Last train to Mullum

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
– Percy Shelley

Its 15 years since the last train ran to Mullumbimby. One year my sister brought her kids up from Melbourne on the old XPT service to visit our Aunt Margaret ‘Tom” Koeb. Like Byron, Beaudesert Shire Council (now Scenic Rim) opted to refurbish its rail line. The venture failed, not because it was a bad idea or that it wasn’t needed but because every contractor in the district put in excessive bids for the work. But that is ‘free’ enterprise for you, always at public expense. The shire spent a lot on a locomotive only to be forced to sell it at a loss when the railway went bust. We reprint this article by Vaughn Allan first published in The Echo – Ian Curr, 20 Feb 2021

__oOo__

The question of what to do with the disused rail corridor remains a hot debate 15 years after the last train ran. Rail trail, rail only, rail with trail; it seems the only thing people can agree on is that the corridor is being squandered while it sits unused. Council have backed a rail with trail vision, having commissioned a report; the Multi-Use Rail Corridor Study (MURC), to rally the community behind a vision, and to convince the State Government to back the idea. Unpacking any option that includes rail services, we’re faced with new questions: What sort of rail service do we want? How would it work? And, who’s going to pay for it? These questions remain unanswered, and until they are, the corridor is likely to continue its quiet degradation.

Three different rail options continue to swirl around the debate. The first is returning regional services, like the old XPT services that ran before its closure. Second, is a desire for a commuter service that replaces current transport trips between townships, potentially linking up with regional services at each end. The third option is a historic railway service that provides a unique tourist experience; an expanded version of the existing solar train service that runs between Byron and Bayshore Drive. All three options have vastly different service levels and operating models that make them ‘stack up’.

Only Byron Shire

The MURC report is actually very explicit in what it’s assessing. It only looks at running services on 35km of track within the Byron Shire, with rail services running between 40–60km/h; therefore most of the patronage will come from tourists. This leaves us with a choice between a local commuter service or an historic railway service.

You might be asking at this point, ‘Why can’t we have both?’ Here we come back to those two questions raised before; ‘How would it work?’ and ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’

A commuter service requires high frequency trains, run by professional staff, with attractive fares to lure people to use the service. This requires subsidy from government to cover the costs. Train fares only make up 15 per cent of NSW Train’s operating expenses. The truth is that commuter rail services never make their money back. The reason why such services are provided is because they return a benefit to the communities they serve, not because they return a profit.

Photo David Lisle

Lacks detailed costing

The MURC report outlines a commuter-like service based on current regional NSW rail fares, mostly used by tourists. Patronage is forecast using capital city rail studies, including the figures that predict large proportions of the patrons to major festivals being expected to switch from driving to the rail service. Park and ride facilities are essential for tourists using the service. Nominal costs are provided, but details on the costs required to meet the forecast patronage are lacking. A service with commuter levels of service, requiring peak capacity during festival periods, with cheap fares would only be possible with deep subsidies.

No funding support

The report’s authors believe that the project would return a net positive benefit to the community. A net positive benefit, however, does not mean that it doesn’t require subsidies. Any proposal put forward by Council must have a reasonable chance of being supported by either state or federal funding bodies. This proposal does not.

There is a further challenge for a commuter rail service in Byron Bay. Even with frequent and cheap services, it’s difficult to compete with decades of car-oriented development. Outside of a few peak periods when traffic on Ewingsdale and Bangalow Roads backs up, driving will likely remain quicker. When people do get to town, there’s enough free or cheap parking to make that small wait in traffic worth it. This is not an article about the car vs train argument, but about highlighting the challenge inherent to a rail service of competing against decades of prioritised car use.

An historic railway service is a different beast, entirely. There are many successful rail services across Australia that operate this kind of service, including right here in Byron Bay. They’re able to achieve this by doing several things differently. First, they’re almost entirely volunteer run. Second, they use railcars that are cheap to operate (like the Solar Train!). Third, they charge premium fares that are able to cover the operations and maintenance costs. And finally, they use fundraising and government grants for major upgrades and track extensions.

Despite these advantages, bolting commuter services onto an historic rail service comes with its own unique challenges. Bendigo, in regional Victoria, provides us with a timely example. In 2009, and again in 2018, they sought to expand their long-running historic tram service to lure the town’s many drivers to commute using the tram instead. They offered reduced fares, increased services, and ran a public campaign. The experiment was short-lived. The network is too small to be able to effectively take enough people where they want to go more conveniently than their existing car commute. However, heritage rail services can provide increased services during holiday and festival periods, and with modest subsidies from council or festival operators. Tickets could be attractively priced, though admittedly delivering a service similar to the existing festival bus services.

Sustainable options

A proper evaluation of where the rail and trail can coexist side-by-side and the operational limits of the Solar Train will be needed before determining if an extension of the service is possible. Currently, the Solar Train is unlikely to have the power to make it up a sizeable hill, like the one to Bangalow. Council should look to preserve the track where possible, to allow the Solar Train to extend, sustainably, over time. For the rest, Council should follow the surrounding councils in starting works to connect townships with the rail trail, allowing the tourist and community benefits to start flowing. A vision that recognises the political and economic realities of the rail corridor is needed; there is a chance for rail to play a part, just not the kind some may have been hoping for.

Vaughn Allan
Allan is a transport analyst based in Melbourne who regularly visits Byron Shire.
First published in The Echo