Transport Administration Amendment (Closure of Railway Line at Newcastle) Bill 2015

16th September 2015

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [11.49 a.m.]: I, too, will contribute to debate on the Transport Administration Amendment (Closure of Railway Line at Newcastle) Bill 2015. At the outset I acknowledge that the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure is at the table, listening to the speeches of many members on this bill. I will say that reflects my understanding of the Minister's commitment to any of his portfolios. I thank the Minister for listening to the issues raised by members. That said, I have grave concerns about this bill. I am certainly in a position to have a considered and informed opinion on this proposal. The area the subject of the bill is an area in which I grew up.

The Newcastle railway line was a big part of my life. In those days, I was able to catch the rail service from the small station at Kahibah; regardless of its size, it provided a quite effective public transport service from Kahibah and Charlestown all the way into its terminus at Newcastle. So I do know quite a bit about this rail line. But I also represent many people in the electorate of Lake Macquarie who make good use of that rail line and appreciated that it provided a service all the way into Newcastle. I do not want to make this argument about whether or not the heavy rail service should have been truncated; sometimes you just have to accept reality and move on. I will return to that after I commence my prepared speech.

This is the second occasion in 12 months on which I have spoken on this issue. The first time I spoke about it was on the Newcastle Inner-City Rail Corridor Preservation Bill 2014. I can say with some modesty that that was a popular, visionary and well-articulated piece of legislation—having been prepared by me—but it did not receive the respect that I believe it deserved. More is the pity, because if it had been supported and legislated, we would not necessarily be discussing the bill before the House today. But I set aside arguments about whether or not the heavy rail service should have been truncated, and deal with the reality.

My bill set out to preserve options for the existing corridor to enhance Newcastle in the current renewal process—which I know the Government is very keen to achieve—without obliterating future options. The rail corridor preservation bill supported what I believe to be the popular view of the majority of Novocastrians and people in the lower Hunter who used that transport option. They believed the Newcastle rail corridor should ostensibly be left for open space and recreational purposes. It also allowed for the operation of public transport, including light rail, in that space if in the future it is recognised that that is a better option. It was, I believe, an eminently sensible solution to the current debate about how to best use this contentious strip of land.

I must refer to the contribution of the member for Keira in particular, but of other Opposition members as well. The member for Keira referred to the views of the former boss of Infrastructure NSW, Paul Broad, a person I know very well, particularly his view that you should not remove or surrender a corridor unless you absolutely have to do so. I agree with that view of Paul Broad. Paul and I do not see eye to eye on everything, but, certainly in this space, we were very much aligned. I understand that Paul Broad supported the intention of my bill to preserve that corridor. Having listened to what has been said on this bill by Opposition members, I must ask what Opposition members did when they were asked to support my proposal?

I raised this matter with the shadow Minister at the time, and I raised it with the Leader of the Opposition at the time, John Robertson, the member for Blacktown. Mr Robertson advised me that his response would come in writing. That was 12 months ago, and I have not yet received that response. When it came down to it, they did not support my bill. They took the view that there was only one outcome they would accept: that the heavy rail line be retained—regardless of the inexorable progression of reality. They put reality to one side and decided to dig in: It was to be heavy rail or nothing. Well, frankly, they got nothing. I am really disappointed about that. If the Opposition had supported my bill, perhaps we might have had a more sensible debate and, hopefully, a better outcome.

Many of my constituents would wish we were not having this debate. People who regularly travel into Newcastle by train from Lake Macquarie largely did not want the heavy rail services stopped. Many would prefer the Government rip up the grass and bitumen it has used to cover the rails at the new inner-city pedestrian crossings and reinstate the trains. But, realistically, that is not going to happen; that metaphorical train has left the station. The Government has indicated it will press ahead with its light rail plans and, with the somewhat belated introduction of this bill, it seeks the legislative clout to remove the tracks between Wickham and Newcastle. The issue now is about getting the best outcome for the majority of rail users—many of whom, I hasten to add, live outside the confines of the Newcastle CBD but who contribute very much to the economic and social fabric of the city and rightfully feel a sense of ownership of it.

Make no mistake, the people of Lake Macquarie, and Maitland—I am sure we will hear soon from the member for Maitland—and the outer suburbs of Newcastle are significant stakeholders in this debate; yet their views have been subsumed by users of the overall network. The best thing I can do on their behalf is advocate for a speedy resolution of this matter, because the situation they are faced with now—having to disembark at a makeshift terminus at Hamilton and transfer to buses for the remainder of their journey—is the worst of both worlds. They have neither the convenience of the old, non-stop passage into the city nor the promised benefits of the new-age light rail that is supposed to replace it. Regular commuters have been putting up with these temporary arrangements for the best part of a year now, with no real end in sight. I understand that this is part of what this bill is trying to achieve.

