm and character in its built environment including a stock of grand heritage buildings, it enjoys great natural assets in beaches and parkland like Blackbutt Reserve and the Shortland Wetlands  as well as being a caring, compassionate and accepting community as evidenced by indigenous and marriage equality support.

Former CEO of Hunter Development Corporation on leaving the position made a statement to Herald reporter, Ian Kirkwood to the effect that he opposed the light rail project as planned and stated his philosophical belief that “you never give up a corridor.”

Transport engineer, David Stuart, at the Public Voice session expressed his view that there is no urgency in the need to make a decision to rezone this corridor.  He explained that there could be temporary uses until you get the plan right and that one small section of light rail does not constitute a transport system.

Save Our Rail urges councillors to reject this Development Application requiring the rezoning of Newcastle’s transport corridor.  It is the group’s firm belief that cities need direct transport to bring people to them as well as systems that allow easy movement within the local area. Reserving the corridor could prove valuable in future city planning. Allowing development on it would permanently cripple Newcastle’s prospects as a successful modern city.

Joan Dawson on behalf of Save Our Rail