Transport Administration Amendment (Closure of Railway Lines in Northern Rivers) Bill 2020

Today Abigail stood in solidarity with the huge grassroots campaign to save the Northern Rivers railway corridor from being ripped up. She spoke against the Bill that would rip up the tracks and spoke of the dire need for world-class public transport in rural and regional NSW.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (16:53:48): On behalf of The Greens I oppose the Transport Administration Amendment (Closures of Railway Lines in Northern Rivers) Bill 2020. The bill is being rammed through Parliament without consultation with the relevant communities. If passed in its current form it would see a rail line that has serviced the Northern Rivers for over 110 years ripped up never to return. Constructed in stages, the first section of the track connecting the Richmond and Tweed rivers was opened in 1894. At the time much controversy surrounded the project's £1.5 million price tag, with opponents of rail contending that the money would be better spent on roads or other infrastructure projects in the region. William John Lyne, Secretary for Public Works at the time, rebuked that position when he stated at the grand opening of the rail line at Lismore station that such roads were required to be kept in repair, but once a railway was built it was built practically forever. Well over a century later that quote holds true.

The rail line has transported countless tonnes of goods, including sugarcane crops, bananas, agricultural supplies, livestock—you name it. With the formal extension of the line to connect with the North Coast line in the 1930s it facilitated thousands of commuter journeys between towns and in and out of the broader region. Investment in rail pays off, and the success story of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line shows the immeasurable long‑term benefits rail brings to communities, both social and economic. Why then are we here? Why is this rail line, which was used successfully for hundreds of years, now facing being ripped up and not being replaced with modern public transport solutions for a fast growing region in desperate need of more services? A rail trail could quite easily be built without ripping up the existing tracks. To understand, it helps to go back to 2004, when the then Labor Government closed the line, deeming it economically unfeasible—as if the primary reason for operating a public transport service was to generate revenue. That mentality, which Coalition MPs clearly share, dominates discourse around transport infrastructure in New South Wales and across Australia more broadly.

It is no longer about the government of the day providing infrastructure and investing in the wellbeing of communities but about generating profit. From the metro to the myriad private toll roads crisscrossing Sydney, the infrastructure that is built, funded and supported by this Government and previous governments is first and foremost about making money—almost always for private corporations at public expense. When properly built, funded and designed, public transport has immeasurable social, economic and environmental benefits for the health and wellbeing of entire communities. The delivery of services such as the passenger rail on the Casino to Murwillumbah line should be considered a core part of the job of government. That brings us back to the bill before the House. The Greens strongly oppose the bill for three key reasons. Firstly, if passed without amendment the bill would see the rail corridor ripped up, denying the opportunity for passenger rail services to return to the line in the future. But there is no need for us to choose between world‑class passenger rail services and a thriving rail trail. We can and should have both.

Across the world there are many success stories of rail trails alongside rail tracks that have protected the existing infrastructure and been huge draw cards for their communities, from Otago in New Zealand to the nearly 40,000 kilometres of rail and trail in the United States. It has been done before and can easily be done here. We know that bringing trains back onto the tracks is more than possible. We only have to look at the success of the Byron Bay solar train to see what can happen when we bring our existing rail infrastructure together with cutting‑edge renewable technology. Furthermore, the recent Arcadis study commissioned by Byron Shire Council shows that if there is political will we can have trains back on the tracks servicing our towns in no time at all.

If done right, the revitalisation of the rail corridor, with both world‑class passenger services alongside a vibrant eco‑friendly rail trail, would be a huge boon for the region. Secondly, the bill does not do enough to ensure that the land remains in public ownership. We have strong concerns that the current provisions within the bill do not go far enough in ensuring the community asset stays in public hands. For example, under clause 230 a lease of 99 years can still be issued to a private entity, so long as it is a lease for recreation, tourism or community‑related purposes only. If a gigantic theme park was built on the land, or multiple businesses given 99‑year leases along the stretch, there would be no difference to the public than if the land was sold. They would lose the use of it and it would be that much harder to ever reclaim it for public use.

All of those situations and more that would see the land given to private interests would be doable under the bill as it currently stands and we cannot allow that to happen. The most successful rail trails are ones that are kept in public ownership. Rail trails in New Zealand like the Otago rail trail or the Queenstown rail trail are both successful, according to the members of their boards, because they have kept the land publicly owned and accessible. Any business that operates on or near the corridor must meet strict operating guidelines and lease the premises from them. Conversely, rail trails with no public trust and, for example, just one corporation that leases the land tend to be less successful, leading to rail trials on which you have to pay for access and, once you are on them, you are bombarded with sickening amounts of advertising for services along the way.

Currently there is nothing to stop such an occurrence from happening with the Casino to Murwillumbah line if the bill passes in its current form. That brings us to our final and third objection: There has been no meaningful consultation with relevant communities in the Northern Rivers on the bill. The Government claims to have provided ample opportunity for consultation, but revelations from the former mayor of Tweed, Katie Milne, show that the only State Government consultation undertaken in her area involved 40 hand‑picked participants, including 26 directly affected adjacent landholders, 13 organisations and MP Thomas George. Where were the town hall meetings? Where was any meaningful attempt at online consultation or for people and residents to be given the chance to make submissions about what happens in their own towns and region? I do not know about you, but last time I checked a small room full of hand‑picked property owners does not constitute "extensive consultation", as Coalition MPs Geoff Provest and Chris Gulaptis stated on the record had occurred in the debate on the bill in the Legislative Assembly.

That is not all. On behalf of The Greens, I have now provided the members of this House with not one but two opportunities to refer the bill to a public inquiry, which would give those affected by the removal of this rail line a chance to have their voices heard. Both were a chance for the 10,000‑plus people who signed the petitions I tabled earlier today to express their strong opposition to the proposal to rip up the tracks and to have their calls for rail services to be reinstated. Both times, the Liberal, National and Labor parties have come together to deny the community that chance.

If the bill is so widely supported and so important for the region, then it deserves to be held up to scrutiny by those it will impact on most. By denying them that chance we are making a mockery of this place and what it means to represent the people of New South Wales. Given the clear evidence that there has been no meaningful consultation for this bill and the impacts it will have on the future of the Northern Rivers region and community, I therefore move yet again that it be referred to an inquiry so that those most affected can finally have their voices heard. I move:

That the question be amended by omitting "be now read a second time" and inserting instead "be referred to Portfolio Committee No. 6 ‑ Transport and Customer Service for inquiry and report by 13 November 2020."

As the Chair of that committee, I can assure the members that we have no other active inquiries on foot and would be pleased to take it on. If that is unsuccessful, I will move to strengthen the bill with amendments that seek to ensure that the land remains firmly in public ownership, that the rail trail is built off‑formation, and that the tracks themselves are protected for the return of future passenger rail services. Finally, I acknowledge the tireless advocacy of two community groups: Northern Rivers Rail Action Group and, in particular, Trains on our Tracks. Both those groups and the countless activists that comprise their membership have campaigned continuously to see their rail services returned since the last train left Lismore station in 2004. The member for Ballina, Tamara Smith, the rest of my colleagues from The Greens and I stand firmly with them. We support them and thank them for their work in this campaign. The Northern Rivers could be home to world‑class passenger trains running frequently alongside a thriving, vibrant rail trail. The only thing stopping us is the political will to make it happen.

For the full transcript of the debate visit the NSW Parliament website.

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