Maintain trains transiting between Wickham and Newcastle

An open letter by John Muller, dated 1 September 2013:

Maintain trains transiting between Wickham & Newcastle

 “The minimalist solution with the maximum outcome for now and into the future. Save a quality service and really embrace the future opportunities of Newcastle, at half the cost.”

My name is John Muller I am a property owner in Newcastle and was a Government Employee and property investor for over 22 years.  While I live in Victoria I have had a long time interest in the Newcastle area.

I am particularly concerned about the plan to close the rail service to the CBD of Newcastle. I want to add my voice to the debate.  I will be arguing for the retention of the railway line, the lowering of the line into a trench (or alternatively raising it onto a viaduct) with the business support of private enterprise, and the win fall that follows for those private businesses, the CBD of Newcastle and the people of Newcastle, for cost effectiveness and for effective planning for the future.

I am writing because I think you are about to make a major mistake and error of judgement.  Nowhere in the world are cities expanding with the reduction of major essential infrastructure.  Australia cannot keep up with the demand for its needed essential infrastructure and has to find huge funding to build infrastructure projects and this is not keeping pace with our needs but rather we are forced to deal with the strongest priorities only.  None of the major redevelopments in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane start with the premise of reducing infrastructure as part of the project.  In Melbourne while building the Docklands project Spencer Street station (now Southern Cross) was not closed, rather it was redeveloped (and also made an architectural feature)  to better serve the new Docklands project adjacent to the station.  In Brisbane, South Brisbane station was not threatened with closure when the South Bank developed. In Sydney authorities additionally constructed public transport access lines into Darling Harbour including tram lines.

It should be admitted, the demand to close the railway is nothing other than giving in to the pressure of developers and misguided ideology. They are using a spurious argument about closing the line. It has nothing to do with patronage and everything to do with the demands of a small yet powerful lobby group, unrepresentative of the general public and not concerned about the public good, but instead they reiterate the promises of their projects rhetoric, as they are only concerned about turning a quick profit.

It is absurd to take away the city’s main railway station. There is not a city in Australia that would do it. You cannot seriously claim there is any sense in saying that travellers do not want to reach the CBD or there is a problem in continuing to take them that far.

The problem is solely in the demands of the developers.  And to this end the argument touted is low levels of patronage.  But metropolitan Rail Services in other cities around Australia also reached low points in patronage. When Adelaide services were at their lowest patronage, it was not considered good planning for the future to eliminate Adelaide station. Similar moments may have come for Perth and Brisbane.  The future utility was part of the planning.

Once lost, this railway infrastructure will be hugely expensive to replace at a later stage. Currently at Gold Coast City, authorities are spending a fortune bringing rail transport back though to the main business centres. This is being done retrospectively at great expense and Newcastle is bigger than Gold Coast City. Even if patronage is at a low point, the existence of the line is an advantage for future infrastructure planning now, so do not give it away because of the alleged solutions and the play being made by those who want short term profit.  There are better alternatives that would satisfy all concerned.

No major city considers the idea of removing its major railway terminus from the CBD as a solution to the revitalisation of that CBD.  It is understood that the railway is a major channel and entry point that can physically channel in large volumes of people. Historically major business centres develop at transport intersections, because they are transport intersections. The current plan will not channel people to the CBD and will inconvenience those that actually needed to travel there. Public transport users take the easiest route and avoid changing to trams or buses if they can.

The current proposal is not addressing the true issue and is missing the point. It has long been clear to me that the issue with business activity in Newcastle CBD is its absence of a grid structured CBD. This is the way that Newcastle differs from every other large Australian city. The city centre is built on a model more typical of suburban areas along a single long main street.  A block structure creates concentrated market conditions with an economy of scale that redounds on all businesses in the area.  High rise office, retail and residential space also need to be part of this. Transport interchange needs to be part of this, not the reduction of transport.  Expecting people to dexterously change modes of transport to reach a particular locality in effect diffuses that localities transport interchange qualities.

Public transport users will not travel an extra 4 kilometres just because that is where the CBD is. They will end their journey and alight where they can easily do so and that district will benefit from the market that is created.  Very few people would change at Wickham to travel to Newcastle. They would only do so if they had a specific reason to do so, but for those people, the plan to close the rail would add an inconvenient need to change transport, making the travel less likely.

