A key sticking point in the development of a full Northern Rivers Rail Trail, from Murwillumbah to Casino, has moved a step closer to resolution, with Byron Shire Council last month voting to proceed with the planning, approval process and preparation of an application for funding for its section of the trail.
Rail Trails Australia described the decision – and the turnaround in the council’s stance – as “a wonderful outcome for all rail trails in NSW facing delays and other difficulties from supporters seeking to reinstate long disused railway lines”.
The association applauded the “superb” speech by Byron Mayor Michael Lyon, who has been a strong advocate for restored train services.
“The transcript of his speech should be circulated because it is a template for every council in NSW planning a trail rail where an unviable railway proposal is in play,” Rail Trails Australia says on its website.
As one of Australia’s major domestic and international tourist attractions, Byron Shire has been viewed as crucial for the NRRT to realise its full potential in northern NSW.
However, while the other three local governments along the full 132km route – the Tweed, Lismore and Richmond Valley shire councils – are all at varying stages of establishing the trail in their areas, the Byron council had strongly resisted its involvement. Instead, it had remained steadfast in pushing for rail services, such as a tourist train, along the corridor.
Byron Shire Mayor Michael Lyon said last month’s vote, after considering investigative reports on the future uses of the shire’s rail corridor, was an historic decision that followed years of debate.
“We owe it to our community to deliver on something now that can happen, that can be used by our residents and their families and that can be optimised to bring a whole raft of other benefits to our community.”
“It was a tough and long debate as many of us support, or have supported, a multi-use rail corridor in the past to keep the possibility of rail returning to our tracks for public transport,” Councillor Lyon said.
“However, as I said in my speech, it was four years ago that we were investigating the feasibility of rail on a multi-use corridor and since then, we haven’t been able to meaningfully advance the case for trains on our tracks in the Byron Shire.
“Whereas the business case for the rail trail is concrete and real and it’s on show in the Tweed Shire and it’s been funded by government.
“We owe it to our community to deliver on something now that can happen, that can be used by our residents and their families and that can be optimised to bring a whole raft of other benefits to our community.
“I think it’s time we take the opportunity before us to deliver something meaningful for our community.”
The council’s resolution also outlines its objective to secure a lease over as much of the corridor as possible, to ensure it remains in public hands.
It also reiterates Council’s ongoing support for multi-use of the rail corridor between Byron Bay and Mullumbimby.
Tweed Shire Council officially opened the NRRT’s first section, from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek, in March and last month reported 70,500 people had used the 24km section in its first three months, smashing predictions when the project was being established.
North East Rail Trail Breakthrough
An extension of Tasmania’s North East Rail Trail also cleared a hurdle recently, with the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal dismissing an appeal against the project.
The ruling clears the way for Dorset Council to proceed with the 41km extension from Lilydale Falls to Scottsdale and on to Wyena in the Launceston district.
City of Launceston council voted in February to approve its 14km section, a year after Dorset Council endorsed its own 27km stretch.
At the time, Dorset Mayor Greg Howard predicted an “inevitable” appeal against City of Launceston’s resolution from heritage train supporters. His predication proved correct when train supporters opposed the council decision on two grounds: that the council should have referred the development application to the Board of the Environment Protection Authority, and the crushing of railway ballast to build the trail would unreasonably impact water quality in nearby watercourses.
While the tribunal dismissed both grounds, it ordered Launceston Council to amend its development approval permit to reflect evidence and conditions discussed at the hearing, including protecting watercourses from contamination.
The full trail extension project can now proceed unless the train supporters take their case against Launceston Council to the Supreme Court.
However, the NE Rail Trail extension has encountered another setback, with Dorset Council’s panel of elected councillors suspended in July while an inquiry is conducted into suspected statutory non-compliance by the council.
The Tasmanian Government announced a Board of Inquiry would be established to investigate allegations at Dorset Council of widespread statutory non-compliance and failings of good governance.
The inquiry is expected to take around seven months and a commissioner, Andrew Wardlaw, was appointed to assume the role of the panel of councillors during its suspension.
The commissioner is calling for a review of the rail trail project and he expects that will take a number of weeks, before the project comes back to a future Dorset council meeting in late 2023 or early 2024 for any further decisions.
“It’s some years since they costed this project. We will do a review of the project to understand what the risks are, including the financial risk. What are the environmental conditions and can we still meet them,” he said.
“Is it still fully funded? That will be the first question.”
The council received an extension in September 2020 to a $1.47 million funding grant from the Federal Government to build the trail.
Councillor Howard has previously said the Launceston council area section was essential for the extension to proceed, building on the original 26km trail built a decade ago from Billycock Hill to Scottsdale.