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Keeping the rail line is all about progress.
The economic development and social life of Newcastle has always rested on the activities of the Hunter Region, the largest regional economy in Australia. As the accessible ocean port, Newcastle has long provided the doorway to Sydney and the rest of the world. However, a healthy economy is a diverse one.
Numerous national and international studies show that better access to public transport contributes to higher socio-economic status and provides some insulation against economic downturns as the population is able to move more easily between different industry hubs as industries change.
While mining and manufacturing will always be important to the Hunter, we must continue to diversify our industry.
With the University of Newcastle opening another 6000 student places in Newcastle, and the government centralising district court functions to Newcastle, it is vital to ensure that people using these emerging service industries have access to fast and reliable public transport.
If we want Newcastle to retain its place as one of the top 10 tourism destinations in the world, quick access to the Sydney airport is vital.
Faster rail journeys into Sydney are an achievable outcome and one that should be prioritised by the government.
Imagine a rail trip to Sydney that took less time than driving – now that would be progressive.
With Maitland among the fastest growing cities in Australia, projected to reach a population of 130,000 by 2030, we need to ensure that the New England Highway does not become a car park.
As much of that growth will be in the west of Maitland, there is an economic incentive to expand the rail line to the west of the city, covering places such as Aberglasslyn, Lochinvar, the proposed Huntlee development, and perhaps even have a spur off onto the vineyards.
It is even plausible that residents of Newcastle might visit the new Lower Hunter hospital by rail, just as people from Maitland in previous years accessed the Newcastle Royal by train.
The government says it wants to increase rail patronage, but reports they expect a 23 per cent drop in patronage with the truncation of the line.
Who would want to add another hour onto their daily commute?
In my conversations with people at railway stations and doorknocking, people have expressed dismay at the lack of strategic and/or economic thinking behind the rail truncation decision.
Some simple things such as opening the northern station at Metford, making Victoria Street accessible, better interlining rail with local bus services and more parking at existing stations would assist people to access the rail line and increase patronage.
In addition to cutting our network, printed timetables are no longer available, disadvantaging those who cannot access the internet, and the Opal card is only available online or at the Maitland Railway Cafe [and Beresfield Newspower], and is not being sold at any of the stations.
It is important to remember that the half a billion dollars that will be spent to cut the rail line is only for the new interchange further out of the city at Wickham and destroying the existing line.
There is no money in the budget for the promised light rail, and no timeframe on when it will be delivered.
A light rail service around Newcastle’s beaches sounds attractive, but we could start that at Newcastle.
We don’t have to rip up the rail line to deliver it.
The only people who will benefit from the truncation are those who own land along the line or those involved in the one off construction projects.
Other options such as building above the rail line don’t seem to have been investigated with any seriousness, and the political corruption revealed in Newcastle by ICAC puts the integrity of the whole policy process in doubt.
Remember, this was a backflip on the position the Liberals took to the last election.
The economic benefits of providing better access for our emerging service industries will be reduced and possibly lost by poor public transport planning.
Unless the government decides to demolish the Crowne Plaza and the other buildings along the foreshore, it is difficult to see how arguments for connecting the city with the harbour ring true.
On the rail line between Newcastle and Wickham, there are very few spots where you can actually see the harbour from the rail line.
I caught the train into Civic the other morning to go to Silo restaurant. The train journey was quicker, I didn’t have to struggle to find a park, or wait for a taxi, and it was a pleasant walk which took around five minutes.
Great value when a taxi into Newcastle costs well over $100.
I want to retain the rail line into Newcastle, not just for its heritage value, or the fact that it helps people from all around our wider Hunter Region access our beaches and our regional CBD, regardless of their mobility, although these are all very important goals.
Like many, I want to see a strong and revitalised Newcastle with a bright economic future.
Most importantly, I want that bright economic future for everyone in our region, not just those who have a financial stake in some land around a railway.
This article first appeared on www.maitlandmercury.com.au
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