Surely the last thing today’s planners want is Newcastle to become at city of half a million people with no discernible city centre. Braodmeadow is not the city centre.  Wickham is not the city centre. Newcastle West is not the city centre. Harbour views are not the city centre.  The by product of the conjunction of market forces is the city centre. This has always included infrastructure. Newcastle is rather unique as it sits on a peninsula point and its businesses have developed on a long a single main street. This wonderful and unique feature has however created a lack of concentration in a CBD.  Long commercial roads are fine, Sydney and Melbourne have such roads but they are suburban areas and unfortunately many suburbs have experienced declines in business activity.  It would not be unusual for Newcastle West or Wickham to experience such activity declines.  It is the concentration of infrastructure, crossing main streets and businesses that occur in the CBDs of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne that has maintained the business activity there.  To truly achieve revitalisation, Newcastle needs to adopt a policy of encouraging such concentration into a central location. Newcastle needs to concentrate more business and entertainment and commerce into a smaller area over a few blocks.

The argument being relied on by the proponents of the rail closure uses passenger counts as evidence supporting the closure. But this is a self serving, false and circular position.  To be bluntly honest the push for the rail closure is singularly the demand for the land and the clear aim of the plan is profit and the revitalisation of the CBD, and should this revitalisation be successful, this in itself would lift the passenger counts. The two things would complement each other very well, but offcourse only if the rail line is lowered into a trench would both ends be satisfied. If the revitalisation is somewhat successful why should Newcastle then find itself without the transport interchange qualities defined above? The CBDs of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne did not develop by adding with one hand and taking away with the other. The confluence of transport along with business bolstered and reinforced each other. The CBDs might not have developed had one gain been met with one loss.

While in this case the revitalisation plan and the rail service would complement each other’s success the same market factors would apply into the future of Newcastle’s CBD.  Diminishing important essential infrastructure and over engineering market forces may result in the decline of Newcastle CBD instead.  All of the factors that give rise to a Central Business District need to actually work together to result in a CBD. One cannot assume business will go there, because the name of the area suggests they should. Market forces make them want to go to that district. Harbour views may simply not be enough.  If the loss of this market confluence ie the loss of the transport hub and interchange is counterproductive to businesses closer to Newcastle CBD,  and these businesses relocate,  then there would be fewer and fewer reasons for people to travel further than Wickham. You would in effect kill off the district rather than revitalise it.  It is a major advantage that you have a railway that can directly serve the area of civic, honey suckle and Newcastle and any redevelopment that is planned there. Don’t risk creating a great white elephant and miss the opportunity of correctly continuing development and becoming one of the great cities of Australia, due to lack of wisdom and imagination and will.

The logic behind the revitalisation without the railway is flawed. Apart from the desirability of harbour views, it is misguided because the attraction of residing in an area is based on the premise that the area is a ‘central and busy district’ that people flock to, not the other way around.  You cannot simply accommodate people in a district and then expect that it will make it a busy area that people want to flock to.  Docklands in Melbourne and Darling Harbour in Sydney and Southbank in Brisbane are all close to very concentrated and vital business centres and this is why they work.  The plan needs to get the fundamentals right first. The plan needs to look after the market and businesses it resides with and also affects.  Giving in to the developers demand for a quick profit may kill the value of that district later.

Construction of residential buildings along the shore line will only have a modest effect.  The emphasis needs to be on business health first and then on living space that thrives off business activity.  Today most wealthy people prefer travel by car, and will drive away quite readily. A healthy business centre is needed to keep the focus in the area. People will be quite happy to live in the area just for the views, and travel elsewhere for their activities.

Obviously and predictably there is a lot of pressure from developers who want to get access to valuable real estate.  But government needs to be careful to plan around and monitor these things wisely and intelligently. Private interest will made predictable claims if they can see a quick profit but will not concern themselves with the health of the market they wish to profit from. Melbourne and Sydney no doubt (though I am not aware of Sydney examples) are full of proposals that were assumed to be great enhancements that in the end proved only to be a quick profit for those involved and a Nett loss to Melbourne overall. One example was the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne. A major iconic theatre, the sort that gave Melbourne its reputation for architecture, the arts and its civic life, was demolished for what was supposed to be an impressive new building. Today does anyone know what that new building is or even ever look at it. Who has even heard of the Tivoli arcade which was included in the redevelopment? The site and its utility is all but completely forgotten.  Another Melbourne example is the so called “Paris End of Collins Street”.  The demand to demolish to get access to land in that area got so bad that government finally took action and halted demolition of important architecture. This was because if not halted anyone visiting the “Paris End of Collins Street” would after seeing the lack of historical architecture, indeed wonder why we should call it the “Paris End of Collins Street”. The reason for the demand to build there, was being destroyed by those making the demand.  There are many other examples. However Melbourne has learned to be weary of proposals that destroy the life, vitality and reputation of the city.

