The controversial removal of the passenger line into Newcastle has been confirmed by an act of parliament.
An amendment bill passed through the New South Wales Upper House on October 14, allowing the state to remove the passenger rail line between Wickham and Newcastle railway stations.
The state shut the line at Hamilton – the station before Wickham – on Boxing Day 2014, with buses connecting passengers to Newcastle and the surrounding area from that site.
In the long term, the government aims to develop a light rail line through Newcastle, starting at a new interchange with heavy rail at Wickham.
It has removed boom gates along the closed section of railway, and has installed several temporary crossings over the track, but it hasn’t started ripping up the track itself – an act that would definitively ‘close’ the line.
Under section 99A of the Transport Administration Act, an infrastructure owner is not allowed to close a rail line without parliament approval.
The state initially tried to circumvent this rule by transferring ownership of the above ground rail infrastructure on the section from RailCorp to the Hunter Development Corporation.
But that move was halted late last year, however, after community action group Save Our Rail successfully challenged it in the Supreme Court.
That left the government with only one option if it wanted to destroy the line: to pass the necessary amendment in parliament.
To win the votes needed from the Shooters and Fishers Party, the NSW Liberals agreed to deliver an extra $50 million into the Newcastle revitalisation kitty, bringing the total project funds to $510 million.
When reading the bill a second time in the Upper House on October 14, roads, maritime and freight minister Duncan Gay explained the government’s predicament.
“Due to specific arrangements relating to the heavy rail line into Newcastle, the relevant government entities considered that section 99A would not require an Act of Parliament before the heavy rail infrastructure from Wickham to Newcastle was removed,” he said.
“The Government acted in a manner consistent with its clear commitment to deliver the timely transformation of the city.
“In December, a group [Save Our Rail] opposed to the closure of the line – a minority group that is opposed to change and economic development – obtained a court order with the effect that government entities could not close the line and remove the infrastructure without an Act of Parliament.
“Government entities have appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal, which has not yet handed down its decision.
“The purpose of this bill is to end the current uncertainty and to ensure that the Newcastle Urban Transformation and Transport Program can proceed without delay.”
Save Our Rail was disappointed by the news.
“The SOR struggle has always been on behalf of the community, based on identified needs and sound research,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.
“Save Our Rail will not back away from our commitment to the Hunter region and the city of Newcastle. To remain viable as a major regional city Newcastle requires an efficient intercity rail connection direct to the CBD and to the beach, our tourist drawcard.”
Greens minister Mehreen Faruqi reportedly condemned the vote.
“The NSW government has prioritised the interests of private developers over the public transport needs of an entire region,” Dr Faruqi was quoted by Fairfax.
“The government has teamed up with the Shooters and Fishers Party to rob the Hunter, Central Coast and Newcastle of a world-class public transport future to flog off public land.”
Opponents of the move believe the government is replacing the heavy rail line with a light rail line into Newcastle so it can sell the excess land for development. If the government were to keep the heavy rail line open, as well as developing the light rail option, it would not be able to “flog off” the land, it is argued.
But Minister Gay says replacing heavy rail with light rail in this case is simply the right option.
“The [Wickham] interchange will allow seamless connections between different modes,” he told Parliament. “It will be the gateway to the central business district.
“Light rail will allow Newcastle to capitalise on this opportunity for renewal and reach its potential as an economic, social and cultural centre.
“The Government believes Newcastle deserves a world-class transport system. This bill will ensure its delivery.”