November this year will mark the centenary of the opening of the train line from Cooma to Bombala.
It’s a sad anniversary, to be honest, because trains stopped running beyond Cooma 35 years ago this month. An enormous amount of work and expense went into creating a major piece of transport infrastructure that was only used for 65 years.
Two and a half years after the Cooma to Bombala section of the line closed, passenger services south of Queanbeyan were also suspended and eight months after that, it was decided that the bridge over the Numeralla River 20 kilometres north of Cooma was unsafe so freight trains stopped along the route as well.
If you’ve lived in Canberra for a good while, you might remember the scenic heritage train trips that the Canberra Region Heritage Rail used to run from Canberra to Royalla, but those stopped in 2007. These days, there’s a stop block on the line at Queanbeyan and that’s as far south as you can get.
Now the whole line is slowly deteriorating, and it seems such a shame when we know how important it is to find alternative forms of transport to the endless lines of trucks and cars that clog our ever-widening highways.
Last year, the NSW Government released the results of a million-dollar feasibility study on re-opening the line for freight and extending it in the north to Canberra airport and in the south as far as the deep-water harbour of Twofold Bay down near the Victorian border at Eden.
Short answer – it’s too expensive. This is due to the almost 20 kilometres of tunnelling required to navigate the steep and wild terrain between the escarpment and the coast.
But the Cooma and Monaro Progress Association doesn’t agree with this assessment. They’ve commissioned their own feasibility study which has come up with an alternative route that requires only three tunnels totalling a distance of just one and a half kilometres and bringing the projected cost down to $2.9 billion significantly less than the NSW Government’s estimate of well over $6 billion.
With the ongoing – seemingly perpetual – discussion about building a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne, a branch line to an excellent yet underutilised harbour could make a difference in the viability of both projects.
Meanwhile, there’s another very different plan on the drawing board as well – to transform the scenic and gently undulating rail corridor into a cycling and hiking trail. These “rail trails” are springing up on disused railway lines all over the world, from New York’s High Line on the west side of Manhattan, to Paris’s “Coulee Verte” to the 390 kilometre Katy Trail in Missouri.
Here in Australia, there are now more than 100 rail trails, ranging from ones that are less than a kilometre in length, like Ballarat’s Bunny Rail Trail, to trails of more than 100 kilometres like the Great Victorian Rail Trail.
Canberra is in a unique position with regard to the Queanbeyan-to-Bombala line. It basically runs through our backyard, yet it’s across the border so it’s hard for us to get a say in which, if any, of the above visions for the line’s future is pursued further.
As a Greens MLA, it seems to me that the worst option is for nothing to happen at all. If no one takes responsibility for the abandoned 200 kilometre corridor, it is unlikely to turn itself into a valuable, revitalised ecosystem as the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea has done. Instead, it’ll be overtaken by the weeds that tend to proliferate beside railway tracks.
The old wooden sleepers will slowly rot, and the rails will rust. Do we want that? I don’t think we do.
Both the Rail Trail plan and the plan to re-open the line potentially have good green credentials as well as clear lifestyle and economic benefits to Canberra and the Monaro region. A Rail Trail would contribute to eco-tourism in the region and a well-cared-for and thoughtfully planted route would encourage the regrowth of native vegetation and habitat along either side.
A renovated and extended rail line would take trucks off our roads and streamline the movement of goods and waste. At the very least, re-opening the line as far as Hume would provide alternative freight transport opportunities for Hume businesses, especially existing and future waste processing facilities.
I believe that the ACT Government needs to develop a clear position on what we would like the future of the Queanbeyan-to-Bombala rail corridor to look like, so that we can communicate our vision government-to-government with NSW.
As Canberrans, what do you think?