Newcastle rail cut – a solution looking for a problem

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.

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  1. They just sold the biggest coal port in the world and all they offer is a couple bloody trams. The rest of the money is off to Sydney for more tunnels ripping off the people of Newcastle yet again. Why don’t they just go halves with the developers and build a f* tunnel. A measly 2.5 Ks and everyone can still catch a train to the city. This is bullshit, it’s gone on for years.

  2. I commend the author on recognizing the very real problem with the lack of an express service to Sydney. Such a service should be the back bone of the public transport system for the Hunter. However, the only logical way to continue this service, is not to the dead end on the newcastle peninsula, but to one of the fasted growing regional centers, Maitland. (With possible future extensions up the valley. This would require electrification from Broadmeadow onwards, and importantly, an interchange that would allow transferring from the express service to all station services, and that is exactly the problem with Wickham as an interchange, it can’t provide this ability due to a lack of space, and time penalties involved due to location and change of direction, should an express detour from the main north line onto the Newcastle spur line. lightrail from a proper interchange on the main north line to Newcastle east, as long as it put into the existing rail corridor, could very well better serve Newcastle’s urban areas, and, in combination with express services, would not incur time penalty, but service more stops, people and allow for higher mode share.

  3. Basically it appears and probably is directly or indirectly a scheme
    driven by developers and the like to occupy and buy cheap prime public assets and or land etc. and if it is not yet cheap or available they will ensure that such assets, land etc. are degrade to become cheap,
    unprofitable or unwanted by the government,the public,the taxpayers etc.
    soon as possible to enable the developers and the like & their visible & invisible associates to become very rich and as fast as possible all at
    someone else’s expense, at the expense of public and the taxpayers.
    To pay for the loses, bad expenses and wastage constantly generated by our perky and non productive politicians.

  4. I’ve just spent 3 months travelling on a round the world ticket. I have travelled on several city and urban rail systems during my trip including Montreal, Toronto, Edinburgh, London and Athens. All gave access to the city centres, beaches, waterfronts and attractions with rapid and frequent services. Well until last Xmas we had access too. Maybe not so much the other two values! Cities need people, do they not? We can’t even get to our iconic Civic Theater and Civic complex now without risk, delay and inconvenience. No marketing spiel of revitalisation will justify the Baird government’s rapacious actions toward our gracious city and nothing will satisfy the commuters of the lower Hunter who have been deprived of an easy journey to the beaches or city facilities except restoration and REVITALISATION of our cityrail service.

  5. Developers have their sticky fingers all over this. No rational argument will convince them otherwise. It is disturbing that punters swallow their nonsense hook line and sinker. Many of us in Canberra are opposing the light rail proposal which will only service a max of 8% of the population. Why? Because developers want to build lots and lots of apartments (no public housing) along a fraction of the route! If any one is interested there is a good website with much on it regarding public transport issues.

  6. Andrew Bagnall’s description of a “purpose built” heavy rail terminus at Wickham invites speculation about what kind of purpose he has in mind. The artist’s impression is of a single platform with a poor man’s rustic cowshed, presumably to create the illusion of uncluttered space. The most recent published plan shows three platforms; this is a major downgrade from the four platform terminus in the 2010 plan, but even so strains the limits of available space without major land acquisition in the heart of the new CBD. There is no cross platform interchange to light rail; the Hunter Business chamber seemed to think that three platforms could cope with LRVs as well, which is grotesquely naive. There is no provision for bus bays, leaving the buses to mingle with the traffic in Stewart Avenue; this is an improvement? The purpose is perfectly clear to me: to enrich developers and property speculators.

    Ray somebody, thanks for regurgitating the stock government waffle. The worst obstacle to development in Newcastle was when GPT sat on its properties in Hunter Street, discouraging investment near derelict buildings, and trying to persuade people that it would spend hundreds of millions when it was in the throes of a corporate near death experience. There has been a problem since the 1970s trying to grow the residential population of Newcastle to replace the out of towners who now shop in the suburbs, but turning the rail corridor into high rise is not the solution that Newcastle people want; look at the recent state election results in the lower Hunter.

  7. Recently this government made a big show of introducing a sniffer device on trains that detects paint and felt pens to “deter vandals”. The stench of corruption around this rail closure needs no device to be detected though, an act of vandalism far greater than any a kid with a spray can or pen can commit. Maybe the perpetrators of this asset stripping really believe they are “doing good”, but I doubt it, the greed involved here is too naked for that. If anyone thinks the railway, a part of Newcastle’s urban fabric since the 1850s, is “ugly” and a “barrier”, wait and see what the carpetbaggers put in its place…..

  8. I love the way Andrew Bagnall (backed up by “Ray”) re-floats the old developer tropes, esp the Central Station fallacy – Gentlemen, the Sydney railway system continues right under the city and to the North Shore. Intercity passengers can change at Central for other rail lines, light rail or buses, right there. Your current solution of ‘getting off at Hamilton” reminds me of the old saying, “getting off at Redfern” which would be a closer analogy to the Newcastle fiasco. Improving travel times Sydney/Newcastle would provide an obvious economic and tourism boost. On the other hand, your slogan ‘Open up the city’ has never been supported by any specific economic advantages that I have seen – except for the short-term boost of a new swathe of second-rate development.