My view on the best route for the Newcastle inner city light rail line is no secret, and that is the crux of my contribution to this debate today. It makes no sense, economically, practically or aesthetically, to run the light rail anywhere other than along the existing corridor. The hybrid route that the Government has chosen largely seems to be the brainchild of the former lord mayor, yet it was not supported by Transport for NSW and has been decried by town and transport planning professionals. I have heard the arguments about how the partial routing of the light rail down Hunter Street will invigorate the city. Anyone who remembers Hunter Street in its heyday would recall the throngs of people walking the street between the east and west end of Newcastle; and no doubt they would desire that to be the norm again. I fail to see how the inner city would be any less invigorated by having the light rail run down the existing corridor.

For the benefit of members not familiar with Newcastle, the rail corridor we are talking about is, for most of its length, no more than one block from Hunter Street—a distance of about 50 metres; at some points, it is even closer. Imagine how delighted the planners of the George Street light rail, and I am sure the Minister, would be to have a vacant corridor just 50 metres away that they could avail themselves of. How happy they would be to forgo the trouble, public outcry and political headache of having to rip up one of Sydney's busiest streets to accommodate their new-age public transport system. Yet, in Newcastle, where this easy option exists, the Government is going to ignore it, and spend something like an extra $100 million to send light rail cars up the city's main street, where they will increase congestion generally and be in much greater conflict with pedestrians, private cars, delivery trucks and buses. That is fact.

This Government lays claim to having great economic credentials, and it has been going to great lengths to capitalise on existing assets, including the sale or lease of assets such as ports, electricity generators and of course, the poles and wires. Yet, without any seriously credible argument that the light rail in Hunter Street will be substantially better than using an existing corridor, the Government is willing to unnecessarily spend $100 million dollars—money that could, for example, fund the much-need Lake Macquarie Transport Interchange in full and do much more to get people using public transport than will tinkering with the Newcastle end of the line. [Extension of time agreed to.]

An integrated open space light rail corridor along the old heavy rail line could be a real asset to the city, a haven for tourists and locals alike—the perfect nexus between the old city and the vibrant new waterfront. It fits perfectly with the greenway, play city and entertainment city concepts for the eastern part of the corridor that UrbanGrowth and Newcastle City Council have recently put out for public discussion. Of course, the open space vision does not allow for the development of the corridor that some parties in this debate seem keen to secure, but I think it is more consistent with community sentiment.

The stalemate on the Newcastle rail line has gone on for too long. The current state of limbo serves no-one well, especially not regular commuters. The Minister for Transport said in his second reading speech that the purpose of this bill is to end the current uncertainty and ensure that the Newcastle Urban Transformation and Transport Program can proceed without delay. I—along with everybody, I am sure—would love to see much of this plan delivered, but this component is just wrong on too many levels, particularly in relation to the gross and unnecessary waste of public funds that will follow this action. It is not too late to make the sensible and obvious decision about the route of the new light rail and make use of the existing corridor for light rail. I call on the Minister and the Government to reconsider their policy.

I close by saying that I do respect that the Minister has come into this portfolio with this very advanced plan and a complicated set of circumstances, but it has gone on for way to long. I am not sure that anyone can point their finger at any one particular government, Minister or member of the public who might have triggered this, but it has come about over a long period of time and it really does need to be resolved. The debate is unsettling to the community and is holding back the city of Newcastle, not necessarily because of a lack of infrastructure but I think it takes away from a sense of confidence about the future of Newcastle. We need to have these matters resolved for that purpose if for no other.

This is one of my concerns about this whole issue—that the successive decisions, or lack of decisions, over a long period of time have meant that there has been a lack of confidence and therefore a lack of investment in Newcastle. The Government is being forced into a situation of renewal when Newcastle, with sensible and timely planning decisions over a long period of time, should never have got into this situation in the first place. But now we do have to address it—we know that. There has been a lot of money invested from the Commonwealth, from the State and certainly now also from local government. This is a major step and one in which I think there is overreach—we are overstepping in the amount of money that is being expended on this particular solution. I do support light rail now that the decision has been taken but I support it being on the existing corridor.

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