Last Christmas Day I rode what might be the last train out of Newcastle station – a handsome heritage terminus alongside the historic core of NSW’s second-biggest city. It was 11:22 on a brutally steamy night, and the occasion had an air of unreality rather than sadness and inevitability.
A handful of anti-closure activists outnumbered two hastily-drafted Young Liberals wielding pro-closure placards. The departing train drivers said cheerfully, as they left, “See you back here in three months” (or in the case of a lone realist, “12 months”).
Around the globe, direct CBD-to-CBD inter-city rail is the gold standard. It’s what governments aspire to and pay billions to get. Between Sydney and Newcastle we already have this boon, but the Baird government is insanely determined to throw it all away, permanently cut the last, vital 2.5 kilometres, and sell the narrow rail corridor – the only remaining non-undermined land in the Newcastle CBD on which high rise can be built – to a developer clique.
Nobody knows what will happen next. Just before Christmas, Newcastle’s Save Our Rail group took the government to the Supreme Court, seeking an injunction against the closure on the grounds that the 1988 Transport Administration Act requires a specific act of parliament to authorise the closure of a rail line. The government responded by having its Hunter Development Corporation compulsorily acquire the line, with effect from Boxing Day, in the hope that it could then rip out the tracks. The court ruled that this device, while legal, simply made HDC a rail infrastructure owner, and therefore subject to the same Act. Rail services were suspended, but the essential infrastructure remains.
The government has appealed the Supreme Court decision, but if this fails, Baird is in an ugly position. He could put a closure bill before parliament but the upper house has so far scorned the case for closure – the situation that drove the government to resort to a shabby legal work-around persists.
So the line remains, and the public, forced to lose time transferring to buses at Hamilton, grind slowly to and from the beaches, the university, the entertainment venues, the specialty shops, their jobs and homes, gazing in frustration at the line they once rode, in five minutes or less, to their destination. Worse, the temporary bus solution is a foretaste of the inconvenience and the permanent 15-minute time penalty that will result from the promised light rail replacement.
To appreciate the fatuousness of the developers’ decade-long argument that “revitalisation” of Newcastle requires the removal of the rail line and “opening up the city to the waterfront”, a walk around the disputed area is enlightening.
“Revitalisation” invokes a narrative of inner-urban decay, but renovation and replacement in Newcastle’s charming historic core is proceeding apace, and has been for years.
The endlessly repeated “open the city to the waterfront” slogan conjures up images of a broad plaza upon which the thronged citizenry might stroll from the CBD to the water’s edge, there to spend hedonistic hours with white wine and pesto as they watch vast coal ships sail by, exporting greenhouse gas to the world.
It’s a chimera that evaporates on close inspection. Of the two kilometres of foreshore in question, a full kilometre in the middle is already lost to the cause – redeveloped to the waterline, by the HDC, with graceless corporate-modern buildings. At the western end, about 500 metres remain, but the distance between Hunter Street and the harbour is off-putting, the area is split by a major road, and the view is, and will remain for decades, mournfully industrial.
That leaves a 450 metre strip of foreshore to the west of Newcastle station that already hosts harbour front restaurants and a ferry wharf. Here, removal of the rail line would still have our happy recreationists negotiating a four-lane road, a wall of high-rise apartments built on the the former rail corridor, and then another four lane road, to reach a strip of foreshore park 20 metres wide.
In reality, “opening the city to the waterfront” is a fake solution in search of a real problem. All Newcastle gains from rail closure is a curtain wall of inappropriately situated high rise.
In recreation terms, the city’s inherently popular attractions are the beautiful heritage streets of its historic core, the fine parks east of Newcastle station, and wonderful beaches. These are already directly accessible from the CBD and the station.
The astronomical sum of $340 million – a third of the proceeds from the sale of the port of Newcastle and the bulk of the “revitalisation” funds promised to the city – has been earmarked for just 2.5 kilometres of light rail line to facilitate the handover to the developers. That sum is around four times what any European government would pay for such a risibly tiny system.
The tragedy is that Newcastle and the Hunter would actually get a real, sustainable, economic boost if the available funds were instead spent on bringing the Sydney–Newcastle rail journey below two hours.
Compared with best international practice the intercity journey is pitifully slow. Before the government truncated services at Hamilton, the fastest trip from Central to Newcastle was 2 hours 36 minutes. The alternate slow services, with stops at 36 stations, took almost three hours.
In the steam era, the fastest scheduled services were 2 hours 18 minutes. The extra time now taken results from more local stations being serviced more often as the Central Coast’s population grew. There are no express services. A true express service would stop at a maximum of six stations.
Imagine the boost to Newcastle’s economy if the rail trip between Central and Newcastle CBD – one of the most scenic in Australia – took just an hour and a half. Newcastle would gain from closer economic integration with Sydney, and the charming medium-rise CBD would become one of NSW’s most popular tourist drawcards.
In Europe, on an intercity route as important as Sydney-Newcastle, that sort of running time would have been attained, as a matter of course, decades ago, through a combination of strategic track amplification, straightened alignments, better signalling and faster trains.
Between Hornsby and Gosford, the Main Northern Line traverses some difficult terrain but over most of the route the rail easement is generous and long sections pass through relatively flat country where track quadruplication could be easily accomplished without disruption to rail services.
This revolution in intercity travel could be accomplished in as little as seven years, in three stages, each making dramatic cuts to journey time. And those benefits would also flow to the Central Coast and the Hunter Valley.
The Baird government isn’t even considering such a move. The January edition of industry magazine Rail Digest reported: “A faster rail service between Newcastle and Sydney appears to still be decades away, with a target to pick up the pace of the intercity link dropped in the state’s new infrastructure strategy.”
And the purchase of improved intercity rolling stock announced by Gladys Berejiklian while she was Transport Minister has also been put on hold.
It’s a state of affairs that reflects the dominance of the road lobby and an appalling lack of attention to detail and of imagination in planning. Currently, the Hunter region is slipping into a dangerous and degrading reliance on exporting greenhouse gas. Fast, modern, intercity rail is the key to a new and sustainable future.
It beggars belief that, after all the revelations of bribery, influence peddling, nest-feathering, conflict of interest, and corruption of process that have emerged from ICAC and the recent Legislative Council inquiry into Newcastle planning, Baird could even contemplate pressing on with a madness that benefits only a tiny handful of his business constituency.
Gavin Gatenby is co-convenor of community public transport advocacy group EcoTransit Sydney.