Rail trail project steams ahead amid protests from train enthusiasts

The Hinterland Post checked out the rail line at Eltham with Member for Lismore, Thomas George

The Northern Rivers Rail Trail is set to become a reality for our region, evoking an emotional reaction from the local community. We hit the trail to hear from the locals who are for and against.

The grand plans for the Northern Rivers Rail Trail is to have a 132km walking and cycling track from Casino to Murwillimbah, via Byron Bay.

The federal and state government have just committed $6.5 million each to help fund the first stage of the rail trail, which includes transformation of the 24km of rail corridor from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek, near Mullumbimby.

The rail trail is expected to revitalise small communities along the route and boost the local tourism industry by encouraging visitors to stay longer and inject money into our local economy.

Figures for a completed rail trail show 88,000 visitors will use the trail each year and spend around $18 million in the region, providing 60 direct jobs and 300 indirect jobs.

The Northern Rivers Rail Trail Group started back in 2013 when locals, including Marie Lawton, came up with the idea and got the ball rolling.

“I’ve ridden rail trails in Victoria and New Zealand and realised how beneficial they were for the small communities they wind through,” Marie said.

Marie also argues that, in addition to all of the tourism and the obvious health benefits for the locals using the trail, it will also help to keep the rail corridor available for public use.

“We run the risk of losing the rail corridor if it’s not used,” Marie said. 

“We’ve run markets, given talks to community groups, written newsletters and media pieces, run petitions, held events and fundraisers which have all helped to get the project off the ground,” she said. 

From all of this profile raising, the funding eventually followed. In addition to the $13 million being tipped in from state and federal governments, $75 thousand was also raised from a crowd funding campaign to put towards a business case for the Casino to Eltham section of the trail.

Member for Lismore, Thomas George, said the project has been a result of a lot of hard work to get it where it is today.

“Originally the Northern Rivers Rail Trail Group were advocating for the whole line, from Casino through to Murwillumbah, to be developed,” he said.

“However, not all shire councils could agree on the plan. There was funding promised to look at it but because everyone along the line didn’t agree, it fell through.

“Then Tweed Shire Council, together with Northern Rivers Rail Trail group and the community, kept pushing for the Tweed Shire to be used as a pilot program.

“This hasn’t been driven by members of parliament, the rail trail has been driven by the community and Tweed Shire Council.

“As a result, their case has been recognised by the state and federal government and funding has been allocated to realise their plans,” Thomas said.

While the Northern Rivers Railway Action Group don’t have an issue with constructing the rail trail within the railway corridor, they have big issues with removing the railway tracks and replacing them with the trail.

Representative of the Group, Bill Fenelon said it’s possible to restore the train services one day, it just requires politicians with a bit of vision and thought for the future.

“The track, in its current condition, can already support lightweight rail vehicles,” Bill said.

“We’re advocating reopening the entire existing 132kms which will link all of these hinterland and coastal towns and villages.

“The remaining 32km to Tweed Heads should be completed and extended to Gold Coast Airport,” Bill said.

Bill also said suggestions that the rail trail will help protect the railway corridor were simply false.

“Section 99a of the Transport Administration Act has worked well to protect disused railway corridors all over the NSW.

“Under Rail Safe regulations, the railway corridor is required to be a minimum of 31 metres but at times it’s required to be over 40 metres around Byron and Mullumbimby where there are multiple tracks.

“With the train tracks being around 1.5 metres and the trail being around 3 metres, there’s ample room for the bike path to run alongside the track and section 99a would remain in force, protecting the corridor against any sell off.

“If Section 99a protection is removed so the trail can be built over the railway, developers could end up getting hold of the land, meaning the railway will never be restored," Bill said. 

Marie Lawton said the Rail Trail Group doesn’t think it would be possible for the trail to run beside the tracks.

“However it’s worthwhile getting the engineers tendering for the project to put the idea to rest one way or another,” she said.

“It might be possible from Byron to Mullumbimby but not from Byron to Bangalow. Through the Burringbar Range, there are tunnels, culverts, steep drop offs and bridges.

“We have to ask ourselves why we’d do that when it would be a lot cheaper and safer to construct the trail along the tracks. 

“If we thought there was a train coming back in the not-too-distant future, we wouldn’t be campaigning for a rail trail.

“It just wouldn’t be reasonable for any government to spend that much money on a train, for a low-population area, that not many people would use," Marie said. 

Thomas George said, “The government has made a decision there will be no train back on that track and I doubt whether any government would put a train back on there.”

“The government is funding a $2 million study for the light rail to come from Gold Coast down into Tweed Heads. If that proves successful, there’s nothing stopping the government and the community considering an extension of the light rail, which is common sense.

