A DECISION on whether the government has the power to remove Newcastle’s heavy rail line is unlikely to be resolved by a court before July – months after a state election being touted as a referendum on the government’s revitalisation plans for the city.
Overhead wiring and level crossing boom gates have been removed between Newcastle and the site of the proposed Wickham transport interchange, and new pedestrian crossings of the corridor installed.
But the government remains hamstrung by a Supreme Court decision preventing any major works, including the removal of the tracks, unless State Parliament passes an act approving the line’s official closure. It is appealing against the ruling, which followed a challenge from the Save Our Rail group.
But it emerged on Wednesday the NSW Court of Appeal won’t hear the matter for another four months, with Registrar Jerry Riznyczok setting it down for July 15 and 16.
Despite that delay, work on the Wickham interchange will start before July, with Transport for NSW saying the court ruling did not affect the project.
‘‘Substantial construction of the interchange is due to start this year and will be complete by the end of 2016,’’ a Transport for NSW spokesman said on Wednesday.
“It is still our intention to start major consultation on light rail in the middle of the year and begin light rail work at the end of the year. A tender for construction will be awarded this year, giving us a clearer timeframe for construction.”
The headache for the government arises from the Transport Administration Act, which says a rail infrastructure owner – RailCorp – can’t close a line without Parliament’s approval.
Section 99A says a line would be considered closed if the land is ‘‘sold or otherwise disposed of or the railway tracks and other works concerned are removed’’.
In an attempt to circumvent the requirement, the government instructed the Hunter Development Corporation last year to compulsorily acquire the rail land, arguing RailCorp could not be considered to have technically ‘‘disposed of’’ the corridor if it was forced to hand it over.
The Hunter Development Corporation was also not defined as a rail infrastructure owner, so wouldn’t have to abide by the act, the government said.
But the acquisition was abandoned and the project left in limbo when the Supreme Court ruled on Christmas Eve that the corporation would be deemed a rail infrastructure owner.
Assuming it is reelected but loses the appeal, the government would still face difficulties getting legislation through Parliament unless it secures control of the upper house, with the Christian Democrats, Labor and the Greens opposed to the truncation.
But Save Our Rail vice-president Kim Cross said even if her group won it would still have to convince a Baird government to bring back the trains.
‘‘However you can’t restore rail services if you don’t have a rail corridor on which to run them,’’ Ms Cross said. ‘‘So it is an essential first step, but there is also the political battle.’’
For services to be re-reinstated, overhead wiring would have to be restored, signalling changes made and temporary crossings removed.