President’s Report – June 2005

Joan Dawson, Save Our Rail President

During our time as your elected team, we have been engaged in a never-ending struggle trying to achieve the central aim of our organisation – to stop the closure of rail services to Newcastle.

George and I took on our roles when Save Our Rail was a very informal collection of people concerned over the re-emergence of plans, previously shelved, to close off the line.

Our first major activity was to organise a series of workshops to gauge community needs regarding transport. These yielded valuable information and provided us with a basis for continuing to campaign. Because of the generosity of people making donations we had to reopen the bank account previously used by the earlier Save Our Rail group. This led to formal elections in July 2004 when other team members included Darrell as Technical Research Officer, Noelle & Margaret managing money and membership, and Jan elected as Vice President. Some elected members have been unable to continue in their positions and we have appointed others onto the committee as the need arose.

We were dealt the expected “King Hit” when the Minister for Transport, the loveable Michael Costa announced his decision to close the Newcastle line at Broadmeadow. His cowardly act of making the announcement just prior to Christmas, with many on holidays or preoccupied with family, was designed to prevent meaningful reaction and stop us in our tracks. We didn’t stop, however, but immediately called a well attended planning meeting. Taking to heart a motion from that meeting we met at least weekly over the Christmas break and throughout January, sharpening our claws, writing letters and gathering support. Part of the support was a group of creative young people, of whom this city should be proud, who organised the very colourful and highly successful Australia Day protest, placing ribbons around historic Newcastle Station and gathering 3,169 signatures on petitions.

This was followed by Antoinette Griffith’s idea of a demonstration, in which people, some disabled, others with bikes, prams, surfboards or luggage attempted to catch buses from Newcastle Station. This proved that a train load of passengers, (about 150) of varying needs and degrees of mobility, cannot be practically accommodated on the normal bus service. Chaos reigned with buses banked up round the comer and bus drivers becoming frustrated.

Save Our Rail was not sorry when Mr Costa was replaced as Transport Minister. We met the new Minister Hon John Watkins here in Newcastle, with high hopes. Though more pleasant than his predecessor, so far we have not been able to shift him from the position he inherited. The committee he set up operates on the premise that the line is to close at Broadmeadow, and his letters seem like a gramophone needle stuck on a record, saying over and again that he will “not revisit the decision to close the rail.”

Darrell Harris, our very capable Research Officer has completed a great submission to this committee, which examines the possibilities of integrated transport for the Hunter.

Under the guidance of George Paris, our secretary, who put in the “hard yards” of the processes, we became an incorporated body, which was necessary for effective functioning and insurance protection. Save Our Rail NSW Inc. came into existence with two branches, Lower Hunter, and Maitland.

Our strategy has included destabilising Costa’s advisory group, the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group, because of three of its four members having a conflict of interest in being Board Members of the Honeysuckle Corporation, which would benefit by the closure of the rail. To this end we have approached community groups, with many indicating support in writing. Some are: CPSA (Combined Pensioners & Superannuants Assoc.), Newcastle Cycleways Movement, Parks and Playground Movement, NUSA (Newcastle University Students Assoc.), Newcastle City Council (despite Mayor Tate’s position on LHTWG), Lake Macquarie City Council, Maitland City Council, CAKA (Citizens Against Kooragang Abuses), many local community groups and politicians, the “Fab Five” the five elected Lower Hunter state MPs, Bryce Gaudry, Jeff Hunter, John Mills, Milton Orkopoulos and Matthew Morris, as well as Federal members, Kellie Hoare and Sharon Grierson, Upper Hunter’s George Souris and MLA Lee Rhiannon.

Some unions, including AMWU, LMTA, TAFE Teachers Association, have invited us to address them and have indicated support, despite the fact that the Secretary of NTHC (Newcastle Trades Hall Council) Gary Kennedy, being a member of the LHTWG and on the Honeysuckle Board, managed to obtain support for the findings of the LHTWG at NTHC in April, 2005. Undeterred we have pushed on and called for our members to march in the May Day March, and what a triumph that was! The unions swung in behind our banner and also behind us came political party groups – Greens, ALP, PLP, Democrats and CPA. We will continue to talk to unions as invited.

We held a very large Transport Forum, with over 600 attending from as far away as Muswellbrook and Gosford, which called for social and economic impact studies to be conducted on the proposal to close the line.

Darrell, Jack Thieme and I have been working with 25 environmental groups towards a submission to the Lower Hunter Strategy for the Future, being run by DIPNR (Dept of Infrastructure & Planning). On 24th May 2005, The Environmental Groups, in conjunction with HCOSS, held a Community Forum to discuss this strategy planning and its processes, which I was able to address on Transport issues. The recommendations from this forum, which include retention of the rail and promotion of public transport, are going forward to DIPNR.

I have to thank all of you, the members who have attended so many meetings and of course your elected Team, who have all worked so hard. We believe we are winning, because we have gained credibility for this organisation, Margaret is handling our moneys most efficiently, and we are being recognised throughout the region and far beyond, through documents prepared by Darrell, letters written by George and perhaps some of my speeches and all our heavily edited letters to the Herald! Expressions of support are flowing in and it will be through People Power that the rail to Newcastle will be saved so we need you to continue to pull with us and keep the fight going.

Future plans include involving the Upper Hunter areas, through an event, perhaps at Muswellbrook, to hopefully cause the formation of another branch. We’ll be holding a workshop to help us in strategies and effective functioning, for those who think we are not doing well enough here’s your chance!

We intend to cause Mr Watkins to relinquish the Costa decision and instead go into an investment involving a creative transformation of that section of line, as happened in Subiaco (Perth). We’re working on an idea for an enjoyable event, maybe a Spring Picnic with music and entertainment to remind our opponents we’re still a force. We cannot do this alone so appreciate everyone who attends our events, the numbers are so important and we urge you to keep coming to Save Our Rail for the future.

Joan Dawson 1st June 2005