The best proposal is to keep the established, essential infrastructure, and let it continue to service the established market place and also the new market that emerges with the new project proposals.  Rail is the most viable way to funnel volumes of people into the area and simultaneously protect the businesses reliant on the established market place.  The rail could be very useful infrastructure to channel people to the new proposals for the land. This could most easily be achieved by partnering with project developers to lower the section of rail line between Wickham and Newcastle into a trench. The various project proposals would then build over the line.  If asked, developers will offcourse prefer not to incorporate these costs, but government has the upper hand. The land is owned by the government.  If developers want the land as badly as they claim, they can be willing to contribute to such a trench as the ‘cost’ of getting that access. Clearly government would sell or lease the land for a cost.  It is only fair that such payments fund the costs of lowering the line and not simply bolster government coffers for other uses. The water table does not need to be a problem.  After all developers will be excavating for their projects and they will solve problems with the water table, so it is a matter of incorporating the railway into the projects.  Thus government would not be surrendering the land too cheaply and, it would be wise planning for the future.  Private enterprise could in effect build this underground section for the government as part of their project costs and assist in future planning and also promote their own market needs. This way, retaining the service will not actually cost that much, with the support of private enterprise who are clamouring for the location, hence even more reason to protect that location into the future.  (If the water table truly was an insurmountable issue, the same logic can apply to raising the rail onto a viaduct).  This then is not a matter of cost but rather of having the will to see through a project to the best solution for all concerned.  This is because private funding in a joint enterprise is like discovering the extra funds needed for the civic project, where those paying for it are quite willing to pay out of their business plan.

There are major savings because in many ways it involves the least amount of alteration.  No need for expansions to Wickham station, much less demolition involved especially at Newcastle station,   no real need for impact studies as it involves no major changes, no need for construction of alternative transport systems and major savings where the private sector incorporates work in their construction costs.  Lowering of the line (or raising it) is a minimalist solution with maximum benefit. After all there are only two lines that run through Civic station.  Two lines is a very simple narrow trench and this simple solution provides access to all of the real estate the private sector wants up to the harbour.  This proposal simultaneously secures future public transport planning for inner Newcastle.  As has been clearly demonstrated in both Sydney and Melbourne rail transport today has become a vitally important essential infrastructure resource.  The minimalist solution of lowering the line also ensures Newcastle is better prepared for this planning contingency in the future. This phenomenon will occur in Newcastle too.

Civic station would be the best public transport way, to serve the Honey suckle area most effectively as well continuing to serve this important part of Newcastle West. Being underground it would allow the developers and planners all of the access and land and views that they are after, but with the added advantage of excellent public transport. Projects with the station below would probably end up with the highest real estate value.  Other stops could be added if need be.

A trench would appear like an underground railway and as far as impressions go, this by itself would introduce state of the art attributes that are looked for in revitalisations.  Commercial development could also be incorporated.  There are various Melbourne examples of this practice.  The most notable being the current project to cover over the Jolimont railway yards with a concrete roof that will form the ground space for a massive central city development.  Another example was the Box Hill Central redevelopment where a shopping centre was built over the railway line and station by lowering them into a trench.  The station is an excellent public transport access point for the new shopping centre.  The Melbourne Central development was another example.

Personally I feel the model that works best for revitalisation is probably the model used on the gold coast, where  a new development is integrated with shop fronts directly onto a main street such as Hunter Street, that would then allow access through to the water front while also maintain the established services and businesses in the area. If this principle is repeated along Hunter Street, it should have a very positive effect on business there.

This minimalist solution I am advocating is also the wisest in the long run satisfying developer demand, with most efficient costing, wisest long term planning and the best business and market support. The minimalist solution with the maximum outcome for now and into the future, after all that is exactly what good planning is all about. Save a quality service and really embrace the future opportunities of Newcastle, at half the cost.

No city in Australia has ever closed down a rail service to the central city, with the sort of patronage that the Wickham to Newcastle section gets.  At evenings the platforms are full of people especially at Civic. Don’t pretend to deny it, this is a very busy railway line.  Newcastle will be ridding itself of a major advantage just for the sake of change without embracing the real opportunity presenting itself. The CBD can be developed and ready for further significant development into the future. Or you can roll the dice and put all your hope on the claims of this one development. If harbour views don’t create a CBD, don’t revitalise the CBD, then you will look foolish in the end.  Don’t create a ghost town by killing the infrastructure and its neighbourhood businesses on just the promises of the promotional spin. Have the nerve to go forward and boldly take your opportunities for robust growth rather than inadequate, defeatist thinking and a half hearted reliance on the developers promotional spin.

John Muller B.A. Dip. Soc.