Newcastle 'like Beirut' says infrastructure chief

PREMIER Barry O'Farrell's chief infrastructure adviser has emphatically weighed into the Newcastle rail line debate, declaring it must be removed to save the city centre from further decline despite the political problems for the government.

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Speaking at a Hunter Valley Research Foundation function at state Parliament yesterday, Infrastructure NSW chairman and former Liberal premier Nick Greiner issued a blunt assessment of the central business district of NSW's second city as "looking a bit like Beirut on a bad Friday night".

Mr Greiner, along with Infrastructure NSW chief executive Paul Broad, is spearheading the production of a new 20-year infrastructure plan for the state.

Mr O'Farrell sought him out for the task, but the appointment has become a source of headaches for the Premier with Mr Greiner contradicting the government on issues such as the privatisation of the electricity industry.

Yesterday, before a 130-strong audience that included Hunter MPs, Mr Greiner gave his "personal view" on the rail line, an issue about which the government has yet to state a clear position.

He reflected on his and then deputy premier Wal Murray's proposal 25 years ago to remove part of the line and noted "nothing's happened" in the city since the Honeysuckle redevelopment.

Mr Greiner said the line was "uneconomic" and "it is totally disruptive of any long-term vision for the Newcastle CBD".

There were "political issues" to be considered but at the end of the day action was needed.

"So you've got a choice. You leave the CBD looking a bit like Beirut on a bad Friday night, or you get rid of the rail line. I do think it's as simple as that."

The line's fate is being considered by Planning Minister Brad Hazzard as part of broader plans for the city centre.

Maitland MP Robyn Parker and Upper Hunter MP George Souris, both in the audience yesterday, oppose the early termination of heavy rail services because of the potential inconvenience for commuters in their electorates, although it is understood Mr Souris's opposition has waned more recently.

Mr Greiner also criticised a proposal from Newcastle billionaire Nathan Tinkler for a coal-loader at Mayfield, which the government has refused.

He said such a proposal would undermine the Hunter Coal export framework between coal producers that he facilitated for the former Labor government.

Mr Greiner also suggested the coal industry should pay directly for rail capacity improvements to the coal chain, rather than through federal funding of the Australian Rail Track Corporation to carry out upgrades.

He advocated the development of an aerospace hub at Williamtown and the expansion of Newcastle Airport but said: "I don't think we should delude ourselves" that Newcastle would ever serve as a second Sydney airport.

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