A rail trail that advocates believe will promote tourism, exercise and mental health is one step closer to reality.
Richmond Vale Rail Trail committee member Leigh Gibbens hopes a rise in cycling and walking during the COVID-19 shutdown period will continue once the Hunter Region recovers from the pandemic.
“People of the Hunter will need more safe cycling and walking infrastructure [afterwards] and, with the limitations on overseas travel, state and federal governments are focusing on domestic tourism,” she says.
“Richmond Vale Rail Trail will be a great drawcard for tourists wishing to travel to the Lower Hunter area.”
The trail is a proposed 32-kilometre cycling and walking track that will sprawl along the former Richmond Vale rail line between Kurri Kurri and Hexham; the former Chichester to Newcastle water pipeline between Shortland and Tarro; and through the Hunter Wetlands National Park.
It has been put forward by Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Cessnock councils, with support from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Donaldson Conservation Trust, and the Mindaribba and Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land councils.
In late April, the State Government announced Cessnock City Council would receive its first grant, worth $75,000, which helped fund a specialist role to move the project forward.
The consultant will prepare a development application and other related documentation, including the finalisation of the Review of Environmental Factors (REF).
Once this is completed, a detailed investigation will then take up to 12 months before construction, estimated to cost $16 million, can begin.
Despite the financial outlay, Ms Gibbens believes similar projects across Australia and overseas have demonstrated their value in attracting the tourism dollar.
“The Richmond Vale Rail Trail will do the same,” she says.
Advocates point to the success of New Zealand’s first off-road cycleway and walking trail, the Otago Central Rail Trail, which fully opened in 2000, as an example.
The 152-kilometre trail follows the old Otago branch railway and passes over viaducts and bridges, through tunnels and past old railway stations, offering spectacular scenery along the way.
A conservative estimate put the number of users in 2018/19 at more than 15,000, which did not include about 80,000 who either commuted or went for a short recreational ride.
Ms Gibbens says the Richmond Vale Rail Trail will help to showcase the region’s rich biodiversity while contributing to economic growth.
“The [trail] also has a rich heritage and will provide a range of cultural and environmental awareness opportunities, with over half the trail passing through national parks and regional conservation areas,” she says.
“It offers a healthy option for everyone – from families to people with disabilities – to walk or cycle all or part of the route, with wheelchair access as well.”
Visit the Richmond Vale Rail Trail’s website for more information or updates on the project’s progress.