OPINION: Removing train services leads to gridlock

PUBLIC transport provides the accessibility to developments and cities that  makes those cities and developments work. Connecting the inner city and the harbour is one important part of connectivity. It is also critically important to be able to get into both from the broader Lower Hunter area.

 For the Planning Department’s State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP)  vision to work effectively, people must be able to get into the city easily from Maitland,  Lake Macquarie,  Central Coast and Sydney.

Removing the rail service between Wickham and Newcastle station and replacing it with buses  would make the city less accessible  and  prejudice the success of the developments proposed in the SEPP  vision.

  Removal of rail  services would increase journey times   significantly for Maitland and Lake Macquarie passengers. Newcastle and the Hunter would be deprived of the high-capacity, high-frequency rail service to Newcastle station needed to cope with population increase, city campus, future development and relief of road-traffic gridlock  predicted by 2016. 

Rail removal would make it more  difficult  to get shoppers,  business people,  commuters,  students, beachgoers and tourists into the city. Revitalisation of the city needs these people  spending money. 

 Cutting the rail at Wickham and transferring passengers into buses, which become part of the traffic, would contribute to the gridlock already predicted by  2016 in a council  report. 

This gridlock will adversely affect motorists and  bus commuters.

 A  superior alternative is to retain the existing rail service,  landscape the exposed stretches of corridor, build elevated walkways to the standard of the Mall end of the Queens Wharf  walkway  and install  level crossings at Worth Place,  Steel Street and Darby / Argyle Streets. 

These  crossings would cost about $3million  each. Overhead pedestrian crossings could also be provided between buildings on either side of the line.  This would be a worthwhile application for funds from Hunter Infrastructure Fund.

 A second superior alternative, which focuses on connectivity across the corridor, relies on  light-rail vehicles  to  run exclusively on the existing tracks between Hamilton and Newcastle stations. 

   Light rail would enable fences to be removed, crossings to be controlled by traffic lights and would facilitate people walking across the lines.  

Think of Melbourne where   people can walk across the tram lines and the  trams can move a hundred thousand people  in a few minutes.

Revitalisation needs people. Rail is the best people mover by far  and provides the accessibility to  cities and the developments in them. 

The  government  proposal requires an entire new terminal  and contemplates light rail in the future. There is no reason to   delay light rail because it has been operating successfully  in cities with similar or lower population density than Newcastle and the Lower Hunter.

 The terminating facilities  would represent a substantial majority of all costs.  The additional costs to  introduce light rail on the existing tracks would only be the vehicles themselves   at about  $18million  and some platform adjustment. 

There is a reasonable expectation that  our light-rail proposal would be less expensive than the government proposal. The passenger base for light rail is already in place and  increasing, as seen by  the extra carriages on the Maitland trains in peak times.

 Light rail would provide  the high-capacity, high-frequency rail service to Newcastle station necessary for accessibility, and have the double benefit of  improving connectivity immensely. The light rail section between Hamilton and Newcastle stations could be done now, without waiting for the Western Freight bypass or track sharing approval.

There would be no point in covering the line, immobilising existing infrastructure and then spending the money to reinstate it, to install light rail later.

  Light rail could be extended from Hamilton to Callaghan Campus, Jesmond, Wallsend and John Hunter Hospital as a second stage and  with extension to the high-speed train to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

 Rail passengers at Hamilton would transfer into a waiting light-rail vehicle across the same platform, on guaranteed tram-meets-train timetabling. This would cost regional passengers much less time than transferring into buses. 

It would of course take more time than a through train, which is the trade-off for easier ground-level pedestrian access along the corridor. 

  Regional and local connectivity can be achieved more effectively with light rail – existing infrastructure can be retained and light rail could probably be achieved for  less capital expenditure than the government proposal. 

We urge the government to examine  the light-rail option to gain optimum benefit from the  SEPP vision.

  If it is unwilling to  proceed with either the crossings-and-walkways option or the light-rail option, then  the existing  rail system  should be retained with  frequencies improved to 15 minutes on the Maitland and Lake Macquarie lines.

Dr Bruce McFarling is Hunter Transport for Business Development spokesman and a US-based professional economist whose field is transport and regional development economics.

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