Writing on a noisy, bumpy zig-zag bus journey from Singleton to Maitland to meet a train to travel to Newcastle, I dream of integrated and efficient public transport. A network where it is easy to travel, where fares are fair and consistent, and services are regular and reliable.
The NSW Government, in its draft Future Transport 2056 plan exhibited recently, says it shares this dream. But it is far from clear what this means for the Hunter. This document to guide future investment in transport infrastructure, public transport and our road network should outline a common community vision of where we need and want to be. The vision and wish list is extensive, but the plan is short on facts, detailed analysis, and an implementation program.
Most important for the Hunter, and particularly Newcastle, are two other plans also exhibited for public comment - the draft Regional NSW Services and Infrastructure Plan and draft Greater Newcastle Future Transport Plan. While these documents can be criticised for lack of justifying data and analysis, or review of options, they are an important step forward in a new future for transport policy. Recognising the importance of long-term planning is welcome, as is identification of the many challenges to be faced over the next 40 years in urban planning and transport service provision.
Although Newcastle/Maitland is identified together with Canberra as a ‘global gateway’ city, transport planning is far from proportionate to the region’s importance, complexity and population size. In fact, the region has a population equivalent to Canberra, Hobart and Darwin combined, and is an urban agglomeration of national significance in its own right.
Greater Newcastle functions as a largely self-contained urban travel region, with access to employment, education, health services, recreation and other functions, generally within one hour travel, and extending to Singleton, Dungog and Karuah. Transport planning should be based on this.
Urban regions the size of Greater Newcastle across the world rely on passenger rail to underpin regional accessibility. The draft plans do not provide any credible future regional rail network consistent with the size and spread of expected population.
Future planning and investment priority in Greater Newcastle and regional towns should be given to rail infrastructure, the ‘freeways’ of the public transport network. Destinations such as Newcastle University and the new Maitland Hospital require good rail access.
A short term priority is to secure Australian Rail Track Corporation agreement for additional train paths for passenger trains beyond Maitland to Singleton, Muswellbrook, Scone and Dungog to increase service frequency.
Corridors for future long term rail links must be protected, including an east coast high speed rail link west of Newcastle already identified, and the proposed Glendale to Maitland via Kurri Kurri line providing vastly improved transport options for existing and future urban areas. A bus, light rail and cycleway network linked to train services would provide effective transport interconnectivity, with passenger rail carriages to cater for bicycles and luggage.
Improved passenger rail accessibility and service frequencies should be provided to growing areas such as Singleton, Maitland, Branxton, Lochinvar and Greta. To not do this will prove an expensive mistake - a lesson being learnt in Sydney.
Back on the slow bus, passengers shout to converse, sit uncomfortably and unsafely in narrow seats with no seat belts while travelling on heavily used, high-speed roads. Three more or less parallel running rail tracks are uncluttered, and underused, waiting for more passenger trains.