15 March 2021

Why the ACT should care about the future of the Cooma Bombala rail line

| Jo Clay MLA
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Bombala rail line

The Cooma Bombala rail line could be re-opened or repurposed. Photo: File.

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?

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Mike Van Der Zwart2:36 pm 27 Feb 24

Thank you very much. I love the positive forward looking ideas proposed in this story. With so few social infrastructure projects of the past being maintained by government or community. All our utilities companies sold off. Communities need to lead the conversation and to take ownership of it’s future. It is our money after all. I for one think my money would be better spent here on community projects than on a nuclear submarine. A train line to Eden YES. A rail trail from Cooma to Bombala YES. And lets throw in some affordable land for the generations to come as well.

Capital Retro3:21 pm 27 Feb 24

Our money?

Even at a cost of $2.9b the benefit/cost ratio would still be closer to 0 than 1. It is dreamland to imagine it could ever be remotely viable.

I’m not sure what people are smoking who are calling for billions for a railway to Bombala/Eden, but it must be strong stuff. If the railway between captial cities such as canberra and sydney / melbourne is allowed to languish to it’s current state, then spending money on an old decommissioned rail line is fanciful nonsense. If people are so keen that it’s a good investment, then they can put their money up and fund it privately. ACT government MLAs should be focused on the important issues – like fixing the disastrous state of the ACT housing market.

Capital Retro5:39 pm 08 Jul 21

Justin Bush, that money only covers development plans etc., not construction.

The NSW government promised a feasibility study of the Queanbeyan –Eden rail proposal prior to the last state election. It was to report in June 2019. When the report was finally released in September 2020, it found that the proposal would not be feasible with a build cost of $6.4B and a benefit cost ratio of 0.0. No amount of massaging could or can turn around those figures. The rail trail will be a boon for small business, locals and visitors alike, and an especially fine recreation facility on Tuggeranong’s doorstep. Just do it.

Capital Retro8:15 am 16 Mar 21

Go and look at the rail line between Nimmitabel and Bombala and tell me how a “rail trail” can be deemed safe where there are 30 metre high embankments and similarly deep cuttings. The line traverses the Great Dividing Range for some distance at levels exceeding 1000 meters.

A rail trail wouldn’t have to run the whole way – could easily do a section or two that avoids the major problem areas.

A fence at any dangerous drops. Rail trail bridges are fenced.

Capital Retro5:29 pm 08 Jul 21

Have you checked the price for fencing lately? First you have to find the materials.

Do you ever think positively about anything?

This country needs more rail especially for freight. It’s a joke that we move so much freight 60 odd tonnes at a time by road.

Capital Retro8:11 am 16 Mar 21

Freight moved by rail is only economical where there is minimal handling involved.

I think the rail trail is a most worthwhile future use for the rail corridor. I would definitely use it, as I have used similar trails in Vic and Qld.

Garry Robinson9:01 pm 15 Mar 21

The important things about a rail trail corridor is that it belongs to the people, it has a consistent low gradient and follows a reasonably straight line. Turning it into a rail trail keeps all these characteristics, will employ a lot of people (the Otago employs 2000) and it could be turned into a train line at some stage. Personally I think the future may include small automated transport pods that do not require rail. Maybe these could run at night. Anyway open the line, the Tumbarumba to Rosewood rail trail is real busy already, the future can be altered as the train corridor will still belong to the people.

Opening this line ticks so many boxes, one could be forgiven for thinking they are filing out a lotto card…manually !
Freight is just the start, taking people & trucks off the Monaro Highway, people commuting to Canberra & QBN, JOC from Royalla, Michelago, Bredbo, Cooma , Nimmatabel and Bomballa.
They would all be satte lite towns giving people other options more affordable than Canberra & QBN. Then connect to the ACT light rail, connect to Queanbeyan – Sydney rail line that “is going to upgraded”. The more these people think the more expensive it gets.
How about we just pull out of Afghanistan. At 10 Billion to end of 2019 and counting and we will have the budget to do this and just about anything thing else we have been waiting for in the last 20 years.
It has got to be done!

Repair and extend the line down to Eden, so it can be used for tourism and industry. Tourists could travel from Canberra to Eden by train for the beach and whale watching, as an alternative to the slow and busy trip to Bateman’s Bay by car. Eden is the largest fishing port in NSW, and the catch could be sent to Canberra by train, then sent directly to international destinations from the airport. International cruise ships also visit the port at Eden, so passengers could connect with international fights to and from Canberra.

Capital Retro5:19 pm 15 Mar 21

When was the last time a cruise ship called in at Eden and more importantly, when will the next one visit if indeed there will be another one?

When was the last time seafood was sent anywhere to a market by train? Have you any idea how slow a train from Eden to Queanbeyan would be? You would be able to smell it when it was going through Cooma.

As for whale watching, give me a break!

Refrigeration has existed for some time now.

I believe there are prospects for the Bombala line revival if it is viable in terms of freight and customer patronage for outer Canberra commuter and tourist services.

It was Walter Burley Griffin’s intention to have the Canberra railway station in Canberra City or Civic and it would be beneficial for tourism and commuters to extend the railway to the city instead of the current terminus of Kingston, which is remote from the city and not centralised. Historical railways were built to the city but were built flimsily and did not remain. Extending the Canberra-Sydney railway to Canberra City would potentially be the most viable option for patronage expansion with a station in a centralised location in Canberra City.

It would also be beneficial to consider further outer commuter stations at Fyshwick, Beard, Queanbeyan and suburbs, Bungendore etc., or a tram line to Queanbeyan along the existing disused freight track corridor. The raliway line from Kingston is underutilised after the freight track had come into disuse, but the corridor and alignment remains, potentially cutting some of the costs that would be used for corridor acquisition.

Capital Retro5:48 pm 15 Mar 21

One can drive a family car from Bombala to Canberra or Canberra to Bombala safely in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Trucks take a little longer. The roads are improving all the time.

Like the Canberra light rail, renewal of the rail link between Queanbeyan and Canberra is not needed and unviable.

By the way, the IGA supermarket at Bombala would rival most in Canberra for the range of many products.

Stephen Saunders10:33 am 15 Mar 21

I wonder if NSW Government has got their thumbs on the scales. Like, doubling the estimated price of rail projects, halve it for road projects.

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