It was bad news for supporters of the railway this week when an independent study found that reopening the northern line between Armidale and Tenterfield for freight and passenger services would not be economically viable.
The AEC Group wrote that upgrading would cost about half a billion dollars, at $2.5 million per kilometre, and ongoing maintenance would cost $5 million a year. Every dollar spent on returning trains would bring in only 34 cents.
Save the Great Northern Railway Group chairman Rob Lenehan called the findings “absolutely meaningless”. The line, he said, would be viable if connected with Queensland in reopening the Great Northern Line as it was.
New England Rail Trail steering committee chairman David Mills said commissioning the desktop study was “very proactive of council".
Council to undertake business case study
The Armidale Regional Council will also engage a firm to undertake a business case study for the New England Rail Trail, rescinding its resolution of April 26 not to do so.
The business case is required under Council’s Economic Development Strategy (December 2017) to provide additional feasibility information, and will be needed should council apply for a funding grant.
Funding for the business case is within the approved current economic development budget.
Mr Lenehan called the study “a huge risk to take", particularly given that council was facing a $1 million deficit by the end of June.
“The Armidale Regional Council,” he said, “have not got the capacity to carry out a survey of any kind, and have not consulted with the ratepayers in regard to paying some mob $50,000 to do such a feasibility study. How can anyone, whether trained in the field or not, do a feasibility study that can only work on assumptions?”
Mr Mills thought it was important that council carried out feasibility studies for a rail trail and other forms of rail tourism.
“Including all community groups and all rail heritage groups is a very important piece of providing a serious tourism opportunity to our region,” he said.
“We really hope that Armidale Regional Council continues to be proactive to unleash the opportunities for our region, and we thank the supportive councillors in moving forward with the new motion to provide that opportunity.”
RMS to remove rail trail signs
The Armidale Regional Council's Traffic Advisory Committee moved this week that the RMS remove the rail trail signs.
Police deemed the signs to be a dangerous distraction due to their location.
“It's just a noisy individual that has put up illegal signs on the corridor,” Mr Mills said, “and we see that as distracting to all highway users. In fact, it could be quite dangerous, but it also brought the issue to light a little bit more, and we see that Save the Great Northern group have not made any fuss over them being removed.”
Mr Lenehan was concerned it was an attempt to silence disagreement.
"I believe that at the top end [of council] there's a biased feeling,” he said. “There have been very close secret meetings going on between the rail trail protagonists and the upper end of council in the last few weeks. I find it quite insulting that they're doing these underhanded sort of tactics on this rail trail. There's no doubt that they lean towards the prospect of putting a rail trail in more so than reinstating rail services, and I find that quite humiliating."
The proposal to turn 34 kilometres of railway track between Black Mountain and Ben Lomond, disused since 1989, into a recreational cycling and walking track has been a bone of contention since 2014.
The rail trail will be built on the flat, level railbed, which requires removing steel and sleepers.
Supporters of the rail trail – like steering committee chairman David Mills – claim that it will bring social, economic, and environmental benefits to the region, including increasing tourism to struggling small towns and villages, as has happened elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand.
Opponents of the scheme – like Save the Great Northern Rail Group’s Rob Lenehan –believe re-opening the rail network would benefit industry and regional communities.
“This line has national heritage,” Mr Lenehan said. “Because it’s already owned by us, the public, it should be used for rail and rail freight and passenger services, which undeniably will be needed in the future.”
The ABC’s Landline, he pointed out, expects freight requirements on the eastern seaboard to double by 2030, leading the federal government to plan an inland rail line between Melbourne and Brisbane.
There is little interest, however, at federal or state levels, Mr Mills said, in using the old Great Northern Line, nor were the large organisations he spoke to likely to use rail for getting products to market.
Mr Lenehan is concerned that the trail will make re-establishing the railway impossible. He believes that when the line is closed, it will lose public tenure, and become Crown Land, which future governments can dispose of at their whim.
“We are not against the idea of a cycle way,” he said; “we’re against the destruction of the permanent railway infrastructure to build such a cycle way.”
Safeguards, the pro-trail party claims, will prevent the government from selling land.
“A rail trail will not ever stop a railway operating again,” Mr Mills said. “It will preserve the corridor for future use until such time as it will become viable with larger population growth.
“We would like to make sure that the legislation that will be enacted for rail trails is water-tight, and to ensure that there is absolutely no opportunity for a sell-out. This is a community asset, and we will not risk destroying the corridor or the rail bed where the history is, under any circumstances.”
Mr Mills has advocated for the rail trail for four years, and believes that the vast majority of stakeholders support it. According to his database, more than 90 per cent of Guyra CBD businesses and people bordering the corridor or grazing on it are in favour.
Mr Lenehan, conversely, maintains that there is little support for the rail trail – and certainly not the overwhelming support the state government requires for the project.
In the absence of such support, he believes, the status quo should remain.
“Council doesn’t need to do anything,” he said; “they can just stand away from this.”
He believes, though, that council is pressing ahead, ignoring local opposition.
"The rail trail is quite a serious debacle,” he said, “and it's really starting to stir the community up here. Whether it be right or not, the appearance is that Armidale Regional Council are going to plough on and do it, regardless of the feeling in this community."
Opposition to the rail trail, he said, had swelled in the last six to eight months. Antiques machinery clubs and the New England Rail Group (which owns old carriages and engines) joined forces with his group, founded nearly four years ago to oppose the rail trail.
“Our following has been unbelievable,” Mr Lenehan said. While membership of his own group is small, he said, thousands of people have signed petitions to re-establish freight and passenger services.
While the group has a large following and signatories, Mr Mills argues, only a hundred or so are locals. Moreover, he said, council would love to see the Guyra and District Historical Society Machinery Group be part of the proposal. The New England railway group could run heritage train trips on the active line, like the Lachlan Valley railway tours that came to Armidale recently.
"Encompassing all opportunities will only provide a very strong opportunity to enhance tourism for our region," Mr Mills said.