Reintroducing passenger trains to the Cessnock LGA is a “win-win” situation for everyone.
That’s the opinion of the man behind an online petition to secure the South Maitland corridor and establish rail services from Maitland to Bellbird again, Andrew Fenwick.
He firmly believes the reasons are threefold.
Currently, it’s a dormant rail line; residents are impacted by ineffective public transport; and the LGA boasts one of the fastest growing population predictions in the state.
The reinstatement of regular environmentally-friendly passenger services from Maitland to Bellbird will allow safer, speedier, economic and environmentally-sustainable carriage between the Cessnock and Maitland LGAs; linking residents to the new Maitland Hospital, Newcastle schools, colleges, university campuses, Scone and Dungog locally while providing benefits of inter-village trips along the line as well as direct connection to Brisbane, Northern Tablelands and Sydney.
The corridor would assist tourism, too, linking the state to vineyards and surrounding attractions and events, a featured journey for heritage trains and Steamfest for example.
“Now is the time to do it,” said Mr Fenwick, who ran as a candidate for the electorate in the last NSW Election.
“From a community point of view, it simply comes down to a need.
“One, there’s no effective public transport in that area at the moment.
“Yes, I know there’s a bus service and I’ve copped a bit of flak from people in that industry and who are bus-friendly.
“But, if you want to catch it to Newcastle, it’s 90 minutes.
“If we get this rail up and running, it’ll be less than an hour.
“Travelling by car is approximately 50 minutes, so it’s very comparable in terms of the times.
“However, the recent Taro Bridge problem also highlighted the fact that people will use public transport if it’s effective.
“The government put extra trains on… and they got a 25% boost in use.
“Secondly, Cessnock’s population is 55,000 (within 2km of the proposed stations on the route) – and growing by the minute.
“It is expected to increase by 33% by 2040, according to the current Transport for NSW Draft Strategic Transport Plan.
“So, it’ll take it up to about 82,000 by then.
“I saw [a report] the other day that the average regional NSW growth was .98% and Cessnock was 2.7%, so it’s way above the average in terms of regional growth.
“A lot of the argument is the government took away passenger trains because no one was using them.
“But, if you look at Cessnock in 1967 versus Cessnock in 2023, demographically – and the way people moved around – it’s totally different these days.
“Take cost-of-living pressures, for instance.
“People could travel to Newcastle daily, for a week, for the same amount as filling up their petrol tank.
“Also, how do kids get to TAFE, uni or jobs, if they don’t drive?
“There’s no easy way.
“I’ve spoken to parents who said they’ve driven their children to university from Cessnock to Newcastle – the whole length of their degree.
“I think if a rail service was effective and regular, and all those things, people would use it.”
Mr Fenwick believes the NSW Government should acquire the Maitland to Bellbird corridor from the current owner.
That would then bring it under the permanent protection of the state parliament.
“I’ll be honest, it’d require a fair bit of work upgrading it,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.
“However, even in preliminary costings, it’s nowhere near as expensive as I thought it’d be.
“A former colleague and rail industry consultant told me we can do it much cheaper.
“But, if it was a total rebuild, it’s less than $100 million.
“That’s including blow-outs and contingencies.
“So, now that he’s come on board, we’ll develop a full business case for it.
“The feedback from the community is mainly positive.
“We’ve attained probably 1,100 signatures, with three months remaining.
“However, there is a push – although a noisy minority – to use the corridor to go around the back of Bellbird as a ring road to Cessnock.
“But, most of their traffic problems aren’t coming from there anyway, it’s internal.
“It’s sort of like from Cessnock west through town, from schools and business, so it’s just a congested blob at the moment.
“The advantage to what we’re proposing is it’s low-hanging fruit.
“My friend to the rail consultant has labelled it the ‘most value for money rail infrastructure project in the country’.
“So, we’re getting to the point where there’s no excuse.
“The private owner has indicated they’d be happy to sell it to the government.
“They’re only really interested in the east Greta/Maitland end for their operations.
“So, there’s no resistance there.”
Ironically, Cessnock MP Clayton Barr – when in opposition – also called for trains to run to Cessnock.
However, after four terms as the local member, he’s yet to follow it up.
“To his credit, he’s agreed to table the petition in principle, agreeing that it’s something that needs to be done,” Mr Fenwick said.
“He also knows there’s no way in the world the government wants to see the corridor get lost – or sold off elsewhere.
“If it doesn’t buy it, that 24 kilometres is up for grabs.
“It could be sold off in bits and pieces to whoever needs to extend their property, whether a farmer or a developer.
“If that happened, they’d never have a public transport corridor out there.
“Whereas, if the NSW Government purchases it, it’ll be protected.
“For me, it’s a win-win situation for everyone if it comes to fruition.
“But, we really need to get this done in this term, even if it’s just the capturing of the corridor.
“By doing that, it gives everyone hope.
“More people utilise trains these days throughout the country.
“Old services are being reintroduced at Bathurst while places, like Canberra, now boast light rail.
“In Perth, they’ve reinstated suburban trains in areas that haven’t had it for years.
“Why? Because it’s more efficient and sustainable from an environmental point of view.
“So, for us, now is actually the best time.
“It’s never going to get any cheaper to do it.
“We’ve got the corridor, the idea and a new Minns government spruiking about how they’ll get rail rolling stock made in the state.
“The importance of protecting it is a ‘today need’ and a ‘tomorrow action’ issue, not a strategic can to be kicked down the road by each NSW Government that won’t spend in a safe seat.
“What have we got to lose?”
To sign the petition, go to www.traintocessnock.org
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