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.