Passenger Rail

Bike trail or heritage rail?

The Tasmanian government has announced that it will fund an independent expert to assess the viability of a proposed tourist and heritage rail service on the non-operational North-East Rail line.

Currently, a bicycle trail is operating on part of the redundant rail line, between Scottsdale and Legerwood. Plans are in place to extend this trail to Launceston, with $1.47 million having been provided to the Dorset Council by the federal government.

The rail trail initiative has been enabled by the Hodgman government’s Strategic Infrastructure Corridors (Strategic and Recreational Use) Act, which allows for non-rail uses of currently non-operational rail lines.

In March the rail trail project got a further boost with a draft Corridor Notice stretching from Coldwater Creek to Tonagah being tabled in the Tasmanian parliament.

State infrastructure minister, Rene Hidding, said at the time that the trail promised “to provide a boost for tourism and recreation in Tasmania’s North-East as a key attraction for cyclists and walkers”, and that the government would “continue to engage with proponents with strong business plans for non-operational rail corridors”.

However, the bicycle trail proposal has competition in the form of a counter-proposal put forward to the City of Launceston council and to the state parliament by heritage rail enthusiast group Launceston & North East Railway to establish a tourist railway service on the track.

Clynton Brown, vice chairman of the group, was quoted in The Examiner promoting the proposal.

“With the use of the line as a tourist railway, it not only preserves the line and unique local infrastructure built in 1888, but allows Launceston & North East Railway to operate restored and unique locomotives of the former Tasmanian Government Railways,” he said.

The same paper reported that several farmers had complained about the bicycle trail, saying that they had not been consulted about the initiative.

Recently, Dorset Council general manager Tim Watson, who has been involved in helping deliver the rail trail, weighed in on the debate in the pages of The Examiner, claiming that the arguments against the bicycle trail “are emotive-based and consistently ignore the irrefutable evidence that rail trails deliver significant economic benefit to regional communities and do not adversely impact upon adjoining agricultural enterprises”.

He further argued that much of the opposition to the rail trail was based on an inability to accept and adapt to the structural changes the local economy is going through, particularly the decline of manufacturing and forestry in the area.

“The spoiling tactics employed are predictable: create fear, attack and vilify the proponent, express outrage and indignation that the proponent would dare put forward a proposal without extensive public consultation, and appeal to emotional attachment to the past by playing the heritage card – in this case a heritage railway,” he wrote.

Infrastructure minister Hidding confirmed that the expert assessment of the heritage rail proposal would be solely funded by the Tasmanian government through Infrastructure Tasmania, without any contribution from the Dorset Council.

“Infrastructure Tasmania will appoint a suitably qualified, nationally recognised expert in the field of tourism and heritage passenger rail operations to assess the business case of the Launceston and North-East Railway Group,” the minister said.

Infrastructure Tasmania’s expert assessment will reportedly examine the condition of the existing rail infrastructure, provide an analysis of the risk potentials and safety measures, and an estimate of the investment required to sustain a heritage rail project, among other measures.

Once the assessment is completed, the state parliament will be able to decide the future direction of the North-East Rail, and opt to either extend the existing bicycle rail trail, which has so far seen support from all three levels of government, or instead support the restoration of the track and the development of a tourist railway.