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Helicopter inspection boosts northern railway reopening campaign

When the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line was closed in 2004 by the then Carr Labor government local communities were robbed of an essential transport service. The Greens are passionate about restoring this rail line like we are about expanding public transport services across the country. 

Public transport is a social justice and an environment issue. 

When this rail line was closed Labor attempted to justify their very wrong decision by arguing that it was underutilised and was closed in the name of efficiency. 

That is just one example of the misinformation about this rail service. The latest is that it would cost more than $900 million to restore the line to working order. 

I am working with local Greens members, community activists and Dr Mehreen Faruqi, the Greens NSW transport spokesperson, to have this line reopened with a range of commuter services between regional towns as well as the CountyLink services. 

Recently with former local railway worker Phil Hill, Bjorn Wallin our photographer and our helicopter pilot we conducted a two hour aerial inspection of the line. 

Apart from our serious work this was a most enjoyable trip. Looking down as we took off from Casino I spotted a flock of white egrets circling below us. The Richmond River was lapping the banks as it was so full. All this and the greenery of the countryside gave us a sense this was a special trip in a beautiful part of the world. 

We headed down the railway line noting that most of it was in good shape. Approaching the tunnel at Naughtons Gap we could see that the embankments were solid with no slippage. As the track stretched out before us most sections had some steel sleepers. While there were a couple of trees growing on the tracks near the Gap most of the line was clear or covered in weeds. 

Then we were at Bentley that has won a place in Australian history after hosting a highly successful no CSG protest, and then onto Lismore.

The 34 kilometres of track between Casino and Lismore are near operational standard. If the Liberal/National government had the political will to have the bridges upgraded and the tracks cleared of weeds trains could be soon running on this section of the line. Imagine the jobs and economic benefits this would bring to the whole region. 

Just out of Lismore we flew over a series of bridges. This is where more repair work is needed. What I saw really brought home to me was the engineering feat of those who built this line in 1894.

Through tunnels, cuttings and bridges this is important infrastructure that is still needed to service the growing population in northern NSW. We certainly acknowledge that this section of the rail line needs extensive repairs. But if they could build the line 100 years ago there is no excuse for not funding an upgrade and providing public rail services for visitors and locals alike. 

Just outside Bangalow the line climbed even higher and we came to St Helena. From here the sweeping views down to Byron and up and down the coast was a highlight of the trip. This line has huge tourism potential as in places it rivals the famous Queensland Kuranda Scenic Railway.

Flying over Byron gave us a clear view of how much public railway land is linked with this line. I am regularly hearing reports about developers keen to get their hands on this valuable land. This is another reason why we need to restore the rail services to ensure this land stays in public hands. 

Outside Byron we identified two sites were new stations are needed to service locals and to cater for the massive festivals now held near Yelgun and Tyagarah. 

Between Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah the rail line passes close to the new Pacific Highway. The massive motorway upgrade is a stark reminder of the failure of successive governments to upgrade our rail services. The massive stretch of concrete for the dual carriage and flyovers dwarfs the single track rail line but for all this I felt our rail line is a stayer. It just needs our support to get back into service.

The cost of this motorway is coming in at over $30 million per kilometre.  If just a fraction of the state and federal governments’ roads allocation had been spent on this rail line the people of northern NSW would still have their service. 

On the last leg of the trip we flew over about seven tunnels cut through the volcanic rock that brings such natural beauty to this region. And then we were over the flood plain as we headed towards Murwillumbah. The Tweed River meandering through the stunning greenery dwarfed the one line rail track. 

Although the single rail track with broken bridges and weedy track may seem like a relic to some, our helicopter inspection reinforced for me that this line not only is ready and waiting to be restored it is a right of locals and visitors alike to have this service. 

We will shortly post photos and video from our trip to illustrate the state of the line and to help develop the Greens Integrated Transport Plan for Northern NSW. A key aspect of this plan will be for NSW transport routes to link up with public transport in South Eastern Queensland. 

Thanks to Phil Hill for his advice during the flight and all the members of Trains On Our Tracks and the Northern Rivers Railway Action Group.

I will be visiting Greens members and supporters and our councillors and MPs in Northern NSW along with Dr Mehreen Faruqi, the Greens NSW transport spokesperson, to work on this draft plan in the near future. 

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