    1. Michael, Andrew’s point about central is, that it functions as an interchange, ie you can change from expresses to suburban rail, buses or lightrail. In the Hunter we have a very real phobia of having to change modes or even trains. People need to be educated that interchanges and changing of modes are integral of well functioning, high capacity, high mode share public transport systems and integrated networks, such as can be found in for example Switzerland. The aversion to change vehicles or modes are partly to blame for our meandering, slow and declining bus services, and one of the more annoying constant winghes from the so called public transport supporters in the Hunter region. The status quo, in terms of integration and interchangeability for more trip options is pathetic. Obviously, the changes have to be to the advantage of the passengers, otherwise there is a problem.

  9. Poorly researched emotive article with little substance. Firstly, reducing the trip from Newcastle to Sydney to an hour and a half is hardly a grand achievement. If you are going to look into the benefits from reduced travel times look to Japan and Europe’s super fast railway lines. A travel time of 40 minutes from Newcastle to Sydney, now you’re talking.
    However such a grand plan is currently not worth pursuing, due to the state in which Newcastle CBD sits due to decades of neglect and a widely spread population.
    Now, the benefits of the Newcastle Urban Renewal Scheme, including removal of the rail barrier that separates the harbour from the city, are real and immediate. Sensible development, an open city. A new CBD in the western city aligned with the new transport hub. Light retail and commercial with specialty shops and a now booming boutique wine, craft beer and cafe district. Residential towers over market town and some more apartments developed in the east to enable people to live work and play in the city.
    Fast forward 10 years and Newcastle is a bustling and thriving city, that warrants a super fast transport connection to Sydney, and you know what? We just may get it.

  10. Excellent article! Sure we need developers, but they are too greedy and allowed to get away with too much in Newcastle…and with even more harm caused by the NSW Liberal Government. Tourists would flock to Newcastle for green spaces, art,history,rail..all being destroyed by our decision makers.

  11. There has never been a good reason for shutting down the Newcastle rail line.
    I needed to get to Newcastle from Cardiff today, so I drove. I’m not prepared to change to a bus at Hamilton, just as I wouldn’t be prepared to change onto light rail at Wickham.
    The Baird government stands condemned for ripping out our infrastructure.

  12. I was surprised by the number of vehicles in King St last Friday evening. There was no parking available that I could see, and a lot of people were driving along slowly obviously looking for a park. This was never the case before we could travel all the way into and out of the city by train. I guess it is good that large numbers of people are still coming into the city, but now it is by car, and lots of them. I wonder if there is anyway we can assess the costs of what is happening now. I just don’t get it! the hypocrisy, and poor decision making that has occurred, and seems likely to continue to occur, for at least the next three years. To me it seems so sad, and so unnecessary.

  13. What was the rush to have the rail line truncated at Hamilton? Any serious consideration of maintaining reasonable access to the CBD would have been planned!
    If there is a sincere intent to bring light rail to Newcastle then it should have been done before heavy rail access ceased.
    Clearly Baird had taken the developer’s bribes and his Swiss Bank A/c had been credited. He had nowhere to go except to make a fool of himself and his government by cutting the line despite the obvious opposition of those of us who made use of it and those who would in the future.
    Personally I have not been into that area since the line closure. We were regular customers at the local Harbourside Restaurants at weekends. Able to travel by train, have a few drinks and not be concerned by RBT. Now we go to the Central Coast. I would be interested to hear what effects the closure has had on business revenue. I did hear of one outlet whose sales had declined by 20% within a month of the closure.

  14. Great article. There terminus at Wickham totally ignores the needs of the new university campus and law courts a kilometre further east. This whole affair has a whiff about it and testament to that was the quiet transfer of ownership to the HDC. The money would be far better spent on removing the Adamstown gates and looking at utilising the existing corridor for transport. The train travel times to Sydney being shortened to under two hours will do more to revitalise Newcastle than a row of high rise buildings.

  15. Truncating the rail at Wickham makes as much sense as parking your car two blocks from your destination and then hailing a taxi for the remainder of the trip. If nobody used the service, sure get rid of it, but people DID use it. As a user myself, I was often one of many passengers who caught a train into Newcastle Station. I even experienced riding an almost full train into this station for the popular Australia Day festivities. It is glaringly obvious that the truncation is purely to benefit developers and their politician buddies.

  16. If one reads back issues of the Newcastle Herald for 25 years you will observe that the same property speculators have driven this campaign since then. It commenced in earnest five months after the earthquake and continues on unabated regardless of which party is elected. There have been at least six clearly identified campaigns to cut the rail at Civic, Wickham, Broadmeadow, Warabrook and Hamilton. They have concealed their true ambitions until this last six months with fairytales about connecting the CBD to the wharf and revitalising the city. They have also concealed the cost which persons on high have revealed is well over a billion dollars. Why? To make a little bunch of very wealthy people wealthier.

