Attention everyone! We need to make a decision on what to do about a crucial piece of our infrastructure. Like most things in this shire, what to do with our disused rail corridor is highly contested. As usual, there are a million schemes and plans and no one can agree on one of them. Due to recent world developments, we need to get on the same page quickly and make something happen with this one.
Use it or Lose it!
All levels of government will soon be looking for assets to strip off and liquidate to try to cover massive deficits being run up to offset the costs of the coronavirus pandemic. Equally, various government departments, but mainly Regional Development, maybe looking for shovel ready projects to fund to stimulate the economy. This Casino to Murwillumbah rail line was just that – a product of the depression of the 1890s.
This line stopped being used in 2004 and is now quickly deteriorating. If we are caught napping or continue squabbling, we could lose the rail corridor and also miss out on creating something extremely useful. There are two competing major proposals – and any number of interesting, or hair-brained, schemes. The main two are the Rail Trail and the Multi-Use Rail Corridor (or Byron Line).
Option 1. Rail Trail
I have been a solid supporter of the Rail Trail since its inception. It is a proven concept as it has successful precedents around the world. Basically, a Rail Trail is where you remove the train tracks, level the surface and make it available for walkers, joggers and cyclists. There are now Rail Trail enthusiasts all over the world who travel expressly to walk the many rail trails already converted. This option is also the cheapest to get going. NSW just opened its first Rail Trail in Tumbarumba, west of Canberra.
The Northern Rivers Rail Trail already has a few local shires on board. Both Tweed and Richmond are fairly advanced with plans in place and some funding. If we don’t get our fingers out we could be a lonely and miserable looking shire with separate rail-trails that stop on our north and south borders. Not a good look and probably justification for the state government to take it off us and sell it.
Option 2. Multi-Use Rail Corridor
The MURC is more complicated and expensive, but maybe the best option in the long run. Mainly because it can placate most of the conflicting forces and therefore has the best chance to get everyone on board. The main issue is funding it, and we will get to that later. The Multi-Use Rail Corridor wants to combine the rail trail idea with a light rail. The council commissioned a consultancy company to do a feasibility on this proposal in 2019. You can read that here.
Estimates on how much it would cost to repair the line so it is capable of running trains again varies from $50 mil to $900 mil. But this proposal is to do light rail, which does not require the track not to be restored to full capacity, a recent costing estimates capital cost between $12.6m – $26.9m and annual maintenance between $0.97m – $2.36m. These are achievable amounts especially when the Feds are throwing money around like a drunken sailor.
The End of the Line
Costings are also changeable depending on how far it goes. This is another ongoing discussion. The Rail Trail part of it needs to go all the way to Crabbes Creek (Tweed Border) and Booyong (Lismore border) to join up with the neighbouring shires. The Light Rail can just start with Byron to Mullumbimby, then bring in Byron to Bangalow later.
This option of corridor reactivation combines a pedestrian and cycle path with small Hi-Rail vehicles and/or rail pedal vehicles running off the existing rails, with only minor restorative works. Hi-Rail vehicles have been used for a number of years on existing railways both for the transportation of materials and people. These vehicles traveled traditionally at approximately 25 – 35 km/hr and were adapted so that they can run on both rail and road infrastructure. They have been used for operational maintenance and/or to transport railway crews and management for inspection runs. Vehicles restricted to 50 to 60 km/ph maximum speed.
How to Pay For it
The only way a light rail is supportable is if we have enough population to use it. Many train advocates have a starry-eyed, sentimental attachment to “the idea” of trains. There are just not enough people wanting to ride a rattler to Casino or Murwillumbah. Even if this was somehow funded, ticket prices would have to monumental to keep it maintained if it was not subsidised. Trains are 18th-century technology so to make it work into a future it needs to be practical and usable. Government departments will not fund something that is not costed and capable of sustaining itself.
Whenever a new railway station, metro, highway, or infrastructure is built in the city there is a corresponding uplift in land values. High rise, suburbs or suitable development is incorporated around it to fully utilise the benefits. If a light rail is built between Byron and Mullumbimby (or Mullum to Bangalow), there needs to be an appropriate planning proposal to validate that expenditure.
This idea is not new and has been talked about for a few years now. There used to train stops at Tyagarah and Myocum, mainly for loading dairy and produce, but let’s replace that with people. We could have small villages on suitable high land, close to rail stops. Small, low-cost housing for the people, incorporating parks, gyms, playgrounds, fiber-optic broadband. Minimal parking on site to encourage the use of the light rail, walking or bikes, and access to electric car share. This is a good opportunity to include some “build to rent” affordable housing projects. The sites that suggest themselves are the end of Quarry Lane, off Ewingsdale Road, and Myocum around McAuley’s and Dingo Lane.
Value capture is a concept that is already in common practice in some countries. Malcolm Turnbull was a fan before he was dumped. It means that an LGA like Byron Shire can participate in the property value increase when rural land is rezoned to residential. There is also the traditional developer funding model of Section 94 Council Contributions. The landholder needs to have an incentive as well, but they do not need to be the sole beneficiary of the windfall.
A light rail between Byron and Mullumbimby has the potential to solve a number of issues. As well as two new compact villages instead of urban sprawl, it can include the long-desired Park and Ride facility. A necessary step to keep Byron town pedestrian-friendly. The community has obviously no more appetite for large greenfield, brick and tile urban sprawl. If so, then we need to settle on a future development option that can house people economically while preserving most of our agricultural land. The old model of just saying “No” to everything is not viable any longer.
Get on Board
We could spend many more years arguing about this. The easier Rail Trail concept is more achievable but the headwinds from people attached to trains are too strong. Many of these same people will be vehemently opposed to allowing further village development, but everyone has to give a little.
Hurry up and get on board as the train is leaving the station.