Newcastle light rail construction could shut Hunter Street block by block

HUNTER Street could be closed block by block for up to 14 weeks at a time as the Newcastle light rail is installed in a construction program expected to run for almost two years.

Although the government and light rail operator Keolis Downer had warned from the start that the construction would involve major disruptions, detail of the building project had been kept under wraps until now.

But the Newcastle Herald has learned that the state government’s Transport for NSW agency met last week with representatives of Newcastle Now and the Hunter Business Chamber, as well as a number of Hunter Street business owners, to discuss the building program and its potential disruption.

Despite a pledge by former premier Mike Baird to be open and transparent with ‘the people’s project”, those in the room were also told the meeting was confidential.

While some accepted the inevitable disruptions, others have rejected the government’s plan as unworkable, and predict that many – if not most – of the affected Hunter Street retailers will collapse in the face of the disruption.

Asked about the meeting, Revitalising Newcastle program director Michael Cassel said attendees at the meeting were told a number of construction methods were being considered but that no final decision had been made.

“We acknowledge that, as with any major construction, there will be some short term disruption caused,” Mr Cassel said.

“We are committed to minimising the time businesses are impacted by construction activities and will give businesses and the community plenty of time to plan ahead.”

Newcastle Now executive manager Michael Nielson said his organisation had initially expected partial closures, moving from one side of the road to the other to keep the traffic flowing.

Mr Nielson said the meeting was told the experience in other cities had them “tending to think the best solution may be block by block for 13 or 14 weeks” because of the difficulties in getting the various power and water and other utilities co-ordinated. 

In Sydney, the government says “George Street blocks are being progressively closed to general traffic for light rail construction”, with restricted access for emergency vehicles, service calls and residents.

Mr Nielson and others confirmed that if the government opted to go block by block, work would start simultaneously at each end of the light rail track, and progress towards the middle.

Timing is important at the eastern end of the project because the light rail tracks extend along Scott Street across Watt Street, meaning it crosses part of the Newcastle Supercars track.

With the first of at least five years of Supercars races scheduled to run in November, wherever the construction contract is up to, it needs to be clear of this area well before this year’s race. Construction may still be under way when the 2018 race comes around.

The Herald reported on Thursday that the millions of dollars worth of work needed for the Supercars track meant concerns were also emerging about the Newcastle Foreshore becoming “a construction zone”.

Mr Cassel, who is also the chief executive of the government’s Hunter Development Corporation, said the government was working closely with the managing contractor of the construction project, Downer EDI, to bed down the construction schedule.

He said there was no firm starting date, but others at the meeting – which Mr Cassel did not attend – were told the plan was to kick off by the middle of this year.

The Herald also understands that buses will be re-routed during the construction period, running along Honeyscukle Drive and King Street, rather than along Hunter Street.

The construction zone is likely to be enclosed in a wire fence, with decorative screen mesh of the type covering the City Hall refurbishment, possibly advertising nearby businesses. Compensation for affected businesses has apparently been ruled out.

When the Herald went to France last year along with the Hunter Business Chamber and the Property Council of Australia to look at the French regional experience of light rail, managing the inconvenience of the construction program was repeatedly raised as an extremely important part of getting such projects right.

Hosts Keolis Downer, who at that time were yet to win the Newcastle operating contract, emphasised the importance of getting the construction done as quickly as possible.

Disruptions were minimised where possible by “over-providing” alternative public transport to ensure that nobody was “left behind”. Substantial advertising campaigns were undertaken to ensure that everyone in the affected city knew what was happening and why.

Keolis Downer acknowledged there were major protests and backlashes in some centres over the construction inconvenience, but the company said public opinion inevitably improved once the service began.