Barry O’Farrell and the NSW State Government are poised to spend $470M of taxpayer’s money building a transport interchange at Wickham and cutting train services from Wickham to Newcastle.
What will NSW taxpayers get for this money? Supporters of the rail removal would have us believe a miraculously revitalised Newcastle will come from the removal of the rail, which delivers workers, students and tourists to the heart of the city. However, Hunter Street Mall is already being revitalised at a fraction of the cost of the proposed rail removal. With credit due to the inexpensive and innovative Renew Newcastle projects, the mall is more attractive, bustling and full of commercial life than it has been for many years.
The government’s current plan would have city-bound passengers alighting at Wickham, walking to a tram stop, and then boarding a tram to continue their journey. Worse still, bus services are also likely to be terminated at Wickham to try and boost numbers and justify running trams. Both bus and train passengers are likely to be deterred from catching public transport by the extension of their regular travel time, and the inconvenience of changing mode. Creating an interchange undermines the key advantage of rail: that it is both fast and direct. It has been said time and again that studies show that having to change modes of transport is a disincentive for travellers to use public transport. Making public transport worse through a time consuming, unnecessary forced interchange has been demonstrated time and again (locally, nationally and globally) to reduce public transport use.
Many passengers will find it easier to drive than cope with having to change at Wickham.
There is little indication of what that journey will look like during the peak hours of travel when Hannell Street, one of Newcastle’s busiest thoroughfares, is regularly jammed, a problem often blamed on trains, but far more caused by North-South and East-West bound traffic of commuters at peak times, which is hardly likely to improve with the removal of the rail.
The issue of longer travel times and changes of mode is not a mere inconvenience for travellers who have time to spare, but is also an accessibility issue. Public transport is used by people who are often disadvantaged, economically, socially or physically. Commuters with wheelchairs, prams, kids in tow, big luggage, surfboards and bikes bound for the beaches, skate parks and inner city will struggle to cross platforms to interchange and board a smaller mode of transport. When this happens those with the luxury of a car will choose to drive, increasing congestion on our roads and decreasing the demand for frequent services that those without the luxury of private travel require.
And it’s not only commuters who stand to lose. Residents around Pacific Park will lose their park to a tram terminus with the eastern end of the tram line in both options proposed by the Government placed at Pacific Park.
Small business operators will be subject to major disruption as Hunter Street is torn up – a disruption of business that they may not recover from, if experience in other similar situations is anything to go on. For example, business owners have reported to Newcastle Herald and Maitland Mercury a drop in business when track work is being completed on the inner city stops.
It appears that the only ones who will benefit are the owners of large properties around the Hunter Street Mall, and developers with their eyes on Newcastle station for redevelopment, with proposals rumoured to include a conference centre, cruise terminal, or 300 units built atop the heritage building and owners with properties facing the rail corridor.
The benefit will not fall to the citizens of Newcastle and the Hunter, and certainly not the rest of the taxpayers of NSW who deserve, fast, clean and seamless mass transport to the heart of Newcastle and our beautiful coastline.
Imagine what could be done with that $470M that will be used to install just 2.6 km of unnecessary light rail. How many additional schools, nurses, police might it fund? A less expensive, invasive and thoroughly more sensible idea has been proposed by community based groups such as the Parks and Playgrounds Movement, Save Our Rail and Newcastle Greens providing more access between Honeysuckle and the city by reinstalling pedestrian level crossings at intervals between Wickham and Civic Stations. For just $25M we could combat the perceived issue of pedestrian access to the harbour from Hunter Street.
Newcastle’s inner city entertainment venues are frequented by Maitland residents on weekends. Bureau of Transport Statistics data for the Journey to Work show that approximately 33% of Maitland residents who work in Newcastle CBD use the train for their daily commute. Certainly, the system is far from perfect, but it isn’t broken either. It could help the State Government achieve its (very modest) target of increasing the mode share of public transport to and from Newcastle CBD during peak hours to 20% by 2016. The state government is fighting to “fix” a system that is far from broken for the sake of developer dollars.
After the $470M is spent and the developers have their way with Newcastle Station (and perhaps other parts of the current corridor) in 10 -15 years, will Newcastle will be clamouring for their rail line back? We need only look at the examples of Fremantle and Auckland, both rebuilding central heavy rail at great expense. We have the infrastructure in place, it functions, and it is being used. If there is any need for change it should be to improve the current infrastructure and services. We know global oil supplies are dwindling, that the cost of private transport is only going to be on the rise, and will ultimately be an expensive luxury in years to come.
Why then are we cutting a functioning, economically viable and environmentally sustainable form of mass transit, and wasting$470M of precious public money on an unproven, uneconomic, loss making light rail system?
Sign our petition of no support the government’s proposal to cut current rail and bus services between Wickham and Newcastle stations and replace them with a tram.