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After the final train departed the Crookwell railway station for Goulburn in 1985, a stretch of track in the New South Wales southern tablelands was all but abandoned.
It’s a similar story for long-disused country rail networks across the state. But there’s a push to transform these isolated and often scenic corridors into rail trails and heritage projects.
These projects are simple to build and have the potential to boost rural economies. But ad hoc federal and state funding is leaving many in limbo.
The maintenance of the Crookwell terminus was taken on 20 years ago by the Crookwell Heritage Railway. Now the group wants to establish a tourist attraction – the Upper Lachlan ride the rails trail – to take passenger pedal bikes on the rails.
Peter Simpson, the secretary of the CHR, says the group supports public access to isolated rail corridors in NSW.
“Conditional that the interests of heritage rail groups operating in those corridors are protected, and other users can establish their pathways clear of the [railway],” he says.
Peter Simpson, secretary of the Crookwell Heritage Railway, on an old railway bridge near Woodhouselee in NSW. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/The GuardianSimilar [url=https://www.railtrails.org.au/trails/?trail_state=79]projects have received funding in other electorates[/url], and Penny Ackery, an independent candidate for Hume, which includes Goulburn and Crookwell, says the state and federal governments seem supportive of the idea. But funding for the rail trail is slow.
Rail trail and heritage projects would support tourism growth, Ackery says. This opinion is backed up by successful rail trails in other states, which have attracted worldwide attention from cycling tourists.
“Both the community groups [the CHR and the Goulburn to Crookwell rail trail] would like to see the rail corridor open for general public access to our beautiful countryside, bringing tourists and boosting the local economies of Crookwell and Goulburn,” Ackery says.
“We are working together to see how this might best work for our communities.”
A spokesperson for Angus Taylor, the member for Hume, says he supports the rail trail.
“The federal government is working closely with the NSW Government to invest in good, local rail trail projects that will create jobs, boost local tourism and support regional communities,” the spokesperson said.
However, multiple grant applications from the Goulburn to Crookwell rail trail committee have been unsuccessful.
The Goulburn to Crookwell rail corridor crosses farmland and scrub. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/The GuardianAdvertisement
Committee representative Matt Ford says the people of NSW need a “masterplan” on the use of rail corridors.
“Goulburn to Crookwell was not on the initial list of pilot projects for rail trails in NSW and this may still be a stumbling block,” he says.
“Or is it that we need a champion in parliament and Angus has gone missing?”
‘Itty-bitty approach’In the state’s north, there is a push to reopen passenger rail on the Armidale-Tenterfield line, which ceased commercial operation 34 years ago. But New England MP Barnaby Joyce delivered $8.7m to the Glen Innes Severn council to build the 35.5km New England rail trail between Glen Innes and Ben Lomond, at the expense of railway infrastructure.
The cost to resume commercial rail along the Armidale-Tenterfield line is $2.5m per kilometre, a feasibility report by AEC Group for the Armidale regional council showed.
To convert the 103km section between Armidale and Glen Innes into a rail trail will cost $24m. The next step is for the NSW parliament to table a bill to permanently close the track.
Labor candidate Laura Hughes, who is challenging Joyce in New England at the federal election, says many voters have shown considerable interest in creating a rail trail, while others support reinstating the line for passenger rail.
“Many would argue that there would be great benefits for a rail line to be reinstated from Armidale through to Brisbane,” she says.
“At this stage, Labor will consider all the relevant information and community opinion when we form government after the election, should we be so fortunate to do so.”
Kevin Hogan, the National party MP for Page in the NSW northern rivers, secured nearly $10m for a 16km section of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail trail in October 2021. Construction of the trail began in January with the tearing up of railway tracks.
The independent candidate for Page, Hannabeth Luke, accused the government of taking an “itty-bitty” approach to planning.
“It is a very big decision to turn that infrastructure to a completely new purpose,” she says.
“Planning happens in quite an ad hoc manner and that is reflected in the way that funding is cut up into tiny little parcels for short periods of time and I think that funding structure has severe implications.
“Let’s have a look at the different land uses. Let’s have a look at the transport network. Let’s have a look at the energy systems and see what’s working and what is the best approach for a more sustainable future.”
The Labor candidate for Page, Patrick Deegan, says reinstating the Casino-Murwillumbah railway for commuter and freight travel would require an assessment of a formal business case by the Northern Rivers Railway Action Group, which wants to reinstate passenger rail services.
He says the future of the country rail network won’t change voters’ minds this election, but public transport in the northern rivers remains an issue.
‘Incredible economic and social benefits’In the south of the state, Eden-Monaro MP Kristy McBain has promised $1m to help fund works on the Bombala to Jincumbilly section of the Monaro rail trail if Labor wins the election.
“The community has been advocating for this project for a long time and I’m so pleased to be able to make this commitment,” she says.
“The project will preserve the Monaro’s rich rail heritage and create a unique cycling and tourist experience, and could complement future heritage railway operations in the area.”
Labor’s Eden-Monaro MP Kristy McBain. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAPIn late 2020, a report on recommencing trains from Canberra to the Port of Eden showed that the Monaro railway was unlikely to be reinstated because of a lack of return on investment.
McBain says the 22km section of the Riverina highlands rail trail from Tumbarumba to Rosewood has been a great success, attracting more than 20,000 cyclists to the region in its first year alone.
The trail opened in 2020 after a $5.7m spend by the NSW state government.
“It has brought incredible economic and social benefits,” she says. “The case highlights what government investment in rail trails can achieve for regional communities.”
Joyce and Hogan were approached for comment.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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