Last train from Lismore to Sydney, held up by Ned Kelly.
Last train from Lismore to Sydney, held up by Ned Kelly. The Northern Star Archives

WE WERE THERE: The day the Sydney pollies took our train

WE WERE THERE is a series that revisits The Northern Star's in-depth coverage of the major events that have shaped the Northern Rivers over the past 20 years. Today, we look back at the paper's reporting of the battle to save the region's train service.

LONG before politicians in Sydney and Canberra got to know the Northern Rivers as "that place that hates CSG", we were "that place that wants their train back".

The announcement by then NSW Transport  Minister Michael Costa that the Government would pull the XPT from the Casino to Murwillumbah branch line in May 2004 hit the Northern Rivers like a hammer blow - particularly given he had previously promised to delay any decision on the future of the line until the end of the year.

GALLERY: The fight for our train

Lismore train maintenance staff, 2004. Photo The Northern Star Archives
Lismore train maintenance staff, 2004. Photo The Northern Star Archives The Northern Star Archives

Costa's arguments for axing the service ranged from the spurious line that the service, which ran through the region in the middle of the night, was under-utilised, to the outrageous suggestion that after years of redirecting maintenance funds intended for the branch line, it would now cost too much to bring the line up to scratch.

GALLERY: The Casino to Murwillumbah branch line

Train rally at Lismore City Hall, 2003. Photo The Northern Star Archives
Train rally at Lismore City Hall, 2003. Photo The Northern Star Archives The Northern Star Archives

The Northern Star covered the battle for our branch line closely, often taking a lead role in the campaign to have the government reverse its decision to pull the train.

Eventually, local Labor figure Sue Dakin, who ran against Don Page in Ballina in 2003, proposed a "protest express", where the people of the Northern Rivers could travel to Sydney to take their message directly to the politicians who wanted to end our XPT. 

The Northern Star backed the push and, in a show of cross-party unity, Ms Dakin and her electoral nemisis, Mr Page, agreed to be photographed together walking along the tracks at Bangalow.

Aboard the train were then Northern Star editor Russell Eldridge and reporter Megan Kinninment, representatives of all major political parties, and ordinary folk such as Ballina men Walter Mulgrave, Ray Woodhead and Don Blackman - who were just worried about the loss of a service they relied upon.

In a report from Sydney, Mr Eldridge noted the way the issue had galvanised Northern Rivers people from all political leanings and all walks of life.

"This was real political action. Not the point-scoring, self-serving kind, but grassroots activism for the good of the community," Mr Eldridge wrote in a Page 1 comment piece on April 30, 2004.

"Probably for the first time in local history have all shades of politics set aside their party differences to fight an obviously unfair government decision."

Obviously unfair the decision may have been, but the cries of Northern Rivers residents never made it through the walls of the government offices on Macquarie Street.

Then Northern Star editor Russell Elderidge pictured helping to paint posters for the protest train with from left Shauna McIntyre and Lisa Nevins from Northern Rivers Trains For the Future and frequent train traveller Robyn Churchill, of Lismore
Then Northern Star editor Russell Elderidge pictured helping to paint posters for the protest train with from left Shauna McIntyre and Lisa Nevins from Northern Rivers Trains For the Future and frequent train traveller Robyn Churchill, of Lismore Northern Star Archives

That didn't mean they weren't heard elsewhere though.

Then Prime Minister John Howard personally weighed in on the issue, telling a function at the Ballina RSL Club the decision to axe the train was unfair, but stopping short of committing Federal funds to save it.

TOGETHERNESS: Ballina Country Labor branch president Sue Dakin, left, who was the driving force behind the protest train to Sydney, on board the XPT with Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack (top) and Nationals MLC Melinda Pavey (bottom).
TOGETHERNESS: Ballina Country Labor branch president Sue Dakin, left, who was the driving force behind the protest train to Sydney, on board the XPT with Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack (top) and Nationals MLC Melinda Pavey (bottom).

Federal Labor was on board though.

The train became a core issue in the 2004 election campaign and Justine Elliot's promise to use Federal funds to return the train to the line played a key role in helping her wrest Richmond from Nationals frontbencher Larry Anthony.

At a Federal Labor community cabinet meeting at the Lismore Workers Club in the lead-up to the election, Labor frontbencher Martin Ferguson expressed bafflement at Mr Costa's unwillingness to budge on the issue of the branch line, even when offered Federal funds to pay for it.

 

The NSW coalition seemed a surer bet with both Don Page and Lismore MP Thomas George repeatedly committing to returning the train and Mr Page, at one point, thinking aloud about expanding the line to take in Ballina and the Alstonville plateau.

However, again, their enthusiasm faded as the 2011 poll grew closer and the prospect of winning government more likely.

It's worth noting that by this point, the line had degraded significantly. The floods of 2005 had caused landslips that variously covered the line in tonnes of dirt and rock or left it hanging in open air, mostly around the Byron shire. By 2011 warnings that removing the train would allow white ants to infest major bridges had also come true, further degrading the line's condition and increasing the repair bill.

Today, the Casino to Murwillumbah line is smething of an open question. The initial removal of the train and the contempt the region was treated with by NSW Labor, together with the changing attitudes of the NSW coalition and Federal Labor have helped cement feelings of isolation from decision makers and the view that NSW in practice means Newcastle-Sydney-Wollongong.

RAIL TRAILERS: Members of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail Group. Photo Contributed
RAIL TRAILERS: Members of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail Group. Photo Contributed Contributed

While many hang on the initial ideal of a return of trains to the Northern Rivers branch line, others, the Star among them, now believe the best guarantor of the rail corridor's future is a rail trail, which puts the space to constructive use now while allowing for the possibility of the train returning at some point in the future.

However the future of the rail corridor plays out, The Northern Star will be there, reporting and documenting it every step of the way.



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