Stopped in our tracks

The government's rail cut at Newcastle is a blow to young and old

Wendy Wales

Rail cut decision closes Newcastle station

On Christmas Day last year, the State Government stopped passenger services between Broadmeadow and Newcastle Station. Buses now take people from Hamilton — four stops away — resulting in chaos and inadequate service.

As a teacher who has lived and worked in Muswellbrook since 1995 I have come to know how reliant regional communities connected by rail are on efficient transport.

I acknowledge my naïveté at being shocked by the decision to stop the trains going into Newcastle. Influence by developers is widely seen to be the underlying reason for this sacrifice of public transport. Land developers are being revealed by a parliamentary inquiry and cabinet minutes as having more influence than government transport advisors.

I cannot understand why we put up with this. Surely we know enough about sustainability to know that our planning should make social, environmental and economic sense? Stopping the trains at Hamilton gets a score of zero out of three for sustainability.

Are we really going to look on while generations of work and infrastructure are confiscated and destroyed? As a science teacher in the Upper Hunter I have taken classes and groups into Newcastle by train. It is brilliant! We walk to the station and catch the train. It is very simple, comfortable and inexpensive compared to taking buses.

A simple case study is the Muswellbrook HS annual excursion to a Japanese restaurant in and Newcastle Museum for all year 7. This excursion is unlikely to survive because transferring to buses at Hamilton is too slow, too risky and demand more supervising teachers, paperwork and planning. Tough luck, kiddies, another teacher labour of love bites the dust.

It is also saddening to see the concentration of people with disabilities, the elderly and the disadvantaged getting off on the small platform at Hamilton and having to make their way to the bus stop, which has inadequate shelter, and cope with long waits there sometimes as the bus and train schedules do not match.

These people have no other transport option or they wouldn’t put themselves through it. There are many stories of discomfort, anxiety and frustration.

Newcastle Station is walking distance to the foreshore, historical buildings, baths, rock pools that include coalified fossils, and two beaches, medical and legal practices, cinemas, a youth hostel, cafes and weekend markets. Teenagers at some stage of their adolescence would experience making their way to Newcastle independently. It is important to their physical and mental wellbeing that they are able to safely venture to the city and beach.

During the holidays, before the train stopped at Hamilton, I dropped a friend at Muswellbrook station. It was a warm summer night. I was amazed to see as many as 50 young people getting off the train, fresh from the beach and environs. It gets really hot in the Upper Hunter and I loved the fact that our kids had the opportunity to head to a cooler, breezier destination for the day without trouble.

We cannot overstate the gravity of this infrastructure loss to the entire community. As far as I know, schools have sat on the sidelines, willing to observe the developers, assisted by the government, take our collective assets. The Upper Hunter, Maitland, Dungog and Central Coast communities are less resilient without this access. What are we teaching our children by accepting this secretive sell-off?

We live in a democracy and are obliged to speak up when we see abuse. David Blyth of Hunter Concerned Citizens and Joan Dawson of Save Our Rail have websites and information for contacting ministers.

The Social Impact Assessment for stopping the train to Newcastle several stops earlier than Newcastle Station did not include the social effects on regions such as the Upper Hunter, Dungog or the Central Coast. Stopping the train short of Newcastle effectively fences us out, gives prime real estate to developers — and the best we can hope for is more shops!

Regional communities are impoverished by this loss. I urge teachers and executive to discuss the impact on regional communities, tell our elected representatives and candidates that their job is to represent us and facilitate full participation of regional students who need improved, not curtailed access to Newcastle’s cultural and recreational opportunities.

Wendy Wales is on leave without pay from Muswellbrook HS.