Newcastle Herald By Editorial
WITH the NSW government unveiling its first new public transport strategy since 2018, it is worth reflecting on on the chequered history of public transport reform in the Hunter Region, and the shortcomings of the system as it stands.
Despite decades of strategies to encourage more use of public transport in the Hunter, the numbers of people using buses, ferries, trains and (since February 2019) light rail have remained stubbornly small.
COVID’s work from home practices meant big falls in recent public transport usage.
But COVID aside, the longer that Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, especially, fall behind other cities making noticeable improvements to their public transport networks, the harder and more expensive it will be for us to catch up.
The Newcastle light rail was a significant government capital works program, and removing the old heavy rail has triggered an even greater transformation of the inner city than perhaps even its strongest advocates had envisaged.
But as its critics pointed out during the years of the great rail debate, the light rail still risks being an isolated white elephant, in transport terms, unless it is extended into the suburbs.
It’s true that the Hunter’s relatively low population density has not lent itself to the sort of hub and spokes rail system that radiates out of Sydney’s Central Station, but if we continue to accept the status quo on the basis that Newcastle is a “car town”, then we risk being continually overlooked when it comes to the allocation of capital needed to build a better and more attractive public transport infrastructure.
Federal Labor opened its election campaign this year by recommitting to a very fast train system that would take just 45 minutes between Sydney and Newcastle.
HOW WE GOT TO HERE:
- 2012 Flashback: Transport study ‘ignores’ regions
- 2012 again: NRMA forecasts public transport collapse in Hunter
- 2013: Residents divided on heavy rail
- 2021: Why Novocastrians resist public transport: Herald readers have their say
- Last month: Aussies want ‘green’ public transport, fast
Little has been heard since then, and any number of countries have built VFTs in the time Australia has been talking about it.
We should continue to push for such big ticket transformational projects, but as Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson points out – and as others have said over the years – it would be a highly useful achievement in the short term just to have a reasonably fast train to link the state’s two biggest cities.
Even as we plan for a VFT, we need to do far better on the existing rail lines, especially as the long- expected “conurbation” joining Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong takes shape.