Council defers decision on rail trail between Armidale and Glen Innes

Armidale Regional and Glen Innes Severn councils in New England, NSW, have split on the decision to support turning a rail corridor into a bike trail.

On March 26, the Glen Innes Severn Council resolved to support an Act in the NSW parliament to turn the Main North rail line from Armidale to Wallangarra on the Queensland border into a trail for bicycles.

On April 22, Armidale Regional Council deferred a decision to rescind the council’s previous support of the rail trail. 

In the resolution supported unanimously by Glen Innes Severn councillors, Armidale Regional Council, Glen Innes Severn Council and the New England Rail Trail committee will make up the governing body, and the regional councils are seeking funding streams from state and federal governments for the development.

The Glen Innes Severn council endorses further work to be done to establish the governance structure of commencing the design and project planning of the rail trail.

The Glen Innes Severn council mayoral minute stated that the governing body would commission a detailed business case, including the whole of life costs of maintaining the track and give advice to the Councils on it, as well as the potential economic value-added from the development of the rail trail.

Some community groups hope to see the rail lines maintained, and rail services return to the line north of Armidale to Wallangarra via Guyra and Glen Innes. Save the Great Northern Rail Group president Rob Lenehan said that the Armidale Regional Council should reconsider its support of the rail trail proposal.

“The previous motion of rail trail support was arguably improperly passed at Council’s meeting on 26 February 2020, without due consideration of prudent information. The Regional Development Australia Northern Inland rail trail report prepared for New England Rail Trail was not available to councillors and is still not available.”

A petition with 1,000 signatures was published in 2014.

“The rail trail proposal is controversial and largely unwanted within New England. Armidale Regional Council should completely withdraw from this unnecessary distraction. The future for the railway lies in reopening it for trains, not ripping it up for a bike track,” said Lenehan.

In February 2020 the Armidale Council had agreed to allocate funds for design and look at a management structure and now the Glenn Innes council has allocated funding to proceed the project. 

All seven Glen Innes Severn councillors agreed to allocate an amount of $25,000 in the 2020/2021 Operational Plan for the determination of the construction cost of the Ben Lomond to Glen Innes section of the proposed rail trail.

A rail trail feasibility study was endorsed by Armidale Regional Council at its October 2018 meeting and the New England Rail Trail Plan was finalised in October 2019 for the Armidale to Glenn Innes section.

While the Save the Great Northern Rail Group is not opposed to a re-opened rail corridor also incorporating a bike trail, it has argued against permanently ending the Main North line at Armidale.

“To date, Armidale Regional Council’s prosecution of the unwanted rail trail proposal has been completely out of step with the will of the community,” said Lenehan.

The rail corridor between Armidale and Glen Innes has been closed to trains for over 30 years. The Rail Trail Plan outlined the technical feasibility and costs of converting the 103km Armidale to Glen Innes section into a rail trail to boost economic activity in the region.

On April 3 the first rail trail in NSW, a 22-kilometre stretch from Tumbarumba to Rosewood, had its official virtual opening.

The entire New England Rail Trail between Armidale and Wallangarra is approximately 210km long. The Main North line starts from Sydney and extends north passing through Armidale to the Queensland border, at the town of Wallangarra.

Old railway stations on the line have been preserved and refurbished by local community groups.

ARTC to modify reference design for Inland Rail route

John Fullerton, Australian Rail Track Corporation CEO, said “the current route is not locked in,” at a senate inquiry hearing of the management of the Inland Rail project, held on January 30 in Brisbane.

Richard Wankmuller CEO for the Inland Rail Programme said “we understand we need to improve.”

One senator called out “Mr Fullerton, there are pitchforks waiting for you,” as the CEO addressed “white hot anger” concerns of the proposed inland rail route from QLD senators.

Fullerton said the potential “fatal flaw” is floods. 

The ability to construct a public safety model that aligns with the proposed Inland Rail route through the McIntyre floodplain is the main area of concern, Fullerton stated in the hearing.

