Historic train collection and hundreds of homes feared to be in the line of fire at North Rothbury

Fears: Chris Richards said those involved with the Hunter Valley Railway Trust are "petrified" of fire dangers surrounding the museum. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Fears: Chris Richards said those involved with the Hunter Valley Railway Trust are "petrified" of fire dangers surrounding the museum. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

The man behind one of NSW’s most extensive historic train collections fears that tonnes of flammable coal waste and dry vegetation have created potentially disastrous fire conditions metres away from hundreds of homes.

Maitland’s Chris Richards fears that more than 100 historic train carriages making up the Hunter Valley Railway Trust at North Rothbury could be destroyed if action isn’t taken to address bushfire concerns surrounding it.

The train collection is nestled in the grounds of the former Ayrfield Colliery at North Rothbury, which closed in 1975 after decades of operation.

On the other side of Wine Country Drive sits the village of North Rothbury and the newly developed town of Huntlee.

Mr Richards said nearby residents had “no idea they’re living next to a tinderbox ready to explode” in regards to the tonnes of coal waste spread around the old colliery.

He said a fire that devastated Richmond Vale Railway Museum in September, causing damage estimated to be in excess of $1 million, has prompted him to voice his own concerns about the Hunter Valley Railway Trust and the homes adjacent to it.

“After Richmond Vale, I just thought it’s a matter of time before this goes up here,” Mr Richards said.

“To see what was lost (in the Richmond Vale fire) was devastating. It’s priceless the rail heritage they lost out there.”

In the line of fire: Chris Richards fears a bushfire at North Rothbury could wipe out an extensive train collection and threaten homes. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

In the line of fire: Chris Richards fears a bushfire at North Rothbury could wipe out an extensive train collection and threaten homes. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Mr Richards used to own land around the Huntlee and Ayrfield Colliery sites, selling them as part of a 790 hectare package to developer Duncan Hardie in 2008.

That land would go on to become the Hunter’s newest town, Huntlee - which, it is planned, will be home to more than 20,000 people after four stages of development are completed.

A Fairfax Media investigation in 2013 revealed that more than 500,000 cubic metres of coal waste, including flammable mounds of chitter, were spread around the grounds of the old colliery, a toxic remnant of its long history.

At the time, managing director of the company developing Huntlee, LWP’s Danny Murphy, said that there had been a ‘‘risk issue there for many years’’ and ‘‘it won’t be fixed unless we come in and fix it’’.

“As part of our approval we’re required to clean up those areas,” he said.

“We have to have clean-up plans approved by the relevant authorities ... Without us the land stays in its current state, which is unacceptable.

“We have a number of years to work out the best way to handle it, it’s not an urgent issue.”

Huntlee developers have since remained tight lipped about remediation work on the old colliery site.

Responding to enquiries earlier this month from Fairfax Media about what action had been taken to address fencing, vegetation, fire and contamination issues, Huntlee project director Stephen Thompson said “the matters were being managed in accordance with our approval obligations”.

Mr Thompson said there was no increased sense of urgency to address fire concerns at the site, despite signs of a torrid bushfire season ahead.

It’s not the first time that fire fears have been raised about the former colliery.

Concerns: Burnt trees from several months ago show how close fires have come to historic train carriages.

Concerns: Burnt trees from several months ago show how close fires have come to historic train carriages.

In 2006 a fire took hold in an old construction waste tip at the site, burning for days.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t hold records regarding the cost of extinguishing it, but they could confirm a section 44 was issued by the Rural Fire Service – a measure which enables the service to mobilise and utilise all available resources to combat a fire.

It’s a call reserved for serious fire situations, with Mr Richards concerned another similar incident could unfold at the site now. 

He said there had been multiple small bushfires around the colliery and museum in the last year, with “only luck” stopping them from igniting chitter piles.

Cessnock Council is the regulatory authority for the development, but it appears unlikely that the management of the old coal site will be broached again until development encroaches on the old mine site.   

When contacted, a Cessnock council spokesperson said that the site of Ayrfield Colliery is not located in the area of the stage one approval of Huntlee, where works are currently occurring.

Council said that issues in relation to rehabilitation and contamination at the site are likely to be addressed in a future application to be lodged with the NSW Government’s Department of Planning and Environment.

It’s little comfort to Mr Richards, who holds grave fears for the museum and surrounding suburbs this bushfire season.

“All it takes is one spark to get into those chitter dumps and it just won’t stop burning,” he said.

“It’s an enormously dangerous situation.”

This story Hundreds of family homes and “priceless” trains in the line of fire first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.