City Hub

A mad act of infrastructure vandalism

Novocastrians demonstrate against the closure of the city's rail line outside state parliament recently.

I got back to Central station just after six on Friday evening. The intercity was comfortably populated going out of Newcastle station, nearly full leaving Broadmeadow, and packed to the gunwales from Gosford on. Lots of folk were going down to Sydney for the weekend to take in the Vivid light art festival.

I’d spent a couple of days in Newcastle investigating the link between local politicians and developer groups. It’s a seedy story that’s been going on for an awfully long time and the recent ICAC hearings have only given the public a peek at it.

Of course I went up on the intercity train. It’s a trip I’ve always loved. Coming down the Cowan Bank from Cowan to the Hawkesbury River in the early morning, with mist on the river, and rolling right alongside Mullet Creek is a beautiful experience. From Gosford on, the line winds through forest most of the way to Newcastle.

The train takes you right into the heart of Old Newcastle with its atmospheric streets and fine, old buildings. Once, just a few years back, the place had a seedy, unloved feel to it – a lonely, early-Sunday-morning sort of quality, but not any more. Over the last few years, good, organic, redevelopment began. Businesses came back and new residents moved in.

I had an hour before my first meeting, so I walked through the riverside parkland to Nobbys and the beach and back past the old fort at Flagstaff, through the old streets with their terrace houses and back into town.

Later, waiting for my contact at a bar at Queens Wharf overlooking the river I felt I could almost reach out and touch the container ships and tugs as they slid by, going upriver on the glassy water.

But my whole happy experience might be doomed, my contact explained. The Baird Government appears to be rushing towards the closure of the two and a half kilometres of the rail line between Wickham and Newcastle station.

For the last 20 years, a seedy collection of developers have lobbied successive governments to rip up the tracks, add the railway corridor to the narrow strip of land between the rail lines and the river, and open the land up to “revitalisation”.

Successions of developer spindoctors have presented the railway as some sort of ghastly barrier between the people and their waterfront. They were only interested in what was best for the city and its people, they claimed.

On the ground it rapidly becomes apparent that it’s a nutty pitch. There are already six pedestrian bridges between Newcastle and Wickham and a level crossing. Over the years, any number of cost-effective and attractive schemes to create more pedestrian crossing points under or over the lines, or even across them, have been proposed. But the developers just stick to their story and their lobbyists, just keep lobbying.

Actually, they’re interested in getting their hands on the only remaining land in the CBD where they can build high-rises. The rest of the district is undermined by old coal mines and remediation before any site was suitable for 20 storey buildings would be an expensive nightmare, involving the pumping of tens of thousands of tonnes of concrete into the old workings.

This grand developer conspiracy has bubbled along for years, involving a succession of half-witted government ministers and developers like Nathan Tinkler’s Buildev Group. All the while, the renewal they said would depend on closing the rail line quietly went ahead. Indeed it depended on the existence of the line.

The Baird government has just closed the deal to sell the Port of Newcastle on a 99-year lease, with the promise that, when they close the line at Wickham, they’ll replace it with a new interchange station and a light rail line running along Hunter Street at a cost of $460 million. Anybody wanting to get to the CBD would have to transfer at Wickham to get to the shops, businesses, hotels, parks and the beach.

Essentially what Baird is doing is using the proceeds of the port sale to build a very expensive and inferior transport solution so they could virtually gift the freed-up real estate to their developer mates.

A recent survey by the Newcastle Herald showed that 72 per cent of Novocastrians are opposed to the plan. They tend to agree with the very active Save Our Rail group who’ve been fighting this nonsense for the best part of two decades.

With just nine months until the next state election, the question is whether the government already reeling from the ICAC revelations can be stopped from a mad act of infrustructure vandalism.