Pressure is mounting on the state government to delay the Boxing Day truncation of the Hunter rail line until it can clearly demonstrate the benefit of a Wickham interchange.
The parliamentary inquiry into Hunter planning decisions tabled its interim report on Thursday.
The report asked that the government take no steps to remove the rail infrastructure until a peer-reviewed report thoroughly considered the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of the alternative options.
“If the government and the Premier [Mike Baird] are genuinely interested in the best outcome for the Hunter Valley, including Newcastle and Maitland, they will heed the report,” the inquiry’s deputy chairman David Shoebridge MLC said.
The report was tabled at 10am on Thursday, at which time the state government announced that contractor Laing O’Rourke would build the $73 million Wickham interchange.
“[The tender announcement] shows the arrogance of this government when one of the key findings is that the Wickham interchange won’t work,” Mr Shoebridge said.
But the Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian was unapologetic about the timing.
“Labor and the Greens continue to fight for the do-nothing scenario. It’s the same old story of inaction played out in the Hunter during the 16 years of the Labor government,” she said.
“We will not back away from our long-standing commitments around the Wickham truncation and delivering light rail.”
Maitland MP Robyn Parker issued a brief statement in light of the report.
“I will review the interim report in the coming days and will respond in due course,” she said.
Save Our Rail president Joan Dawson said the interim findings would fuel the community group’s threatened legal challenge.
“I think the committee’s findings justify our position, which is against spending such huge amounts of money when it’s of no proven benefit, especially to Maitland people and people further up the valley,” she said.
“We will use every avenue available to us to keep the rail next week [and] we are still pursuing legal avenues.”
The report made eight recommendations.
The report asks that if the rail truncation remains the preferred option that the government first implement the trams before dismantling the tracks.
Focus on potential conflicts of interest
The interim report from the parliamentary inquiry into Hunter planning decisions has called for more attention to potential conflicts of interest.
Hunter Development Corporation general manager Bob Hawes has been named in the interim report under Recommendation 8.
The report said that the Department of Planning and Infrastructure should consistently manage Mr Hawes’ conflicts of interest.
Mr Hawes is a 50 per cent stakeholder in 1-9 Beresford Street, Wickham, near the planned interchange.
He was an ex-officio board member of Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund in 2012 when it recommended that
$60 million from the fund be made available to Planning Minister Brad Hazzard for deliberations over the fate of the rail line.
“The committee is also conscious that Mr Hawes should not be made into an inquiry scapegoat,” the interim report notes.
Committee's eight recommendations
- That the NSW government provide all of the documents listed in the order for papers relating to planning in Newcastle and the Hunter, dated October 23, 2014, by January 31, 2015, as requested by the committee.
- That no steps be taken to remove Newcastle’s existing rail infrastructure until a peer-reviewed report is obtained by the NSW government that thoroughly considers the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of the alternative options of removing and retaining the existing rail line.
- That in undertaking the cost benefit analysis in Recommendation 2, the NSW government consider a series of alternative options to the removal of the rail line, including sinking the rail line, constructing additional overbridges and/or level crossings, landscaping the existing rail corridor and reducing train speeds.
- That the NSW government not proceed with the proposed Hunter Street light rail route unless and until supported by a peer-reviewed cost benefit analysis that thoroughly considers not only the retention of the existing rail line but also the provision of light rail on the existing rail corridor.
- That, if the truncation of the Newcastle heavy rail line proceeds, the NSW government postpone the date of truncation until construction of the light rail service commences.
- That, if the truncation of the Newcastle heavy rail line proceeds, the NSW government ensure that the unused portion of the rail corridor be used only for low-scale development associated with community, recreational and public uses.
- That, if the truncation of the Newcastle heavy rail line proceeds, the NSW government ensure that any proposed development on the unused portion of the rail corridor be subject to a transparent planning process, under the control and direction of Newcastle council, that involves ample opportunity for public consultation.
- That the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure ensure that the conflicts of interest held by the general manager of Hunter Development Corporation, Mr Robert Hawes, are consistently managed in accordance with the NSW Planning and Infrastructure Conflicts of Interest Policy and Guidelines 2011.