The Transport Administration Amendment (Closures of Railway Lines in Northern Rivers) Bill 2020 is a monumental step in establishment of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail. I acknowledge the incredible hard work and tenacity of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail Group and local activists who include Jeff Meers, Pat Grier, the amazing Jenny Dowell, Maree and Richard White, Asren Pugh and Glenys Ritchie, as well as the team at Rail Trails for NSW. They have fought for many years to create a world‑class rail trail in their community. This bill is testament to their persistence and passionate advocacy for this project.
I also thank many residents of the Northern Rivers who have reached out and spoken to me about this bill. I also thank my colleagues David Harris, the shadow Minister for Regional Transport, the incredible and passionate local fighter for everything to do with the Northern Rivers, but particularly the rail trail project and member for Lismore, Janelle Saffin, and Jodi McKay, Labor's Leader of the Opposition, who has consistently supported rail trails. The advocacy and leadership of Jodi McKay shows Labor's commitment to the policy in our platform of having rail trails and great walks across New South Wales as a way of celebrating the State's natural landscape and opportunities for local businesses, particularly across regional New South Wales.
Around the world, rail trails are converting disused rail lines into shared paths for walking, cycling and horseriding. They are widespread in New Zealand, Europe, Canada and the United States where they have transformed regional communities that are crying out for investment, tourism and recreational opportunities. Here in Australia, there are over 100 established rail trails—many of them are in Victoria—where adventurers can explore the breathtaking Victorian High Country or the magnificent Gippsland region. As of April this year, we are now able to tour our own very beautiful Snowy Valleys by using the Tumbarumba to Rosewood Rail Trail, which is one of the first of the New South Wales Government's pilot trails. I note that in his second reading speech the Minister labelled that trail a "huge success", with over 5,000 riders using it in July alone. I am sure that is a sign of things to come.
This bill amends the Transport Administration Act 1988 to enable the development of a second pilot rail trail in the beautiful Northern Rivers. In effect, the bill closes two sections of the Casino to Murwillumbah branch line to transform the disused corridor into a rail trail comprising a 24-kilometre stretch between Crabbes Creek and Condong, and a second 13-kilometre segment between Casino and Bentley. Importantly, the Minister gave assurances that the bill prohibits the sale or disposal of land along the corridor to private interests. Labor supports the bill because we back rail trails in New South Wales as part of a greater strategy to develop great walks in New South Wales. A critical factor in Labor's support for the bill is the inclusion of specific provisions that keep rail corridors in public hands as a measure for future use.
As the member for Wyong outlined, the Labor Opposition will move amendments to ensure that those provisions are watertight and that this precious public corridor remains in public hands. Labor's firm belief is that the development of rail trails should be about transforming one publicly owned asset into another for the benefits of communities along the route and indeed for the people of New South Wales. The Northern Rivers is a perfect location for a rail trail. Its year-round subtropical climate and lush, flat terrain make it one of the best places in New South Wales to ride and walk. Tourism is a key industry for the region. Destination NSW reports that over 15.5 million people visited the North Coast region this year up to March 2020.
Studies indicate that rail trails are tourism super-earners. Research from La Trobe University shows visitors to Victoria's rail trails invest around $51 a day in local economies, which is more than regular tourists because they tend to stay overnight, they do not carry food or other items with them and they tend to purchase as they go. That will be a lifeline for the thousands of tourism businesses, accommodation providers and flow-on businesses that benefit from tourism dollars. That is good news for local jobs. The Northern Rivers Rail Trail Group estimates that the completed rail trail between Casino and Murwillumbah would create a total of between 800 and 1,200 jobs.
The rail trail is coming just in time for this region, which has been hard hit by COVID-19. The region has one of the highest unemployment rates for youth in the State. Part of the Regional Development Australia report estimates that 15,471 jobs vanished from the Northern Rivers regional economy between February and May this year. Rail trails make good economic stimulus. We have had examples in Australia of that. Following the Black Saturday fires in 2009, Anthony Albanese, as infrastructure Minister in the Federal Labor Government, committed $13.2 million to complete the 134-kilometre rail trail through some of the worst-affected communities in Victoria's High Country. Ten years later the Great Victorian Rail Trail and its sister trail attract approximately 103,000 cycling tourists each year to the region and have brought $81 million to the region's economy in 2018‑2019.
The Northern Rivers Rail Trail project is shovel-ready and it will have a positive effect on local jobs and the economy, just when the region needs it most. It will bolster businesses including the Crabbes Creek General Store, the Roadhouse and the Hosanna Farmstay. New businesses will spring up along the line as well and will include cycling repair shops, e-bike hiring, recreational activities and accommodation. I have heard that microbreweries are ready and interested in setting up along the line. It will be a fantastic opportunity for local residents, who will be able to sell their produce and wares to bicycle tourists along the line. Rail trails are also good for public health. The COVID-19 lockdown has reminded us all just how precious our open and green spaces are, and people are crying out for recreational opportunities. Regional New South Wales often draws the short straw when it comes to funding for sporting and recreational facilities.
Rail trails offer an opportunity for sustained family friendly and all ages exercise. In addition to recreational opportunities, rail trails provide a form of active transportation. The Northern Rivers Rail Trail will enable local residents to travel safely between villages and towns along the line, improving health and reducing emissions as they go. The Rail Trail also will help to connect local residents to bushwalking, sporting fields, rivers and other recreational activities, as well as to art galleries and cultural sites along the route. Importantly, the rail trail corridor can become an important ecological asset in itself by creating critical habitat for birds, fauna and flora, as well as making connections between our beautiful wild places.
