Bargain at any price
By ALEX EASTON
GOVERNMENT complaints about the expense of putting a commuter train on the Casino to Murwillumbah line look feeble when you compare the train with the region's major road projects.
On NSW Transport Minister John Watkins' estimate ? the highest put forward ? it would cost about $1.15 million per kilometre to upgrade the track to the level needed to carry the XPT ($150 million), or $2.2 million per kilometre to add on numerous passing loops and put a new, custom-built, set of commuter trains on the line ($290 million).
If that sounds pricey, compare it with the $21.8 million per kilometre being spent on the 12.4km, $271 million, Ballina bypass.
And it gets cheaper. The $100 million the NSW Coalition proposes spending to put six commuter services on the line works out at a little under $770,000 per kilometre. The $28 million figure suggested by the Federally-funded PricewaterhouseCoopers report in 2004 translates to a paltry $215,000 per kilometre.
Without playing down the importance of the Ballina bypass, these figures highlight the absurdity of complaints about the cost of returning trains to the Casino to Murwillumbah line; especially given the obvious benefit of a commuter train to the region.
But there are important unanswered questions about the Coalition's plan to start a six train per day commuter service. Despite being prepared to pump millions of dollars into reviving the train, the Coalition has done no studies on who would use a commuter train and when they would use it.
In fact, the only study done on potential passenger numbers in recent years was one of unknown quality done by Northern Rivers Trains for the Future in early 2004, which suggested nearly 95 per cent of the region's residents would use a commuter service.
While offering promising results, the survey of 929 people has a question mark hanging over it, even within Trains for the Future, because the survey's methodology is unclear.
Adding to that question is what to do with residents in communities away from the train line.
The Coalition proposes using buses to bring people to the train, which would be useful for some, but of limited value to people in areas such as Lennox Head, Ballina, Alstonville and Evans Head. That suggests a properly subsidised bus service, at least equal to the train in both timetables and pricing, is also needed.
Anecdotally at least, it appears clear a properly timed commuter service that could get people to work, university, TAFE or school would be well patronised.
Job network providers estimate car ownership amongst students and the unemployed in some areas is as low as 50 per cent, and point out the cost of existing buses between the major centres is so high that, for many, using them is not practical.
And just as the service would help workers, so would it help the businesses that employ them.
Lismore Unlimited Opportunities manager Amber Hall makes the point that improved access to workers, particularly in the existing tight job market, would help the growth of the businesses and the broader economy of the Northern Rivers.
If linked with the Gold Coast line, that growth would get a further boost by plugging the Northern Rivers into the job markets of South-East Queensland.
The linked line would also provide a direct and easy way for Queensland tourists (and their spending money) to reach us.
At a maximum cost of $2.2 million per kilometre, it sounds like a bargain.