Bangalow Heartbeat Article

Bikes on the tracks…an idea whose time has come.

By Neil McKenzie: Heartbeat Magazine: August 2013

The momentum for the creation of a rail trial eventually linking Casino to Murwillumbah on the disused railway line is building following the findings of the NSW Government’s recent transport study released earlier this year, which concluded that it would cost an estimated $900 million to restore rail services. Its recommendations were that rail services remain suspended but that the rail assets are maintained to a minimum standard with a view to determining future uses for the corridor.

The Casino to Murwillumbah rail line was completed in 1905 as a branch line to the inland Main North Coast line linking Sydney and Brisbane and was initially used to transport cedar from the Big Scrub to Byron Bay. It later become integral to the development of the dairy industry however it eventually switched more to passenger services rather than freight transport. The first passenger service was the Gold Coast Mail Rail, an overnight service from Sydney, which was replaced by the Gold Coast Motor Rail and Pacific Coast Overnight Express in the 1970s. These were in turn replaced by the Country link XPT services in 1990 which continued until 2004, when the line was eventually closed due to the lack of patronage, improved inter-state road networks and cheaper air travel from regional airports. Country link now operates bus services to Casino, where it links up with the XPT service from Sydney to Brisbane.

Since 2004 the disused track has fallen into disrepair, despite some regular maintenance work to ensure public safety. Some local community groups have lobbied for its reinstatement as a local light rail service, but it is unlikely that there is sufficient demand for this service and in the meantime the corridor continues to deteriorate and parts of it have become even more dangerous and unsightly. The greatest concern is that the corridor may be lost forever whilst its fate is being decided.

The idea of converting disused railway corridors into cycle ways and walkways has been happening all round the world in urban and rural areas. In New York the popular “High Line” is a public park and walkway/cycleway built on an historic freight rail line elevated above streets of Manhattan. The Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand’s South Island covers 150km through spectacular natural and man-made environments. In Australia Victoria has lead the way with a network of rail trails on disused rail lines throughout the state. The most notable of these perhaps is the Lilydale to Warburton trail which meanders through 40 km of spectacular snow country outside Melbourne. The aim in Victoria is to eventually to link them all, creating a continuous state wide network of rail trails. The “Riesling Trail” in South Australia just north of Adelaide, traverses 25 km though a stunning landscape of rolling hills and vineyards from Auburn to Clare. Is it feasible then that the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line could be converted to a rail trail which could rival all of these, and even become one of the great rail trails of the world?

The resurgence of cycling as a healthy and enjoyable recreational activity is a national and international phenomenon. A survey conducted in 2011 by the Australian Bicycle Council (ABC)  found about 3.6 million  Australians ride a bicycle for recreation and another 1.2 million for regular transport journeys, which is 18% of the total population. The National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 aims to double this number by 2016! All around the country, and certainly in the Northern Rivers region you can see groups of lycra-clad “MAMILs” (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) and their female equivalents (MAWILs?) cycling the back roads any day of the week. Even our new PM is a keen MAMIL!

In 2010 a group of concerned local business people formed the Sourdough Group, a “think tank” whose aim is to look for business opportunities and make a “positive difference” to the well-being of the local community. One of their projects was to form the Northern Rivers Rail Trail (NRRT) committee whose aim is to galvanise local support for the conversion of the disused rail line to a rail trail. This committee was able to bring together many other interested individuals and groups to lobby government for the creation of this rail trail. At present an NRRTN  web site is being constructed and should be available within the next few weeks.

The NSW State Government has recently announced the implementation of a feasibility study into the rail trail, the terms of reference of which have just been revealed in the last week. They  include:  assessing the benefits to the  region for new forms of tourism and the generation employment and new businesses; the  cost of developing the entire line from Casino to Murwillumbah, as well as developing the project in stages probably beginning with Byron to Bangalow; identifying funding sources both for initial construction and ongoing maintenance; consulting with stakeholders including local governments, tourism operators and community groups; determining technical issues involved in construction and maintenance such as the condition of bridges and tunnels and finally preserving the corridor for light rail services if a viable model ever became available and outlining options legislative requirements (source: Byron Shire Echo 11 September 2013)

The conversion of this now disused track to a world class rail trail would undoubtedly bring many benefits to the local region and the state country as a whole. There are economic benefits such as the boost to the tourism industry which will enhance local employment opportunities. It will also diversify the nature of the tourism, providing more focus to the Byron hinterland as well as the coast. Businesses to benefit would include cafes, hotels and B&Bs. New businesses such as bicycle repair shops and rail trail cafes could be established, especially on the refurbished stations platforms which would become business nodes. Small villages on the trail such as Eltham and Mooball would be reborn. There are environmental benefits as the rail corridor is revitalised from an ugly blight on the landscape to a picturesque cycling and walking trail. Cyclists would no longer be forced to use overcrowded sub-standard local roads thus reducing the accident risk. Social interaction would be encouraged as locals and visitors alike utilise this great asset. Cycling and walking are excellent aerobic activities and may assist with reduction in obesity rates and reduce stress on the health system.

The specific benefits for the village of Bangalow are far-reaching. As well as the boost to existing businesses there is the potential for many new enterprises to be established especially in the station precinct, which at present is a graffiti- covered eye saw. The whole focus of the town could perhaps be turned towards the station and A&I Hall rather than away from it. There may even be a noticeable easing of traffic congestion and improvement in air quality as local people use the trail as a commuter pathway to Byron and maybe even Lismore.

This is an idea whose time has come. The Casino to Murwillumbah branch line formed a vital transport link for people and goods for nearly 100 years (1905-2004) and its loss was regrettable, but inevitable.  The recent State Government study has shown that the re-introduction of rail services on this line is not economically feasible. However the conversion of the corridor to an international class rail trail catering for walkers and cyclers of all ages from all over the world is an exciting concept for the 21st century.