The light rail information vacuum

It’s no surprise that Save Our Rail now has political ambitions. I was recently invited to attend a meeting in Sydney between the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, and Save Our Rail members which made it clear that both sides have reached an impasse.

The tireless Save Our Rail campaigners have fought – with limited financial resources – against the truncation of the heavy rail line into Newcastle station for over a decade. To the Minister’s credit she remained courteous throughout the lengthy meeting during which both sides engaged in straight talking.

The Member for Newcastle, Tim Owen, continues to assert that his election gave him a mandate to cut the rail line. On one view that is correct. However, it can equally be said that other Members of Parliament from the Hunter, who secured a more resounding victory at the last State election and who are opposed to the truncation of the rail line, equally have a mandate to oppose the truncation, particularly when the O’Farrell government is alleging that the revitalisation of Newcastle is good for the entire Hunter Region.

According to the Minister for Transport the decision to truncate the line at Wickham is not “to improve public transport. We’ve always argued that this project is about revitalising Newcastle. So this project is about increasing the potential for Newcastle and the Hunter to grow.” This revelation may come as some surprise to the Minister for the Environment & Heritage and Member for Maitland, Robyn Parker, who has publicly committed “to fight for the efficient and streamlined public transport system Maitland people deserved.”

It was also apparent that the Minister doesn’t yet know what effect the truncation of the heavy rail line will have on public transport patronage and to what extent it will increase road congestion: the Minister’s response, “we’re happy to take the risk”.

As this demonstrates, whether you’re for the truncation of the rail line at Wickham or not, you need to bear in mind that notwithstanding the appearance of planning and public consultation, the community in reality is being asked to make decisions about the future of the rail line based on limited options and in a vacuum.

The community was not consulted  about the truncation of the line at Wickham nor were regular rail passengers surveyed before the Government made its decision; the community will not have any say in the location of the interchange site; the community was not explicitly informed in the Government’s 23 December 2013 media release that the Minister for Transport is still prepared to hear alternative views about the proposed light rail routes and that a third option to run the light rail along the existing rail corridor terminating at Newcastle station rather than at Pacific Park remains on the table; and the community has not been directly consulted in relation to the development of the Hunter Transport Master Plan.

Minister Berejiklian was not prepared to confirm the cost of the each of the two light rail options put forward to the public because “plans are subject to change” but did say “the government has some idea”.

Reports suggest that $460 million is available for the light rail and the revitalisation of Newcastle, which sounds like a respectable sum, but it will be interesting to see how far it will stretch when the invoices flow in for the detailed design work and scoping studies, the purchase of land at Wickham and the construction of the interchange, the removal of the heavy rail line, the relocation of utility cables and pits where necessary,  the construction of 11 new road and pedestrian crossings, the construction of the light rail itself, the purchase of rolling stock and so on.

The Minister conceded towards the end of the meeting that it is difficult for the community to make a decision about transport options until such time as the Minister for Planning & Infrastructure, Brad Hazzard, releases the revitalisation plans for Newcastle because one impacts upon the other. She indicated that she would speak to Minister Hazzard “to make sure that there is a bigger picture available when we ask the people to comment on the light rail options.”

We do know that the push is on for the East End of Newcastle to become the retail, residential and leisure precinct, for Civic to be the legal, educational and cultural hub and for the West End to be the new business district.

Some are publicly advocating for the Hunter Street light rail option route because it is a “no brainer” but the elephant in the room is a cynical community, not least the 11,000 people prepared to sign a Save Our Rail petition, who question the way the whole deal is being pushed through and who are wondering what will happen to the land adjacent to the current heavy rail corridor, Newcastle station and the bus exchange site all of which has magnificent harbour views.

If Save Our Rail follows through with its decision to form a political party they will wield substantial political clout, particularly in relation to the flow of preferences, which may decide seats. It already has a lot of popular support and an established network of people on the ground prepared to volunteer their services, which will stand them in good stead on polling day. Fortune favours the brave and there are plenty of people in the Hunter region who support their efforts and objectives and who would be prepared to cast a vote in their favour.

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