A RAIL trail spanning the 130km length of the Casino to Murwillumbah line could be built for only a fraction of the cost of returning the train and would pay for itself within five years, a report being released today says.
The Casino to Murwillumbah Rail Trail Study, commissioned by Ballina MP Don Page last November, while he was Minister for the North Coast, predicts it would cost $75.5m to build a rail trail along the corridor, compared to a $900m bill to return the train to the line.
Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner said he has asked Infrastructure NSW to assess the study to see whether the State Government should fund it.
The release of the report follows months of debate over the future of the line, with rail proponents arguing for commuter train services and rejecting the State Government's report that set the $900m figure.
The study says a rail trail on the corridor would attract anywhere between 25,900 and 97,100 visitors each year. It would need at least 34,800 visitors a year to break even, but numbers would be expected to average around 88,300.
"Under this scenario, the project payback period would be approximately 4-5 years. This analysis conservatively assumes day visitors only."
Construction would best be started at Byron Bay, with the trail extending north to Mullumbimby and west to Bangalow.
"This could provide opportunity to create a loop using existing roads to connect Mullumbimby and Bangalow."
Failing that, the best place to start the trail might be at its start, with the study noting Tweed Shire Council was already discussing the idea of a rail trail between Murwillumbah train station and the Tweed Regional Gallery.
And while feedback on The Northern Star's website and Facebook page, including a survey, appeared strongly weighted to returning the train, the study said its community consultation showed strong community support for a rail trail.
"Such support has been an important driver for the successful development of rail trails elsewhere.
"The potential to involve local communities and business is high and there is some potential to offset some of the operating costs through contribution from local businesses and volunteer work.
"Subject to funding, the scoping assessment has demonstrated potentially strong benefits for the community and that the project is likely to be viable."
While not saying whether the Government would back it, Mr Stoner said it appeared a rail trail "could draw even more tourists".
"Of all international overnight visitors to regional NSW in the year ended March 2014, nearly half visited the North Coast region," he said.
"The NSW Liberal & Nationals Government is determined to grow the tourism industry in the Northern Rivers and North Coast more broadly."
Light rail latest
BYRON Shire Council yesterday voted to say: Council "acknowledges that light rail services and the rail trail can co-exist as part of a multi-modal corridor on the Casino to Murwillumbah line and the council supports government investment in light rail public transport services within its shire and beyond, wherever they are needed."