It is with real pleasure that I speak in debate on the Transport Administration Amendment (Rail Trails) Bill 2022 this afternoon.
The bill seeks to establish a framework for the development of rail trails in New South Wales while providing greater opportunities to repurpose disused lines for purposes related to tourism, recreation, roads or road infrastructure.
The bill removes the requirement for an Act of Parliament to close a rail line for the purpose of establishing a rail trail, determining that the removal of tracks or the undertaking of other work does not constitute the formal closure of the line.
The bill dovetails with the NSW Rail Trails Framework, released in June 2022 and developed by the Department of Regional NSW. The framework lays out three key criteria when determining to establish a rail trail. They are:
1.There must be demonstrated community support for the Rail Trail.
2.There must be evidence of a viable and sustainable business model.
3.Issues relating to environmental impacts including biosecurity must be addressed.
When a rail trail proposal meets these three criteria, the Minister is then able to make a regulation allowing the project to proceed on the corridor. The bill stipulates that the Minister's determination can be disallowed by the Legislative Council.
Critically, the Minister has said that the corridor must remain in public hands. Leases for rail trails are permissible for up to 30 years, and if a decision is made not to renew the lease at the end of that period the corridor would need to be "made good"—that is, returned to its previous condition. Only a local council can hold such a lease, and there is no penalty if the lease is cancelled at any time for the purpose of establishing a public transport use. In this way, the line is secured as a public asset and for future use as a transport corridor. That is a very good thing.
This is a critical tenet of Labor's support of both rail trails and this legislation. Labor has long supported the establishment of rail trails across our State. Rail trails are spread across the world. They are found in Europe, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and have proven to be transformative for communities eager for investment, tourism and recreational opportunities. They activate disused rail corridors for cycling, walking and horseriding. They work to create links across communities, encourage tourist spending and promote active lifestyles. Rail trails can act as a form of active transport, providing safe pathways for residents to travel between townships and communities. They often connect community infrastructure, including towns and sporting fields. They are great for bushwalking, art galleries and so much more.
With investment in heritage interpretation and wayfinding, they can help reveal the stories of our regions. For example, the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail in our neighbouring State cuts through Kelly Country. Rail trails can also be affordable, fun and active options for family holidays. They are emissions free, meaning that rail trails are an environmentally friendly way to see the country and spend time with family. Importantly, rail trails can often serve as wildlife corridors for wild birds, mammals, insects and plants. It is no wonder that there is an ever‑growing number of rail trails across our country and many communities want this opportunity in their part of Australia. For example, in Victoria a person can use rail trails to visit the Victorian high country or the beautiful Gippsland region.
We know that there are real economic benefits. A La Trobe University study shows that cyclists using rail trails in Victoria spend an average of $51 a day in local economies. They also spend far more than other visitors because they do not carry food and buy as they go. A study of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail had visitors spending closer to $240 a day. Rail trails also make for excellent stimulus spending. We have seen this in response to the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. Back in 2009 the now Prime Minister, then infrastructure Minister, invested $13.2 million in a 134 kilometre rail trail through the high country. It was a way to support those communities and to rebuild. The Great Victorian Rail Trail and its sister rail trail are now estimated to attract over 100,000 cyclists each year and generate $81 million for the region's economy.
We are not experiencing that investment or those opportunities in New South Wales. We cannot miss out on them. We have one good example. In his contribution to debate the member for Albury talked about the Tumbarumba to Rosewood trail, which opened in 2020. We have already seen the impact of that investment. Some 15,000 people visited that trail in the first year, which was impacted by COVID. TheRail Trails for NSWEvaluation Summary about the Tumbarumba trail reports that spending was up 20 per cent in that first year, discretionary spending was up 55 per cent, consumer staples increased 14 per cent, nine new businesses opened along the trail and spending in Tumbarumba was higher than across the rest of the Snowy Valleys region. Hopefully this success story is indicative of the rail trail under construction in the Northern Rivers.