“However, it will go down the coast where the population is and that’s an opportunity that may happen in years to come,” Thomas said.

Rising stench of federal government's energy policy

Local and state governments plough ahead with renewable energy while the federal government seeks to block their efforts.

In another exciting development for renewable energy in Australia, the country’s largest floating solar farm was launched this week at East Lismore’s Sewage Treatment Plant.

The Lismore Community Solar initiative is a result of a partnership between Lismore City Council and Farming the Sun, which works with communities to fund renewable energy projects that power council facilities.

Under a financial model, the first of its kind in Australia, the project was funded by companies made up of 20 local investors with the funds loaned to council. It’s expected investors will be paid back in the next 12 years. 

“It has already generated interest both nationally and internationally as a model for government and community cooperation, with investors receiving a return better than that of a bank,” said Lismore Council’s Environmental Strategies Officer, Sharyn Hunnisett. 

As Lismore Council’s highest electricity consuming site, the sewage plant accounts for more than a quarter of the Council’s total electricity consumption. The 280 solar panels on the 100kW floating solar farm will generate 12 per cent of the treatment plant’s energy needs, saving the council nearly $25,000 each year. 

The council will expand the solar farm over time to power the treatment plant with 100 per cent solar energy. Lismore Council’s Renewable Energy Master Plan aims to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2023.

“The project has not been without its challenges to establish and get operational, but now that we have done the hard work we have a model others can emulate,” Sharyn said.  

The project was also made possible with a grant from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage as well as donations from private philanthropists. 

Greens candidate for Page, Daniel Reid, said the solar farm project was born from Lismore's progressive and proactive community spirit which is reflected on Lismore Council. 

“The Lismore community has made it very clear that it cares about the environment and the future and that it will tackle the big issues, including climate change and the need to be 100 per cent renewable as quickly as possible. 

“Lismore is not a community that will sit back and wait for big government to solve the big problems,” Daniel said. 

The large number of renewable energy projects being undertaken at a local and state level sits in stark contrast to the federal government, which has not only sat on its hands in terms of renewable energy policy leadership but also actively supports the fossil fuel industry. 

When the world’s largest lithium-ion battery was switched on in South Australia late last year, revolutionising the way electricity is produced and stored, the state’s premier Jay Weatherill took a massive dig at the federal government. 

“While others are just talking, we are delivering our energy plan, making South Australia more self-sufficient, and providing back up power and more affordable energy for South Australians this summer,” Jay said. 

The Turnbull government’s latest proposed national energy guarantee (Neg) aims to protect coal generators from competition from renewables and get rid of the “spot” market which is a supply and demand driven market where prices fluctuate depending on the purchaser’s requirements. 

As reported in the Guardian, analysis by Carbon and Energy Markets for the Australian Conservation Foundation found the national energy guarantee is likely to be a favourable regime for the incumbent generators and unfriendly to renewables. 

“The absence of an emission price, makes it harder for buyers and sellers to find each other and to find prices that they are willing to trade at. 

“It can be no surprise that there is no evidence in Australia or internationally of an approach similar to the Neg having ever been implemented or even proposed,” the Australian Conservation Foundation said. 

The scheme requires agreement from state governments before it can be legislated and the detail of the scheme is to be considered in April. 

So why would a liberal government, who supposedly support a free market, implement a policy that seeks to pick winners? Let’s follow the money. 

“The current federal coalition government policy is that coal and coal fired power should be in the clean energy mix,” Daniel Reid said. 

“There is a very close relationship between the major parties and the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists, particularly the Minerals Council. 

“The renewable energy sector has been frustrated for many years by the preferential treatment that the fossil fuel industry receives despite the overwhelming evidence of the rapid advancement of renewable technology and the economic success of the renewable energy sector across the globe.

“The problem is the current Liberal-National Coalition are backing the wrong players and refusing access to even a fraction of the subsidies available to the fossil fuel sector. 

“The evidence is that we need to phase out coal fired power as quickly as we can, but the current federal government continues to invest in coal, is on its knees begging the fossil fuel industry to continue to generate coal fired power, and has absurdly mooted building its own coal fired power station. 

“With the right government support and leadership the renewable industry is ready, including non-centralised community owned initiatives, but current government policies stand in the way of our clean energy future. 

“Australia needs a strategic, responsible and supported end to coal fired power. Any member of parliament not advocating for this is ignoring the evidence of what is needed, is missing the economic initiative and is playing dangerously with our future,” Daniel said.

 

*The author lives off grid in the Byron hinterland and is free from both a conflict of interest in writing this piece and rising energy prices.