Stop the trains and bring on the buses

A WICKHAM rail terminus should be built west of Stewart Avenue by about 2014, and supported by better bus services rather than light rail, the Hunter Development Corporation has recommended.In its report, the corporation said the State Government should recognise the need for public transport improvements "now and in the future" in the city, and undertake further analysis of a Wickham terminus before developing an integrated transport action plan and improving the bus network.Significantly, the report said RailCorp had backed further investigation of the Wickham proposal and suggested it could cost about $500-$650 million in 2009 terms, where the terminus construction work would be done while the rail line remained fully functional.However, corporation transport consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff has broadly estimated the cost at $150 million, based on terminating trains at an earlier station to allow the work to be done faster.It is understood the difference in costs has been a hotly debated point of the report within the Government.The report said RailCorp acknowledged such a construction process had "potential to be further explored" if the Government permitted.On advice from the consultants, the report said that the inner-city line was presently "in the wrong place", dividing the precincts of the city centre and causing it to "operate in a dysfunctional manner".The poorly-used rail services were not an efficient or sustainable use of public money, the report said, quoting annual operating costs from 1998 of $5.5 million from Newcastle to Wickham.The report ruled out light rail and other options for various reasons, including that a TramTrain posed significant technical problems and would not have the patronage levels to be financially and operationally viable for at least 25 years.A cost benefit assessment found that developing the Wickham terminus would deliver more benefits than keeping the rail line even if the GPT Group's city centre development did not go ahead.But the benefits of the changes would be outweighed by the cost if the university's city campus did not proceed.

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