OPINION: Incentives needed to get light rail on track

RESOLVING Newcastle’s transport needs requires far more than removing heavy rail from our CBD and replacing it with buses.

Buses are a poor-man’s substitute not worthy of NSW’s second biggest city.

The latest NSW government plan commits public funds to remove a working asset (heavy rail), build another railway station, reconfigure bus services and add extra crossings and pathways to connect the city to the harbour. 

It leaves the future of the existing rail corridor uncertain and offers no resolution to the decontamination and activation of this important corridor.

The plan turns its back on the CBD east of Wickham and disconnects the rail from the harbour, the beaches and the civic centre – the cultural and future education heart of Newcastle. It guarantees continued traffic congestion and parking shortfalls that deter people from coming into the CBD.

For several years, I’ve investigated light rail and considered how that might look in Newcastle.

Replacing heavy rail with light rail in the CBD would overcome the issue of connectivity to the harbour and make use of the existing rail corridor, overcoming the high cost of decontamination if heavy rail were removed.

Last year I encouraged the NSW Member for Newcastle Tim Owen and Paul Broad, the chief executive officer of Infrastructure NSW, to consider a light rail trial along the heavy rail in the CBD. Federal funding of $7million was available for two-year demonstration projects that would enhance our major cities, if states would match that funding. Such a trial would have allowed public consultation and participation.

It would have allowed decision making based on real experience rather than the least possible cost to government.

Paul Broad did not respond and Tim Owen told me NSW didn’t need federal funding as they were going to do it themselves. Newcastle was the loser from their dismissal of this opportunity.

So now, just as Sydney gains $1.6billion for its light rail network, Tim Owen and the NSW Liberals have announced an inferior solution for Newcastle – removing the only mass transport we have and shunting people into buses from yet another rail station on to already congested streets. What a waste of money.

I would rather retain heavy rail and spend the money on improving connectivity or on putting the heavy rail above or below ground.

With 30,000 people visiting the CBD over the October 2012 long weekend it is evident that people come into our city when the attractions are provided.

Only heavy or light rail can provide the transport necessary to meet that demand, a demand we should anticipate in the future of this city.

With properly integrated transport, existing railway stations become interchanges and with light rail replacing heavy rail in the CBD, all the city’s attractions are accessible.

After seeing light rail operating in diverse cities in Europe, I see no reason why light rail networks should not be planned and introduced into Newcastle now.

In some European cities where government funding is not readily available, light rail routes are planned, land is acquired and buses operate on those dedicated routes with absolute right of way, just as light rail would. 

This is an affordable way that Newcastle could begin its venture into light rail.

But there are those who think the city begins and ends along the 2.5kilometres in the CBD.

They have no vision for a liveable and sustainable regional capital and disregard the needs of commuters between Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, Lake Macquarie, the Central Coast and Sydney.

They scream about our city being broken and needing to be fixed. 

I don’t buy that simplistic cant.

Our CBD will take time to recover from the dislocation it has suffered from an earthquake, harbour-side redevelopment and a global financial crisis. At present all the signs of renewal and revival are positive but the economic reality is that investment loans for major developments are difficult to obtain. Those loans will remain just as hard to get if the rail line is removed.

I recently suggested that Newcastle should prepare a bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2030 (Herald, 8/12). Glasgow hosts the games in 2014 and the Gold Coast in 2018 – both cities of similar size to Newcastle. 

We need such a catalyst project to stimulate the investment into the 21st century transport our city deserves.

Sharon Grierson is the federal Labor member for Newcastle.

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