THE state government is pushing ahead with the truncation of Newcastle’s heavy rail line on Boxing Day, despite the findings of a parliamentary inquiry that the project should not proceed as it lacks a proper business case and adequate public consultation.
In an interim report issued on Thursday, the committee inquiring into planning decisions in Newcastle said the works should be delayed until the government had produced a ‘‘peer-reviewed’’ cost-benefit analysis and shown it had explored alternatives, such as sinking the rail line, constructing overbridges and slowing trains down to install more level crossings.
Only a flawed 2009 strategy from the Hunter Development Corporation, which incorrectly stated a university campus would not be built in the city centre unless the rail line were removed, could be found to underpin the government’s decisions, the inquiry found.
The government had failed to ‘‘engage the community in an open and transparent manner’’ about its views.
But the report conceded the committee had received ‘‘no evidence’’ that secret donations made by property developers, including former lord mayor Jeff McCloy, to the 2011 election campaigns of former Liberal MPs Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell had influenced the government’s decisions to truncate the heavy rail and install light rail.
The interim findings were issued before the closure of heavy rail services next week.
But the government got in first on Thursday morning, announcing it had awarded a $73million contract to Laing O’Rourke Construction Australia to design and construct a transport interchange at Wickham, a key part of the project.
Chairman and Christian Democrats MP Fred Nile said the committee was perplexed by the decision to start removing the rail ‘‘given that the construction of light rail is not expected to commence until late 2015 and there is no defined completion date’’ and ‘‘I won’t hold my breath for light rail to be installed’’.
The government should consider the retention of the rail or at least delay its removal until the light rail could be put in place, potentially running down the entire heavy rail corridor, so that commuters weren’t left with inferior bus services.
Committee member and Greens MP David Shoebridge said the report ‘‘demolishes the flimsy case’’ for the project.
No cost-benefit analysis has been released by the government. Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian and Roads Minister Duncan Gay refused to appear at the inquiry.
Labor leader John Robertson said the government must dump its plans: ‘‘If Mike Baird rips up the Newcastle rail line on Boxing Day, he will be thumbing his nose at the people, thumbing his nose at the Parliament – and thumbing his nose at the law.’’
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said the report was well considered and the government had to ‘‘stop immediately’’ the rail-cut plans.
But Ms Berejiklian said the government would not walk away from its spending promises in favour of more delays.
“The NSW government is committed to revitalising Newcastle and the Hunter to create jobs and boost the economy,’’ she said. ‘‘The people of the Hunter deserve no less and that is the reason we are truncating the rail line that has divided the city for so long, and delivering light rail.’’
The inquiry also recommended that the Department of Planning ensure ‘‘conflicts of interest’’ held by Hunter Development Corporation general manager Bob Hawes, relating to his property holdings at Wickham, were managed in accordance with its conflicts of interest policy.
But the report noted Mr Hawes ‘‘should not be made into an inquiry scapegoat’’ for broader governance issues.
Committee minutes show government MP Catherine Cusack criticised the report over ‘‘unsupported allegations’’ by campaigning local politicians, and that the committee should apologise to witnesses ‘‘unfairly defamed under parliamentary privilege’’.
The inquiry’s full report will be delivered in February.
A PARLIAMENTARY inquiry has recommended the state government delay the December 26 truncation of Newcastle’s heavy rail line until it has done a cost benefit analysis and evaluated other options including sinking the rail line, installing more level crossings and landscaping the corridor.
As revealed by the Newcastle Herald, the inquiry report, issued on Thursday morning, says that if the government won’t abandon its plan to cut the heavy rail line, then it should only go ahead when light rail is ready to go.
The inquiry, headed by Christian Democrat MLC Fred Nile, has delivered eight interim recommendations ahead of a full report due next year, including that the hybrid rail corridor-Hunter Street route for the light rail should not be used unless the government can produce a cost benefit analysis, which should include an evaluation of running it entirely down the corridor.
Otherwise, the government should ensure only low-scale development associated with community, recreational and public uses should be permitted in parts of the corridor left vacant after the rail is removed.
‘‘The committee is perplexed by the NSW government’s decision to truncate the heavy rail line at Wickham on Boxing Day, given that the construction of the light rail is not expected to commence until late 2015 and there is no defined completion date,’’ the report states.
‘‘We are especially concerned that the interim transport measures will be an inferior public transport solution for the people of Newcastle and the broader Hunter.’’
The report has been released on the same day the government has announced the awarding of a $73 million contract to design and build a transport interchange at Wickham, which forms part of its plans.