NSW Premier Mike Baird and Transport Minister Andrew Constance after unveiling the new design for the Wickham transport interchange. Mr Constance says light rail will allow Newcastle to capitalise on an opportunity for renewal. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers Community campaigner Joan Dawson from Save Our Rail after a December court win that stopped heavy rail being removed. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
The heavy rail line into Newcastle will start to be removed from next year, after the government won support for legislation allowing the overhaul in the NSW Parliament on Wednesday night.
The upper house vote, which follows a drawn-out legal battle and a highly charged debate surrounding the future of the state’s second city, will also allow the government to build a replacement light rail service on an alternative route through central Newcastle.
“With the bill passing Parliament, we now have the certainty to forge ahead and deliver on our promise to roll out light rail, allowing Newcastle to capitalise on this opportunity for renewal and reach its potential as an economic, social and cultural centre,” Transport Minister Andrew Constance said on Thursday.
But the government’s policy has been strongly criticised by some community groups, the Labor opposition and the Greens, who say removing a direct rail link into the heart of Newcastle is a retrograde step.
The idea of removing the rail line through the middle of Newcastle has been floated for decades, and support for the idea has divided the community.
Under former planning minister Brad Hazzard and former transport minister Gladys Berejiklian, the Coalition backed the plan, saying it would replace the heavy rail line between Wickham and Newcastle with a light rail service.
The route that that light rail will run on, however, does not duplicate the heavy rail line. Premier Mike Baird has confirmed that much of the land used for the current rail corridor would be open for development.
And leaked internal analysis showed that Transport for NSW thought the government’s chosen route would deliver a slower service at greater cost, though it would deliver more opportunities for property developers.
But the government was prevented from tearing up the rail corridor by a Christmas Eve Supreme Court victory by community group Save Our Rail. Lawyers for the group argued successfully that under the Transport Administration Act, the government could not remove a rail line except by act of Parliament.
An appeal to that verdict is pending, though the verdict will mean little. The government obtained its required act on Wednesday night, after securing the support of the two upper house Shooters and Fishers MPs.
Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi condemned the vote.
“The NSW government has prioritised the interests of private developers over the public transport needs of an entire region,” Dr Faruqi said.
“The government has teamed up with the Shooters and Fishers Party to rob the Hunter, Central Coast and Newcastle of a world-class public transport future and flog off public land,” she said.
“What happened in Parliament on Wednesday night was transparently misguided and truly shameful.”
But Mr Constance called the outcome “the start of Newcastle’s tomorrow”.
“The reality is, due to the delay in being able to remove the heavy rail line, early stages of the light rail project have been pushed back a month or two,” he said.
“Consultation with the community will now take place early next year, with early enabling work to start soon after.”