Such opportunities should be made available to other communities across our State. Currently 146 kilometres of rail trails exist in New South Wales. But approximately 2,000 kilometres of railway lines are not currently in use in our State, so there are endless opportunities. We need leadership and vision to realise those opportunities and we need a clear pathway for those communities to go on that journey. Many communities have been on that journey for a very long time. They have invested so many hours and so much money to try to realise those opportunities. This legislation is about opportunities. While it is imperfect, it provides a pathway for those communities and it is time that we provided a framework to establish rail trails in our State.
Since I was elected to this place in 2015, two pieces of legislation have been introduced forward to close rail lines and establish rail trails. They are the Tumbarumba to Rosewood Rail Trail and the planned section of the Northern Rivers rail trail, which is currently under construction. There are more to come. The shadow Minister for Regional Transport and Roads has pointed to multiple proposals being considered by community groups and local councils across the State. But we must provide greater certainty for the advocates and local communities that have been calling for many years for investment in those transformational projects. Members on this side of the House understand the need for a clear framework for rail trails. We also understand the need for a framework that addresses the concerns of opponents to rail trails. As has been flagged by the shadow Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, we will move a series of amendments to ensure that that framework provides communities with some certainty.
While the Minister has said that the rail lines that will be repurposed under the auspices of the Act will remain in public hands, Labor strongly believes that that should be included in the legislation to ensure that that is the case. First Nations people must be engaged and centrally involved in any discussion around those corridors, particularly when it comes to native title claims. The Minister has noted that will be the case, but we want to see that assurance strengthened. The legislation and the Rail Trails Framework must address concerns around biosecurity. Labor is calling for the current biosecurity mitigation plan, approved by the Minister for Agriculture, to be part of the consultation process and is calling for explicit reference to the plan in the legislation along with the need to engage with Local Land Services.
The Opposition is also calling for surrounding councils to be included in the consultation on rail trails. It is not just about where the line exists on the map; it is also about the surrounding communities. The legislation and the framework must stipulate that the strategic freight and passenger transport plans for the region are a part of those consultation documents. The community must have confidence in all elements of the proposals. That will acknowledge the interconnectedness of regional communities and that changes to infrastructure can and will impact communities beyond those that are directly affected by the particular proposals. I seek a brief extension of time.
I strongly urge the Government to agree to the important and commonsense amendments. They strengthen the bill and they give the Rail Trails Framework a far greater chance of success in its practical application. It can also provide greater certainty to those who may be concerned or sceptical about rail trails and the impacts upon their land, property, community and surrounding neighbourhoods. It is important that everyone has certainty when it comes to the opportunities before us. We cannot afford further delay. The fact is that we have waited far too long for certainty on rail trails from the Government. The Nationals tried to hedge its way through the first few elections by proposing a series of pilot trials, but that policy was stalled at only two. We are all the poorer for that, which is disappointing.
There has been a clear lack of policy direction. Councils spent thousands of dollars on consultations and studies that came to nothing. Unfortunately, that has pitted communities against one another and stoked division at a time when we should be seeking constructive solutions to our regional transport challenges, rebuilding communities and driving economic opportunities. Rail trails present those opportunities. We have lost a decade of opportunities for not acting on rail trails while other States have steamed ahead. They have investments and opportunities. It is time for us to capitalise on those opportunities and we must make sure that happens. While the framework is an excellent step forward, I note there is no funding attached to it. That is incredibly disappointing because it costs money. We are asking councils to really step up. We must ensure that they do not stumble at another hurdle or we will miss out again.
I say to the Minister in the other place that this is a very good start. But in order to realise the potential of rail trails for our regional communities, we need more than a framework and political goodwill. We need funding.
I congratulate the advocates of rail trails for getting us to this point, including the good people at NSW Rail Trails. They have persisted for years, providing certainty on how rail trails can be fostered and realised across our State. They should be very proud to know this legislation is before Parliament. I thank local advocates and government representatives who have pushed for years for their respective projects. They were often carried along by the hope that trail trails will bring support and investment to their communities. It is their hard work that has got us here. Finally, I encourage everyone to get on their bike or take a walk on a rail trail. Enjoy our great State. Members on this side of the Chamber support this legislation because we know it will result in more rail trails. I commend the bill to the House.