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Will it be the end of the line for Newcastle’s train, or for Baird?

Then treasurer and now New South Wales Premier Mike Baird (centre) at Newcastle’s Wickham train station in 2013. AAP/Michael Sin

Greater Newcastle is Australia’s seventh most-populated city, and is home to more people than Canberra.

Incredibly, the Newcastle city centre could be about to lose its railway line. The electoral impact of the planned railway line closure is likely to extend beyond Newcastle, with other seats in the Hunter Valley region in play.

Newcastle is also a city that has witnessed an unfolding scandal over illegal developer donations, which in August last year brought down two New South Wales government MPs and the city’s lord mayor.

If you’re looking for key battles to watch in the NSW election, which could help decide who forms its next government, then you need to know the story of the Newcastle railway line.

New light rail or keep the train line?

The Baird government’s plan is to close the Newcastle line at Wickham, two stops before the end of the line in the city centre, which would open up prime waterfront land for new development.

In the short term, the government has pushed ahead with terminating all trains at Hamilton, the stop before Wickham, pending construction of a light rail line.

Where the proposed light rail would run. Revitalising Newcastle

The Baird government insists that its light rail alternative to the train is the right decision, arguing “the revitalisation of the former rail corridor” will reconnect Newcastle’s city centre with the foreshore.

This has been a long-running battle. A decade ago, the Carr Labor government also proposed cutting the line short, but that was overturned in 2006 by Carr’s successor, Morris Iemma.

In the lead-up to the March 28 state election, Labor, the Greens and the Christian Democrats are among the parties that support retaining the railway line to Newcastle.

Battles in court and in parliament

This issue has been back in the headlines again this month. On March 3, a multi-party Legislative Council Select Committee, chaired by Christian Democrats leader Fred Nile, handed down a report raising concerns about the planning process involved with truncating the Newcastle rail line. It also recommended:

That the NSW Government immediately reinstate rail services that have ceased and infrastructure that has been removed from the Newcastle heavy rail line.

That committee held hearings in late 2014, and received more than 350 submissions – mostly opposed to removal of the railway line.

An interim report tabled on December 18, 2014, recommended in part “that no steps be taken to remove Newcastle’s existing rail infrastructure” until further studies had taken place.

The week after, on Christmas Eve, NSW Supreme Court Justice Michael Adams granted an injunction to prevent the removal of the Newcastle inner-city rail infrastructure. That court case was brought by the local group Save Our Rail NSW against the State of New South Wales.

In effect, even with a proposed last minute transfer of railway land to the Hunter Development Corporation, this railway line cannot be closed unless authorised by an Act of Parliament. That decision is subject to an appeal to be heard this July.

But despite all that, just two days later on Boxing Day, the NSW government terminated all rail services running for the last few kilometres into Newcastle.

In the past month, it has emerged that Baird government’s chosen light rail route into Newcastle would cost more, and was not the route recommended in a 2013 confidential cabinet document. The government was also advised that closing the rail line at the end of 2014 would be more costly and complicated than waiting until the second half of 2015.

Broader concerns about proper process

The issue of closing the railway line is not the only one that voters in the Newcastle region will have to consider at this election.

In August last year, Newcastle MP Tim Owen and Charlestown MP Andrew Cornwell resigned from the government and from the NSW parliament. They did so after a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry revealed they had both secretly accepted illegal donations from developers, who are banned from making political donations under NSW electoral laws. The final report from that inquiry has been delayed by a High Court case, but is awaited with interest.

Owen and Cornwell were replaced by Labor MPs at by-elections held on October 25.

The then-Newcastle lord mayor and property developer Jeff McCloy also resigned, after the ICAC inquiry revealed he had given illegal donations to several Liberal MPs, including Owen and Cornwell.

McCloy said that he felt like a “walking ATM” before the 2011 state election, but that he did not believe he was doing anything illegal. McCloy has launched a constitutional challenge to the NSW laws banning donations from developers, which is expected to be heard in June.

McCloy was replaced in a by-election by a Labor lord mayor. The Newcastle City Council has subsequently reversed its support for removing the railway, instead campaigning to retain the line between Wickham and Newcastle.

The impact on the 2015 NSW election

Importantly for those watching the March 28 state election, the potential fallout over the train line is not limited to the marginal Labor seat of Newcastle.

The seat of Maitland, where many people are worried about losing their rail access to the heart of Newcastle. ABC NSW Election guide

Train travellers from Maitland, a smaller city 35km north-west of Newcastle, have strongly voiced their objections to losing their train into the Newcastle CBD and its nearby beaches. With the retirement of the current Liberal MP, ABC election analyst Antony Green has described the key government-held seat as being “an open contest”.

Local newspapers including the Maitland Mercury, Singleton Argus, Scone Advocate, Cessnock Advertiser, Muswellbrook Chronicle and Dungog Chronicle have been running a joint campaign to #SaveHunterRail.

Beyond the Hunter region, ICAC’s investigations are also expected to affect a number of seats in the state’s Central Coast.

A better way to revitalise Newcastle

Before the Newcastle station was shut down, it took no less than two hours and 37 minutes to get from there to Sydney’s Central station. Yet back in the late 1940s, the Newcastle Flyer hauled by a steam locomotive could make that same trip 19 minutes faster.

In 2012, Infrastructure NSW set a goal of cutting the Sydney to Newcastle train travel time to two hours.

The current track is too long and too many tight curves. Track straightening at a few locations has the potential to shave three kilometres off the current distance, but more importantly speed up the trains.

Investment in faster trains from Newcastle to Sydney would do far more for revitalising Newcastle than cutting the track at Wickham and building new light rail. The faster trains would give Hunter Valley people better access to Sydney jobs, and attract more tourists from Sydney to Newcastle.

Across regional NSW, there are a number of issues like the Newcastle railway line – including coal seam gas and privatisation, under both the current Liberal National and previous Labor governments – where communities feel their MPs haven’t had their best interests at heart.

Come March 28, such local factors may all combine to make the NSW election result too close to call.

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