Thursday, January 21, 2021

Riding the rails: inside the push for a bike trail on disused tracks in the Monaro | New South Wales


Fifty years ago Bombala and Nimmitabel on the Monaro plains were thriving timber towns and local centres for the grazing industry.

But the timber mills closed, farms consolidated and became increasingly mechanised and the local communities watched as their services shut and populations dwindled.

Now, however, there are plans to breathe new life back into some of these picturesque rural communities through cycling tourism.

Will Jardine, a fifth-generation farmer and owner of the Nimmitabel bakery, and others are campaigning to turn the disused railway line from Queanbeyan to Bombala into a 213km multiday cycling path through the picturesque Monaro plains.

“Based on the figures for the Otago rail trail in New Zealand, which is the most similar with an average spend of $200 a rider, that’s [potentially] $3m injected into each village a year,” Jardine said.

“It would lead to accommodation, food outlets, transport and support services for the riders. What’s the alternative for this region? The alternative is pretty ugly.”

Ken Lister, who chairs the Monaro rail trail committee, says there is enormous enthusiasm for the project.

It would involve a capital cost of $63m but could bring $25m a year into local communities, Lister says. The plan is for “a spine and ribs” – with precinct trails around the villages so riders can enjoy local sites.

Lister says development would begin near each village so they could benefit as soon as possible, with a final stage joining the entire trail. One “rib” trail could extend to Jindabyne in due course and take in a local truffle farm, for example.

Similar community efforts are afoot in Tumbarumba east of Holbrook with a first stage opened between Tumbarumba and Rosewood. On the NSW north coast, the state government has backed a plan to turn the disused railway from Casino to Murwillumbah into a bike route too.

In New Zealand, the repurposing of old rail corridors has been turned into a multimillion tourism industry. The 152km Otago rail trail attracts 15,000 riders each year generating millions of dollars for the small towns it passes through.

But progress on the Monaro plains trail has been slow for a number of reasons.

Some in the NSW government wanted it reopened for trains. In 2018, the Nationals leader and local member for Monaro, John Barilaro, announced plans to investigate reopening the Canberra to Bombala rail line and extending it to the port of Eden for freight trains.

But that idea seems to have died a quiet death. A $1m feasibility study was released without fanfare in 2020 and showed the railway line would cost $6.3bn to reopen and there would be little, if any, return on investment.

Meanwhile, the Snowy Monaro council has exhibited a feasibility study for the cycling option and voted to support the project. It’s also won the support of Liberal senator Jim Molan who is based in Queanbeyan.

But there is still opposition among some of the big grazing families in the region whose properties adjoin the disused rail line. Some fear a loss of privacy and interference with their farming operations. They say it could lead to trespassing on their land.

The Monaro area is home to some prominent grazing families, including the Taylors. The federal energy minister, Angus Taylor, no longer lives in the region, but his family still have property interests there including his sister-in-law, Bronnie Taylor, who is a NSW Nationals politician.

Bronnie Taylor said as a local landowner she “welcomes the community discussion with landowners and other interested parties about the proposed rail trail”.

Barilaro referred questions to the regional transport minister, Paul Toole, who referred them to his department. The department response in relation to the Monaro rail trail was vague.

“The NSW government supports rail trails on non-operational rail lines where there is strong community support and it is feasible,” a spokesman said. “Rail trail projects must meet all NSW government criteria for a successful endeavour before work progresses to close the rail line.”

The spokesman acknowledged reopening the line had been found to “not be economically viable due to the construction costs and limited freight and passenger volumes”.

However, the other proposals – at Tumbarumba and on the north coast – are advancing.

The $4.9m Tumbarumba-to-Rosewood section of path – comprising 21 kilometres of sealed trail in the Snowy Valleys – was officially opened in early April 2020. So far 10,000 people have pedalled, strolled or pushed their way along the new rail trail.

The legislative amendment to close the northern rivers rail line was passed by state parliament in mid-October. Construction on the trail is expected to begin shortly.

“The two pilot rail trails will provide the NSW government with a better understanding of the full range of tourism and recreational opportunities of rail trail projects and will allow insights gained to be applied to any future rail trail projects,” a Transport for NSW spokesman said.

Further decisions regarding additional rail trails in NSW will be informed by the review of the two pilot projects, he said.

The northern rivers path appears to have already won local support.

“The rail trail will be a great asset for people living in the area as well as those travelling through the region,” the local state MP for Clarence, Chris Gulaptis, said in a statement supporting the project.

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