Northern Tablelands state election candidates will not be railroaded into supporting the proposed Guyra rail trail.
Adam Marshall MP (incumbent, Nationals); Debra O'Brien (Labor); Rayne Single (Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party); and Dr Dorothy Robinson (Greens) faced the electorate at the Armidale Town Hall on Friday night.
More than 60 people attended the Meet the Candidates event, including Guyra locals Hans Hietbrink, Aileen MacDonald, Gordon Youman, and David Mills.
Mr Hietbrink, president of the Guyra & District Chamber of Commerce, asked whether the candidates would support the development of the rail trail from Armidale to the north, and if they would advocate for government funding to assist in its development.
The New England Rail Trail steering committee and other advocates believe turning a 34 km stretch of railway, disused since 1989, into a recreational cycling and walking track will bring more tourists to town. They plan to build the trail on top of the flat, level railbed, which requires removing steel and sleepers.
Others believe the Great Northern Line between Armidale and Tenterfield should be reopened for freight and passenger services.
Adam Marshall MP (Nationals)
Mr Marshall gave conditional support to the rail trail, the conditions spelt out in the Department of Premier and Cabinet's report released last year.
"No government, regardless of who the government is after March 23," he said, "will touch this proposal with a barge-pole unless the community supports it. Without overwhelming community support, the government will not support it, nor seek to introduce legislation - and we're still a way from that point yet."
A rail trail, he explained, cannot proceed on a rail line without legislation passing through state parliament to transfer operations of the line from rail to rail trail, and to maintain legal protections.
Before government could even consider the proposal, significant issues still had to be resolved: who will manage the trail; how much ongoing maintenance will cost, and who will fund it; biosecurity; access and egress for level crossings that provide public access across the railway line; and interaction between landholders and people who use the trail.
Mr Marshall advised waiting and seeing how the Tumbarumba to Rosewood, and Northern Rivers between Crabbes Creek to Murwillumbah rail trails went. "Let those people be the guinea pigs, and work out those significant legal and access issues."
Debra O'Brien (Labor)
Ms O'Brien is advocating for a better rail service to the region, and believes railway lines could revitalise the region.
Hundreds of people, she said, still wanted the railway line reopened.
"While that hope and dream are still there, nobody wants to rip up the tracks," she said. "If we give up hope, then a rail trail - but I'm not yet ready to give up hope."
She acknowledged that rail trails in other areas had been fantastic, but saw problems with this one.
The Guyra trail is a major arterial track, unlike smaller lines used in other areas. Ms O'Brien would rather see the track built beside the line than on top of it.
"It's a serious thing to pull up a major piece of infrastructure," she said; "you have to be careful about making that decision."
Ms O'Brien held a rail symposium on Saturday, attended by Alex Claassens, secretary of the NSW Rail, Train and Bus Union, and federal parliamentary Labor adviser.
Rayne Single (Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party)
Mr Single did not support the current proposal to build the rail trail on top of the railway line.
He opposed closing and sale of public infrastructure.
"I am more than happy to work with a group that can see both sides of the coin, and are happy to come to the table with a compromise," he said.
"If there's a method to stop the closure and build the bike track, by all means."
Previous Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party Northern Tablelands candidate David Good had made retaining the railway at the top of his campaign agenda.
Dr. Dorothy Robinson (Greens)
Dr Robinson said she saw potential, but would look at the options before she made a decision.
The evidence was very sketchy about the benefits and costs of the rail trail, she believed.
"It's difficult to know whether this is a good idea, whether the benefits are greater than the costs, or vice versa," she said, "and we want whatever is best for our region."
She suggested building the track next to the road, rather than over the tracks. "As someone who's used a lot of rail trails, I would certainly like to have a nice, flat, comfortable road!"
Keeping the railway open, she thought, would also lessen the freight burden on the road, and increase road safety.