I note that some farmers and local landowners raised concerns about their ability to protect farms and properties from biosecurity risks. This is an important consideration, which the Minister in his second reading speech addressed by providing assurances that precautions are at the centre of the Government's and local councils' work around the project. I note that the Minister explained that a biosecurity risk management plan has been prepared by New South Wales Local Land Services. The trail will employ mitigation and management strategies including public signage, private farm biosecurity signs and farm visitor notices and directions.
Another concern that has been raised in relation to the rail trail is that it be retained for future use by heavy rail. The Murwillumbah branch line was opened in 1894, extending on to Casino by 1903. Its establishment linked the Richmond and Tweed rivers, connecting the inland agricultural and timber industries to coastal shipping from Byron Bay. We do not give enough respect or consideration to the pivotal role heavy rail has played in building our regions and there is no doubt that it has been a marvel of engineering and economics. As the member for Tweed outlined, the line closed in 2004 after 110 years in service. I understand the anger and pain felt by communities along the line at the loss of their rail services. In 2013 a study was conducted to gauge the future of the line. That study was conclusive: Not only would it cost $900 million to upgrade the rail infrastructure to make the line safe and operational for passenger or freight services but the line could not support the growth areas. Work would be needed to clear vegetation, stabilise landslide areas, replace timber bridges and sleepers and extensively replace ballast, and the list goes on. One visitor wrote to the Echo stating:
It's clear from even a short walk along the track that re-opening the line for heavy rail would require completely tearing up some parts of the track and rebuilding it.
While it is clear that there is no move to return heavy rail to the line in the near future, Labor agrees that the corridor should be retained in public hands for the potential return of rail in the future. [Extension of time]
Developing a rail trail allows us to invest in and preserve the heritage stations along the line as well as bridges and tunnels and allows future generations to experience the beautiful route firsthand and to gain a better understanding of its history. If the rail trail is needed in the future, it is there for just that purpose. I note that the peak body, Rail Trails NSW, has stated categorically that its policy is to support the relocation of a rail trail at any time should funding be made available to reactivate a train service. The Greens cite concerns over public transport as the reason for opposing this legislation. The member for Ballina recently wrote a letter indicating that The Greens will be voting against this legislation in both Houses. I understand that The Greens on Byron Shire Council have been instrumental in blocking the rail trail to date. I am sure it will shock many Greens supporters that their political party is voting against cycling infrastructure and against a form of clean green transportation. Greens supporters have described The Greens opposition to this bill as "ridiculous". The member for Ballina has certainly described it as such. In her contribution to debate on the bill to close the line for the Tumbarumba section, the member for Ballina said:
I will not go to the next election—if I am pre-selected—with this ridiculous scenario where The Greens do not support cycle tourism. Of course we support cycle tourism. We will not go back to the bad old days of pitting rail trails against public transport. We are watching very carefully what is happening in Tumbarumba because this is the way forward.
The member went on to praise rail trails she had visited and enjoyed in Otago and Queenstown but now appears to not want people in her own electorate to enjoy a rail trail in their own backyard. The member for Ballina voted for the Tumbarumba legislation and yet has turned her back on a project that will directly benefit her constituents. I hope the position The Greens members take today will end the self‑righteousness. When they are outside the Parliament they say they are for active transport and cycling and then they come in here and vote against it.
As my constituents know, I did not get elected to attack The Greens, and I rarely do so, but I will call out hypocrisy when I see it from the member for Ballina, the member for Balmain and the member for Newtown. They owe cyclists an explanation.
So too does the Government owe an explanation.
The bill represents a lost opportunity to look at the whole corridor. People who are watching this issue closely will know that this proposal has been decades in the making. Local councils have tipped tens of thousands of dollars into studies, forums and town hall meetings have been held and the community has raised $75,000 for the rail trail. For months we have been waiting for this legislation to be introduced and it is disappointing to discover that the Government is building only one‑quarter of the rail trail. Rather than a complete trail connecting communities to some of New South Wales' best beaches, the coastline and tourist destinations, The Nationals are delivering a disconnected trail that may undermine the trail's capacity to succeed. That is disappointing as economic activity, local jobs and local communities will benefit from a trail. Geoff Meers, a representative of Northern Rivers Rail Trail Inc., said:
We know the trail will be a major boost for the regional economy, creating jobs now in construction and even more serving the trail users.
Providing jobs right now is critical given the impact of COVID in the region. And, just as important, is the development of a major attraction for visitors post-COVID.
An even greater boost for jobs would be for the State to match the Federal $7.5m funding for Casino to Bentley and extend the trail to Lismore.
The Lismore community overwhelmingly supported the trail in submissions to the Council's recent Sport and Recreation Plan. And, a further $17.5m would get the trail from Lismore to Eltham, providing a great 45km cycle/walk from Casino—fantastic for locals and visitors.
The Northern Rivers community deserves our support. I urge the Government to find the extra money to make that happen. This bill is about transforming a disused rail line into a key dynamic and living piece of active transport infrastructure. It will create jobs and opportunity, both during construction and into the future. It will enhance protections for the heritage elements along the line and create a fascinating story for future generations. It will deliver much‑needed recreational and green space for the local community and provide cyclists, walkers and horseriders with a stunning and exciting way to explore this most beautiful corner of our State. It will bring us closer to our State's journey to unlocking the opportunities and enjoyment of rail trails.
I commend the bill to the House.