THE selection of Gladys Berejiklian as the new Minister for the Hunter, alongside her continuing role as Transport Minister, is a golden opportunity for shedding light on the government’s controversial decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on “revitalising” the Newcastle CBD through the removal of the heavy rail line and the introduction of light rail.
In her time as Transport Minister Ms Berejiklian has never properly justified the need for light rail in Newcastle at the expense of the current rail service.
While the government has made many contestable claims regarding the ‘‘benefits’’ of truncating the heavy rail line, perhaps the most dubious is that the installation of light rail will improve public transport patronage.
This goes against the large body of research on transport patronage, which shows that increased financial and time costs, as well as the requirement of changing modes, discourage a large proportion of people from using public transport.
All three of these factors will come into play if the rail line is truncated and commuters are forced to switch services at Wickham.
The end result is that more cars are forced back onto Newcastle roads.
Why would commuters use a transport service that won’t get them where they need to go?
Thousands of people use the current heavy rail line to directly access the Newcastle city centre from regional communities such as Maitland, Dungog and Scone.
More, still, use the Sydney-Newcastle rail link to travel between the central business districts of our state’s two biggest cities. Indeed, one viable and novel way of encouraging even more public transport patronage and getting cars off the road in Newcastle would be to install ‘‘high-performance rail’’ solutions such as tilt trains between Hornsby and Newcastle, which would cut travel times by up to 40 minutes.
In the past, community consultation on this matter has been little more than a public relations exercise. Consultation has focused on details such as the precise route of the new light rail service, rather than the need for it as currently proposed.
As part of her new role, Ms Berejiklian will hopefully be spending a lot more time in the Hunter. She should use this opportunity to meet with local residents affected by the proposed removal of the Newcastle heavy rail line, rather than the corporate players and property developers who have a vested interest in the truncation.
Light rail is an effective mode of public transport when it is installed in appropriate places. Newcastle could benefit from an integrated light rail network that connected its many inner suburbs and communities. But this network should be an addition to, not a replacement, of the current rail service.
Minister Berejiklian, it’s time for you to pay real attention to the Hunter, to hold meaningful consultation with the community, and explain directly: for whom are you removing this rail line?
Mehreen Faruqi is a NSW Greens MP and transport spokeswoman