Freight may add weight to potential
By ALEX EASTON
FREIGHT is emerging as the strongest hope for returning passenger rail services to the region, with both the State and Federal governments looking at the viability of freight on the line.
On the eve of today's anniversary of the end of the Northern Rivers XPT, and its replacement with the CountryLink bus service, the Federal and State governments yesterday revealed an inter-departmental working group, set up after the Federal election, was focusing on the line's potential for freight.
The revelation follows last month's announcement by NSW Transport Minister John Watkins that local mayors, MPs and Government officials would re-form the Rail Corridor Working Group, originally established by former Transport Minister Michael Costa, to look at ways to get freight on the line. The group was also to look at the potential for linking the line into Queensland.
Mr Watkins yesterday said freight would mean the Government's predicted $188 million cost of repairing the line would be offset by freight charges, effectively slashing the cost of upgrading the line and paving the way for local passenger trains.
A spokeswoman for Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Transport Minister John Anderson said the Federal Government was taking the idea seriously. The State/Federal group was due to report its findings in August.
At present there were no indications what the result would be, but, if the working party could not find a way to make freight work, the $15 million towards the repair of the line ? which was offered by the Federal Government during last year's election campaign ? remained on the table.
The freight option is one of three that have emerged for the line, with the others being a State Coalition promise to returntrains to the line if it wins the next State election, and a small group of locals, led by a Berry businessman, who want to put their own train on the track.
Neale Battersby, a member of that group ? called the Tweed Rail Society ? said the Northern Rivers produced enough to justify its own freight line.
Mr Battersby said local macadamia companies processed hundreds of thousands of tonnes of nuts each year, with produce coming from as far away as Mackay and other materials being brought in from interstate ? and all of it being carried in trucks.
"There are options for freight on that line ? especially local freight," he said.
Northern Rivers Trains for the Future chairwoman Karin Kolbe said freight would make it easy to get passenger services back.
"As soon as they've got the line going and they're using it, it becomes very simple and very cost-effective to put more trains on ? because you're not loading up one service with the cost of the entire line," Ms Kolbe said.
Ms Kolbe and Tweed Rail Society president, Berry businessman Phil Mackenzie, said the line appeared to have deteriorated little since it was closed a year ago, largely because of basic maintenance work, such as spraying old timber bridges for white-ants, being done by the Adelaidebased Australian Rail and Track Corporation which took over responsibility for the line in September and which has a depot at Casino.