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The rail line that serves local mines runs through the middle of the northeast NSW town - population 12,066 - taking up to 14 minutes to pass through the level crossing that splits the town's houses from the shops.
Problem is, trains could soon be running every 17 to 19 minutes, leaving just three to five minutes for the townsfolk to cross from one side of the tracks to the other.
Forecasts show that by 2020 cars will be banked up for kilometres - and could eventually block the nearby Oxley Highway.
New government documents put a concept plan to tender to design a second rail overpass to ease the town's woes which, left unaddressed, would leave Gunnedah in "complete gridlock".
Emergency services have warned something horrific could happen should nothing be done to prevent trains from cutting the town in two.
"Increased coal mining in the Gunnedah basin has led to more train movements through Gunnedah. This is expected to increase even further in the next eight to 10 years as more coal mines come on line," tender documents said.
"The increased train movements place pressure on the local road network, leading to delays for motorists as level crossings are closed for trains more frequently."
Modelling suggested lengthy traffic delays experienced by the town would get worse.
"It suggested trains, up to 1.35km in length, could come through the town every 17 to 19 minutes and that it could take up to 14 minutes for the trains, many of which transport coal to Newcastle, to pass the last of the level crossings," former Gunnedah mayor Adam Marshall, who lobbied heavily for the overpass, said.
"In future, they could quite literally have five minutes to get through. It depends on the coal mining development continuing to grow. We don't want to wait until it gets to that stage."
The heavy mass limit on the highway can't meet the current standard for heavy vehicles, causing the closure of the Oxley Highway to get big loads through town.
"Movement of over dimension loads causes considerable traffic congestion as the Oxley Highway requires closure during the movement of these loads trough town," the tender documents said.
A report commissioned by Gunnedah Shire Council and prepared by consultancy GHD revealed that, if nothing is done to build another rail overpass by 2020, Gunnedah will face "complete gridlock".
"With the frequency of trains increasing there will not be enough time between for vehicle traffic to clear the level crossings before the next train arrives," Mr Marshall said.
"I will be happier when the first sod has been turned."
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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