“There are a number of areas of concern that we’re looking at,” Wankmuller said.

“We’ve finished about 90 per cent of the reference design phase and we’re modifying the reference design.”

Fullerton said ARTC’s main priority is investigating floodplains and “increasing transparency”.

“I get people are scared, and it’s our obligation to [construct] something that is safe,” Wankmuller said.

“This is not just an ARTC program, that is a community program and there is no way we can be successful without community, council, and private sectors.”

Fullerton’s hearing follows criticism that the major freight rail corridor will go through one of Australia’s largest floodplains, raised from the rural Senate Committee meeting in Millmerran on Wednesday evening. 

Goondiwindi Mayor Graeme Scheu said the regional council is an advocate for the project, but object ARTC’s decision-making process.

Scheu stated to the committee that the decision to announce D1 as the preferred design option “came as a major surprise to everyone in our region”.

“From the minute D1 was announced, it has been the opinion of Goondiwindi Regional Council that if the route had to cross the floodplain (primarily to appease the time restraints), then the only acceptable solution would be an elevated bridge from the Queensland side to Wearne on the NSW side,” he said.

“I must reaffirm that Goondiwindi Regional Council is supportive of the Inland Rail Project and have been for many years but the decision making process of ARTC leaves a lot to be desired.”

Goondiwindi Regional Council stated they are advocating to overturn the D1 route design option and “believes the decision should be over turned to the alternative option of A”.

“The route directly crosses the floodplain, minimising the flood potential once the Whalan escape route is fully addressed.

Community consultation results and opinion will support Option A over D1.”

Fullerton said that “this is a complicated project that is important to people,” and recognises that engagement in the past “wasn’t up to speed”.

“We are looking where we have made the right decision or where a different decision should be made.

“There is government procedures in everything we do, we meet with the minister’s department for monthly and quarterly reporting to look at each issue.”

The Inland Rail route will be about 1,700km in length across Queensland, NSW, and Victoria and is scheduled to be completed by 2025.

NZ reveals long-term rail plan

A draft plan would facilitate a long-term planning and funding model for rail in New Zealand, with the aim of boosting passenger figures and freight share on rail to help achieve the government’s zero-emissions goal by 2050.

The draft New Zealand Rail Plan, released by the Ministry of Transport on December 13, outlines the government’s long-term vision and priorities for New Zealand’s national rail network.

It stems from the recommendations of the Future of Rail review, a cross-agency project led by the Ministry of Transport working alongside KiwiRail, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, and the Treasury.

The plan aims to put in place a sustainable approach to rail funding over the longer-term.

Key to this is the Land Transport (Rail) Legislation Bill, presented to Parliament on December 12.

The Bill proposes the implementation of a new planning and funding framework for the heavy rail network owned by KiwiRail. It also proposes funding for the rail network from the National Land Transport Fund, and giving rail ministers decision-making rights on funding rail network investments.

The Bill would make amendments to the Land Transport Management Act 2003 and the Land Transport Act 1998, to implement the new framework.

It also introduces track user charges.

“After years of rail being run into the ground by the previous government, our government is getting rail back on track,” deputy prime minister Winston Peters said.

“We need our rail network to be able to cope with New Zealand’s growing freight needs. Freight is expected to increase by 55 per cent by 2042. Freight carried by rail not only reduces wear and tear on our roads, it reduces carbon emissions by 66 per cent.”

This year’s federal budget included $1 billion in funding for the national freight rail network, $741 million of which for the first phase of works to restore a reliable, resilient and safe freight and tourism network.

“Passenger rail is also the key to unlocking gridlock in our largest cities and boosting productivity,” transport minister Phil Twyford said. “The more people take the train, the more our roads are freed up for those who have to drive.

“Building alternative transport options for people and freight is a vital part of achieving the government’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050. It also helps make our roads safer by reducing the number of cars and trucks on our roads.”

The draft plan will become final when the next Government Policy Statement of Land Transport is finalised in the second half of 2020.

Until then the government is inviting feedback from industry and community groups.