  17. Gavin, this article reeks of someone who does not live in the area and is purely driven by pro-rail sentiment and cares very little for the actual amenity of the area or its redevelopment. You talk of things like harbour views that are going to forever be “mournfully industrial” and systematically write off anything good about the Honeysuckle and foreshore area. You imply that the residents, workers and visitors to the area are wrong for enjoying it and looking forward to the rejuvenation and redevelopment of the area as planned by the NURS.

    You talk about CBD to CBD travel as being the gold standard – yet that’s exactly what will be under the NURS – a purpose designed terminus at Wickham which is to be the future Central Business District under the NURS and indeed in many ways already is.

    You talk about the beaches and historic core of the city – yet these will be far more accessible under the planned light rail network that will actually go to the beach, and in the future even to cooks hill and possibly Merewether.

    If you trash talk Newcastle so much and don’t feel its “20m foreshore strip” is worth investing in then why bother to write an article such as this? Perhaps leave it to those who do live and work and play in the area and who have taken a lot of time and effort in crafting the plan which has been endorsed for the area.

    And while you are at it maybe you should start campaigning for Central station in Sydney to be moved to Town Hall so that Novocastrians don’t have the terrible inconvenience of having to change trains at Hornsby or Central to get to the CBD of Sydney when on a business trip? Oh that’s right – its not really that big a deal at all is it – just like catching the shuttle bus or light rail isn’t for the last kilometre of the line in Newcastle.

    1. A much more considered piece than the original author’s notes of calamity and despair.

    2. So Andrew, are you the same Andrew Bagnall that works for GHD – major proponent and beneficiary of light rail contracts?

    3. Andrew, you refer to ‘a purpose designed terminus at Wickham’. However nothing like that has been revealed to the public. The spin of the terminus from 2008- 2012 was that it would be a interchange for all transport modes, particularly heavy rail and buses. However the narrow area at the site mitigates against anything other than a ‘kiss and ride’ facility smack bang on Stewart,one of the busiest roads in the CBD. You mention the NURS but you need to read what it says about Hunter St, namely that the footpaths be broadened and greened and that it be made into a dual carriageway with a cycleway running east to west. For that reason in December 2013 Transport for NSW advised the Cabinet that running rail in Hunter St was both a bad transport and urban renewal option. The cost benefit analysis of the proposed light rail options revealed that it will cost $95 million more to move rail 20 m from the rail corridor. That $95 million could be used to build a freight by-pass and drastically reduce the journey time of the Newcastle to Sydney rail commute.

  18. It is not too late for the Baird government to reconsider its hasty proposal to cut the railway line at Wickham. The proposed closure of the line has been controversial, and coupled with ICAC investigations and other factors (including coal and CSG) led to the Baird Govt in the March 2015 election retaining only two out of ten seats from the Hunter and Port Stephens via the Central coast to Gosford.
    In any event,closure of the line is before the NSW Court of Appeal,and the current situation is that closure of the line requires an Act of Parliament.
    As the main article states, Newcastle and the Hunter would be much better served by track upgrades and new trains. The goal should be that articulated in 2012 by Infrastructure NSW of a two hour (120 minutes) Central to Newcastle service.

  19. The NSW Government treats the city & people of Newcastle with contempt. I have been working casually in Newcastle for the past two-and-a-half years, only ever catching the train. The idiotic cutting of the line adds an extra three quarters of an hour to the return trip from Sydney. Most people from the Central coast who used the train to travel to work in Newcastle or Dungog now drive, if they have that choice. It really feels like capitalism gone mad. Where’s the old idea of governing FOR the people? Newcastle is a beautiful city. It deserves better. As a guy on the train said: ‘They’re killing Newie!’
    Cassi Plate

  20. This state government has gone absolutely crazy on selling anything the public owns. Then if they can’t sell it, they are intent on using public money to build goldplated privatised alternatives, and running down public systems alongside until they are unviable.

    Novocastrians are dead opposed to this rail cut, and everyone else in this state should be too.

  21. Great article Gavin! I was on Newcastle Station on Christmas night too. Unbelievable stupidity by an elected government. Did you try and get this into the SMH, or The Guardian or The Saturday Paper? Or 4 Corners? So glad to hear that you have not given up. I notice a lot of people who never did anything to help our cause before, are waking up now. Paula Morrow

  22. Developers, eh! Evil grubby money laundering filth.

    It’s tragic to see short term gain outrun transport logic. I’m not railing to Broadmeadow and then taking a smog tour of Hunter Street congestion. The family travels to Newcastle to sea, ships, heritage and trees: not tacky unaffordable housing and about-to-go-bust bistros.

    What is being taken is irreplaceable. This includes direct links between Sydney and other large northern centres.

  23. The developers should pay for the undergrounding of the rail line and its connection to Stockton via a tunnel and new surface line through to Williamstown, then to Nelsons bay 46klm mostly vacant level land a couple of small bridges and 2 short tunnels, opening up a developmental corridor north of Newcastle.

  24. I have just returned to Queensland from a holiday in Newcastle.
    I am saddened at the way the NSW Liberal Government have turned a
    totally successful transport system to that of a third world country, – a
    joke without any consideration for the rail commuter.
    Why would the commuters want to transfer onto alternate transport in
    all weathers to travel that short distance.