Part of the proposed Northern Rivers Rail Trail.
Part of the proposed Northern Rivers Rail Trail. Digby Hildreth

Rail trail will "breathe new life" into villages

An independent study completed in 2013 (the ARUP report) identified the cost of returning rail to the Murwillumbah to Casino corridor as $952 million.

The report also found no business case for large scale freight services along the corridor and demand for a local commuter service between Murwillumbah and Casino falls far short of that required for financial viability.

In the 5 years since the ARUP study, the corridor has further deteriorated, particularly in relation to the many bridge crossings.

By 2014, as Tweed Mayor, I met with State and Federal government representatives on both sides of the political divide and it became very apparent that neither the funding nor the political will existed to pursue the return of trains.

 

Former Tweed Shire mayor Barry Longland pictured in 2014. Photo: Nolan Verheij-Full / Tweed Daily News
Former Tweed Shire mayor Barry Longland pictured in 2014. Photo: Nolan Verheij-Full / Tweed Daily News Nolan Verheij-full

My concerns and those of the Councillors at that time were the preservation of the corridor in public ownership and other possible reuse options for a valuable community asset. 

Based on our knowledge of the significant economic benefits and job creation potential associated with rail trails in other parts of Australia and New Zealand, Council resolved to explore funding options for a rail trail. As Tweed's representative on the Northern Rivers Rail Trail (NRRT) committee, work began in earnest to prepare the business case.

It was clear from the outset that funding a significant regional community and tourism asset would be beyond the means of local Councils. 

Therefore, funding through various State and Federal regional development grant programs was pursued.

Along the way, it became clear that a staged approach to building a Northern Rivers Rail Trail would be the best option in gaining the necessary 'start-up' funding.

Because of its potential to maximise on the tourist possibilities, our Shire population and the Council's support for the project, the section of the corridor within the Tweed Shire was selected as Stage 1.

A detailed business case was prepared by Council staff and that formed the basis of our funding applications to a number of grant programs in partnership with NRRT Inc.

After a few attempts, NRRT were thrilled when the State Minister for Tourism announced in August last year that the State would fund $6.5 million of the $13 million needed to complete the Tweed stage.

This was contingent on the Federal Government agreeing to match the State's commitment so it wasn't yet time to celebrate.

We at NRRT were always confident that the Federal Government's assessment of the return on investment for this project was very attractive but they also needed commitment of matching funds.

That brings us to last Friday's announcement by the Federal Minister for Regional Development that the Commonwealth will provide the additional $6.5 million to make Stage 1 a reality.

 

MILESTONE: Jubilant scenes at the funding announcement for stage one of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek.
MILESTONE: Jubilant scenes at the funding announcement for stage one of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek. Contributed

Now it is time to celebrate and such a relief for all those who have worked so hard in achieving this outcome for our region.

With estimates of around 100 ,000 users per annum on the trail, this promises to breathe new life into Murwillumbah business and the villages of Stoker's Siding, Burringbar, Mooball and Crabbes Ck.

Visitors will have the opportunity to cycle or hike through some of the most spectacular scenery on Australia's east coast and the availability of such a great passive recreation asset will be a boon for the local community.

During the preparation of the business case, Council staff consulted all landowners adjacent to the corridor and their concerns were addressed in the document.

As well, the State Government's promised community consultation is nearing completion.

While it is true that there is not complete agreement within the wider community for the rail trail concept, it is clear that there is a significant majority who see the economic and tourism benefits for this investment and majority support on the Council has remained consistent.

There are some vocal advocates for the return of trains on the Murwillumbah to Casino tracks and their views need to be respected.

However, they target the rail trail initiative as marking the end of any opportunity for trains to return and have campaigned strongly against it.

 

Part of the proposed Northern Rivers Rail Trail.
Part of the proposed Northern Rivers Rail Trail. Digby Hildreth

To them I would caution, doing nothing will not protect and retain this corridor in public ownership.

The trains will not return on this old corridor in the foreseeable future and, if some future regime found the need to bring back trains, then the corridor would still be available.

Also, claims that the creation of the rail trail will prevent a train service being built connecting Murwillumbah to the Gold Coast serve only to confuse the debate.

There is a common thread in the debate about the rail trail and that is the preservation of a very valuable community asset.

An asset that will deliver economic, social and environmental outcomes to our residents and, for that reason, I think the whole community should join the celebration.

Barry Longland (ex mayor Tweed Shire Council)



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