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This Is Northern New South Wales

Unite and Conquer

image2_Belongil_Creek_crossingFor twelve long years it has lain dormant, gently regressing into the scrubland that surrounds it.

You can still hear the whisper of its former glory, catch faint glimmers of its potential, but the Byron Shire reach of the Murwillumbah Rail Line is a shabby, disused shadow of what it once was. Overgrown with lantana, sleepers rotting, rails rusting, it has patiently waited. But now, it might seem, that wait is almost over.

The Byron rail corridor has had numerous prospects tossed at it, several organisations rallying around it and a hundred and one ideas of what might become of this thin ribbon of public land stretching through our Shire. Vehemently opposing parties have clashed frequently, neither willing to relinquish their opinion of the trail’s redeeming solution.

Some have said that it should, nay, it must be returned to its glory days, that the trains must return for coastal commuters and tourists alike. Others negate the notion, believing that the waft of diesel and view from a window of Byron’s hinterland, the gentle click-clack of the rails romanticising the journey, should remain in the past, that walkways and cycle paths are the only viable, sustainable future.

With the government officially washing its hands of any short of mid-term prospect of renewing the rail service, the corridor’s future has been uncertain, neither side of the argument established, wealthy or powerful enough to fulfil their wishes and no certain outcome in sight.

Mayor Simon Richardson believes that there is a future for the rail corridor, utilising it to its full potential, but not by choosing one of these projects over another:

“What we are looking to do is unite all the intelligent and passionate people of the community around one project,” he says of his plans for the trail’s development. “What we are looking to do as a group, called Friends of the Byron Line, is gain funding for a business plan and report on the state of the rail line. From there, we can finally work out what it would cost to have a light rail shuttle service, what the potential of commercial leases might be, to finance other aspects such as a bike trail, which has no revenue of its own, and then we as a community can unite and advocate for the funding.”

By drawing on the passion and talents of numerous petitioning groups, including Trains on Our Tracks (TOOT) and Northern Rivers Rail Trail (NRRT), Mayor Richardson has developed a bipartisan interest, not ruling anything out, but expanding on the corridor’s abundant potential.

Could a light rail service return to Byron’s tracks, connecting Bangalow, Byron, Mullumbimby and possibly beyond along the shining threads of steel? Sure, why not? Could a bike trail piggyback the shoulder of the tracks? Absolutely. In fact, there’s very little that isn’t being ruled out in this unification of interests.

“We’ve got two trenches of good people wanting good things for the corridor,” says Richardson. “We need to get them out of the trenches, shaking hands instead of fists, and collectively, let’s go to the State Government and make it happen.”

Rather than approaching the government for funding on a transport and infrastructure forum (which has, in any regard, been categorically denied), Mayor Richardson views the potential more as a tourism boon from which locals can gain significant advantages. Bringing a collection of ideas together, the possibilities and, more importantly, the viabilities are exceptional.

“It’s been said in the past that the two elements [a serviced rail line and a bike path] can’t co-exist, but its never been ground-truthed lets find out once and for all,” reflects Richardson, but these two ingredients are not the exclusive concepts.

Alongside the traditional shuttle type service-other track based uses could emerge, alongside tramcar restaurants for example, the rail explorer adventure experience could slip within the timetable. These.. two- or four-person trollies offer pedal-powered conveyance on existing rail tracks, also offering a fun adventure for tourists. Although the trollies are individual, with a small locomotive attached to the front up to six hundred individual units can be connected, providing an open-air, ultra-light rail service, be it for a scheduled timetable or for specific events, such as Byron Bluesfest or Splendour in the Grass. This would, of course, greatly alleviate seasonal festival traffic, but also assist in maintenance of the corridor.

The project has been trialled in parts of the US with great success and financial viability, so for our little corridor, this could well be one chapter of the line’s resurrection.

There are compromises to be made. Some may have envisioned tracks replaced with a smooth trail of bitumen winding through the countryside with nothing but the chatter of birds and the occasional clop of horses’ hooves. Others had hoped for a speedy diesel service returning to reconnect Australia’s East Coast, or even the 100 or so kilometres meandering through the Northern Rivers.

What Mayor Richardson is proposing is that both of these ideas are toned down but amalgamated, a small pathway sharing the corridor with a slower light rail from Bangalow to Mullum and possibly a little further. To fund this, private entities could also assimilate with the project. One in particular, the Elements of Byron Resort in North Byron, has gained much scepticism, but again where others are seeing hindrance, he sees nothing but potential:

“If someone private, such as the Elements group, wants to fix the tracks and charge a service to visitors and we locals can still receive a subsidised use, I’ll take that…Elements are open in participating in this greater project, even potentially extending to Mullum or something like that. They are going to have two train carriages rocking and rolling in a couple of months’ time and they are looking for use. So they will be working with us. They will only be leasing this portion of track, so we can still work with them, in and around them, to provide a service for not just the Elements guests but also the general public and locals. At worst, they have to be out with only a month’s notice, so if the public have ever had enough, they can be asked to move on. The corridor remains in public hands.

“Elements has been fascinating to look at because they are, ostensibly, one step ahead. They have drastically reduced the costings for an upgrade or restoration. They are estimating about three hundred thousand dollars per kilometre – a tenth of what was estimated – and that includes a creek crossing, a bike path and replacing some of the current infrastructure.”

Added to this, they have proven that bicycles and trains can live together. Land at the side of the track is able to accommodate the cycle path, while bridges can be retrofitted with a smaller cycle and foot bridge to one side. This private entity has, in some regards, done much of the hard work for the council, and their willingness to incorporate other aspects alongside their own interests provides a win-win.

“We are possibly the most important tourist destination outside of Sydney [within New South Wales], we have received next to no tourism funding from the state government over the last few decades, why can’t we create an incredible tourism product with incredible local benefits?” Of the unification potential, Richardson says, “there are still so many question marks. One side says this and the other side says that…let’s find out if there is an economic feasibility [to any or all ideas] and then decide, as a group, whether or not it might work. This is probably the only way for either party to get anything at all, because it has the potential to unite the community and have us speaking as one voice to gain funding.”

While private parties have tossed their very welcomed hats into the ring, the rail corridor has essentially been fought over by two parties, TOOT and NRRT. These two sides are, essentially opposing, but neither are in any position to be able to afford or facilitate their proposals. United, they may have to compromise, but they can forge forward together for a greater solution to the dormant trail.

Mayor Richardson faces an upcoming election. As with many a political candidate, some have suggested this is simply another policy orchestrated to benefit his candidacy. But he believes in the trail wholeheartedly, suggesting that, having already poured several years of effort into it, he will search for a way to continue his work with the project, regardless of electoral outcome.

The exquisite stretch of countryside linking our towns has lain dormant for too long. We have squabbled and bantered about what we individually believe would be its best use for over a decade without resolution. To unite and do something is surely infinitely better than remaining divided and leaving it abandoned.

“This could be the opportunity for us to get something that we want. This is beyond me, it’s beyond the Greens and it’s beyond any other candidate. For me, it’s the game-changer in the Shire – environmental, economic and social – and I would love to be a part of it [even if] I’m not re-elected, to keep the people together and keep the objective in mind.”

For more information on the proposal and Friends of the Byron Line visit: mayorsimonrichardson.com

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