Imagine the headlines:

Newcastle Transport corridor for Sale

The State Rail Authority today announced the sale of the rail corridor land between Hamilton and Newcastle stations, freeing the way for Newcastle City Council and local developers to join the foreshore and the city at last. The Newcastle Rail Alliance and Hunter Rail Heritage groups have begun a joint legal challenge in the courts, but finding little support from the Novocastrians who travel into the city and harbour foreshore region for work and recreation.

This decision comes after a protracted debate spanning many decades over the long term viability of the rail line. Many options have been suggested, light rail, a bus only corridor, further roads, parking lots for cars, pedestrian malls, and a monorail just like the successful Sydney attraction.

Wouldn’t this be great! Yes it is ironic that I’m writing this while I catch the train from Newcastle Station to Sydney, but I would be excited to see some quality development to match the recent Honeysuckle Foreshore works occurring along the length of rail between Hamilton and Newcastle.

This represents an issue that can be seen the world over. Urban rail networks that are under-utilised being retained because of a vocal minority. Now, I’m not against trains, I just don’t see the level of ridership to match the capacity that trains have. I used to catch a train to work when we lived out near the University, and now I generally catch a bus or walk. My limited non-scientific analysis has come to the conclusion that more people ride buses than trains.

On asking myself why this could be so, the obvious answer is that there is a bus stop every 200 – 400 metres through all suburbs in Newcastle. Trains just can’t compete on this point, and parking at stations is usually limited as well. Yes buses do often take longer, and some people get travel-sick while riding on them, but these issues can be improved by route optimisation and better riding buses.

Newcastle has an affinity toward trains, much of the coal in the region is transported on trains, and the rail line has extended through to the harbour since coal was first extracted. Coal and Railways are closely related, and attempting to separate them would be impossible. Unfortunately, Newcastle as a town still lives in the memory of its heavily industrial roots, perhaps that’s why there are people who are so attached to the rail?

I think the size of Newcastle (250,000 odd) as opposed to Sydney (6,000,000 ??) makes buses a great option. The distribution of employment and new housing away from the existing train lines has shifted people to driving cars to work, but as council decides to change parking fees downtown, and petrol prices soar to over $1.40 a litre, people are once again seeing the benefit of public transport.

Being an engineer, I do see the value and simplicity of rail as a transportation network, but this corridor is unlikely to every see the ridership that would make it truly profitable. Perhaps selling the land, or even longterm leasing it, (50+ years) would be able to fund improvements in the Sydney metropolitan rail network, where there is a decent ridership considering the overcrowded network that exists would turn anyone who didn’t really have to catch it off the thought of public transport for good.

Will the rail go? Will Newcastle embrace buses? Will the city lose the barrier-like heavy transport corridor. I hope so.

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Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.