IT has been almost 50 years since passenger trains regularly ran on the Cessnock line, but recent and planned development alongside the rail corridor could justify an investigation into whether they should one day return.
The privately owned rail line's future has drawn the attention of local residents, regional advocacy groups and Cessnock council in light of it losing its only traffic - coal trains out of the Austar mine at Pelton - last year.
The coal mine's status - it is being prepared for closure - has left many wondering what will become of the 25-kilometre rail line, which branches off the Main North Line at Maitland.
Cessnock council voted to investigate its potential uses as part of a motion moved in July to bring forward planning for a ring road. It envisions using a few kilometres of the corridor for a southern vehicle bypass of Cessnock.
Cyclists have since called for the line to be reserved for a bike path, saying if it is no longer needed for heavy rail it would offer a safe cycling route between the towns and villages it runs through.
Cessnock deputy mayor Darrin Gray said at the council meeting there was a "once in a generation" opportunity to "secure" the rail corridor "for future generations".
"Whether it's for road purposes or other uses," he said, adding it was "critical" the land be secured before it "gets divested for other uses".
The council's motion came a few months after Cessnock MP Clayton Barr wrote to Transport Minister Andrew Constance to see if the NSW government had any interest in buying the rail line.
"Would the government consider making an offer to purchase the train line if it were offered for sale?" he asked. "If this were to occur, would the government then look to reinstate passenger trains to the Cessnock area?"
Regional Transport Minister Paul Toole, whose electorate and hometown of Bathurst has benefited from the reintroduction of twice-daily passenger train services to Sydney in recent years, responded to Mr Barr's letter saying the Cessnock line had "been identified for further investigations" but the government had "no plans for Transport for NSW to acquire" it from owner South Maitland Railways Pty Ltd.
The government's Greater Newcastle Future Transport Plan, released in 2018, lists the "introduction of a passenger rail service between Cessnock and Newcastle" as a "visionary initiative" to be pursued in 20 years. A Newcastle-Dubbo rail connection is actually given greater priority (10-20 years). Both Maitland and Cessnock councils have also mooted the line's potential to transport people again in their past transport strategies.
Mr Barr said the government clearly recognises the potential need for a Cessnock service and there was "an idea that sometime in the future" it would happen, but it was his understanding the existing line is not protected by an act of Parliament.
"If we look at the expansion of Sydney, it makes sense to be thinking like that long term," he said. "But given the coal service has ceased, and will not be restarting, the government needs to be proactive about securing this line. Even it just means entering into preliminary talks ... we need to make sure our toe is in the door."
Geoffrey Rock, the Urban Development Institute of Australia's Hunter chair, believes the Cessnock line needs to be examined more broadly to see how it could help shape the region. He says the government should move to preserve the corridor to ensure it is not sold and lost before undertaking a comprehensive analysis that considers every transport mode, new technologies and adjacent land uses.
"Whilst the coal industry remains an integral part of the regional, state and national economies, and will likely continue to be so for some decades yet, the Hunter region has immense opportunity to utilise the legacy that former coal mines have left throughout the Lower Hunter," he said. "The South Maitland rail corridor is a piece of 'soon-to-be' legacy mining infrastructure that is capable of some form of adaptive re-use. [It] traverses through one of the region's major housing growth corridors. Its potential for some form of ongoing use as a thoroughfare must be given appropriate consideration, not only for the immediate future but longer term."
The existing rail line was built as part of a series of railways connecting to the region's coal mines. Passenger trains operated between Cessnock and Maitland, or further south, until 1972.
There were at least eight stations, servicing hubs like Kurri Kurri, Weston, Abermain, Neath and Cessnock. Some of the old infrastructure is still in place, albeit deteriorated. The line no longer runs into Cessnock, though, those tracks were ripped up after passenger services ceased. It runs around the town through Bellbird and into the mine at Pelton.
Most of the communities along the line existed when passenger services ran, but new housing estates have emerged close to the corridor at Cliftleigh and Gillieston Heights in recent years and more than 3000 new homes are planned for Bellbird.
Samantha Gilbert, 23, moved to Gillieston Heights with family at the start of the year after being forced to leave a rental and struggling to find new housing.
A university student, she says being able to board a train on the Cessnock line only a couple of hundred metres from her house would be "very beneficial" given the peak-hour traffic she encounters travelling by car to the Callaghan campus.
"It would be very beneficial, especially for the people that don't drive," she said.
"My older brother also goes to uni and my sister has just started TAFE at Kurri Kurri. She doesn't drive so it would be pretty good for her."
At least another 2000 homes are planned for Gillieston Heights, Cliftleigh and nearby Loxford as part of the Regrowth development taking in the old aluminium smelter site. These homes will be in estates directly adjacent to the rail line. An old spur off the Cessnock line running to Heddon Greta will be used as a cycleway under the rezoning plans.
A transport study prepared for the project notes only 1 per cent of work trips in the area are by public transport, with 91 per cent taken by car.
Across the region, only about 3 per cent of all weekday travel occurs via public transport, according to the Greater Newcastle Future Transport Plan, falling to only 1 per cent on weekends.
The government wants that mode-share figure to rise to 7.5 per cent.
Alice Thompson, CEO of advocacy group Committee for the Hunter, said the region had a "higher capacity for growth than indicated in NSW population projections" and the pandemic was "accelerating" growth which needed to be "supported by transport, infrastructure and services to ensure we capture the benefits or it will put pressure on our living standards and the things that make us such an attractive place".
The committee has formed a freight and supply chain taskforce with its members that are part of the region's coal network to explore how "transport corridors and adjacent land holdings" might be "leveraged to support future growth industries, jobs and development".
Ms Thompson said the upcoming five-yearly reviews of the Hunter Regional Plan and Regional Transport Plan also provided an opportunity to demonstrate best practice integrated land-use and infrastructure planning.
"This includes considerations on how legacy rail corridors in high growth centres like South Maitland could form part of a future focused and strategic plan for the development of the region."
South Maitland Railways was forced to pivot its business after losing the coal haulage income last year, now providing facilities and services to companies supporting the rail industry and those reliant on its proximity to the Main North Line.
"We work with a lot of clients in the industry," SMR director Kate Strahornsaid. "Despite trains no longer running we continue to maintain the rail line with weekly track inspections."
Potential users of the rail line could yet emerge as part of the transformation of the old smelter site, which the developers are considering linking with a rail siding.
Ms Strahorn said South Maitland Railways was yet to hear from any level of government about the rail corridor's future, but there was a desire for a discussion.
"We'd be very willing to sit down with council and hear what their strategic priorities are and what opportunities they see," she said. "Or state planning if they wanted to have a border conversation with us. We'd be very happy to sit down and meet with them to hear their thoughts."
Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison, whose electorate includes a short section of the line, was hesitant to offer a preference how the corridor could be used in the future, but said there should be a broad discussion.
"I don't want to enter into a situation like we had in Newcastle six years ago with the rail line, that was handled appallingly," she said. "This is a different scenario, but we should learn the lessons out of that. If there is appetite to have a conversation about it, we should ... but I think we should include everyone."