Ms Jodi McKay
Minister for the Hunter
Level 32 Governor Macquarie Tower,
1 Farrer Place,
SUBMISSION FROM NEWCASTLE GREENS ON HUNTER DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION NEWCASTLE CITY CENTRE RENEWAL REPORT TO NSW GOVERNMENT, MARCH 2009
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Hunter Development Corporation’s Newcastle City Renewal Report.
It appears from recent media reports that this submission may have missed the intended submission deadline. If this is so, we apologise for its late delivery, but we were unable to confirm any specific deadline for submissions from any authoritative source (e.g., the HDC website, media releases, etc). When we rang your office about this, we were given to understand that a submission lodged this week would be considered, so we hope that this is still the case.
In relation to the HDC report itself, Newcastle Greens welcomes any focus on the much needed revitalisation of the Newcastle CBD, and believes that a number of the catalyst projects identified in the report have significant potential to contribute to this. In particular, we strongly support the development of a city based university campus, and believe that urgent strategic priority should be given to progress this project.
However, we regret - and strongly oppose - the report’s emphasis on its demonstrably bogus view that the city’s revitalisation depends on removing the Newcastle rail line. We believe that this preoccupation with removing the rail line is both deeply flawed and counterproductively divisive, and we strongly urge the Minister and the NSW Government to adopt an alternative approach that is capable of building a broad community consensus for a credible, persuasive and united bid for federal government funding assistance for Newcastle’s revitalisation based on the other, more worthwhile, catalyst projects in the report.
The following submission therefore:
• Welcomes and supports the HDC report’s proposal to establish a university CBD campus as a key catalyst project for revitalising the Newcastle CBD.
• Urges the Minister and the NSW government to vigorously pursue federal funding support for establishing a university CBD campus as the major basis for future public and private investment in the revitalisation of the Newcastle CBD.
• Opposes the report’s proposal to remove the heavy rail line and service between Wickham and Newcastle.
• Raises major concerns about the lack of detail and costings for the bus system proposed as a replacement for the current rail service.
• Supports the development of an integrated, sustainable and socially equitable public transport system for Newcastle that gives priority to rail over road transport, and to increasing use of public transport over the use of private motor vehicles.
• Gives qualified support to other catalyst projects mentioned in the report, including a renewed justice centre, retail development, conference facilities, cruiser facilities, and cycling.
• Raises questions and concerns about the integrity of the report’s objectives, process and methodology.
• Questions a number of the report’s key claims.
• Requests the Minister to urgently initiate an independent professional investigation and review of the integrity of the process used to produce the report, and of the accuracy and relevance of its data and key assertions.
• Urges the Minister to initiate a more credible approach for federal government infrastructure and revitalisation funding that is capable of uniting the Hunter community in the effort required to secure this much needed funding.
We also specifically request that this submission’s support for certain elements of the report not be misrepresented (e.g., by including it as a “supporting” submission in any statistical analysis of feedback) as implying any support for its recommendation to cut the Newcastle rail line (we make this request on the basis of previous such misrepresentation of survey results in the past by the former Honeysuckle Development Corporation).
We would be happy to discuss any aspect of this report.
(on behalf of Newcastle Greens)
Newcastle Greens, July 2009 - Submission in response to Hunter Development Corporation’s Newcastle City Renewal Report
1. Proposal to establish a university CBD campus
The Greens have long argued that an expanded city-based university campus would provide significant mutual benefits for future students and staff of the university, for city businesses, and for the general social and cultural vitality of the city area, and we welcome the report’s acknowledgement of the crucial role that such a project can play as a catalyst for revitalising the Newcastle CBD.
However, we totally reject the report’s portrayal of the development of a university CBD campus as being “contingent on the removal of the rail line”, and the report’s consequent misrepresentation of the cost-benefit analysis to create the false impression that cutting the rail line is a more cost effective option than retaining it. This approach is based on a misrepresentation of the university’s view about the rail line. We have a copy of an unequivocal statement from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Newcastle that the university does not have a position on the rail line, which is in clear contradiction to statements in the HDC report that assert a view by the university in favour of cutting the rail line.
We regard this aspect of the report as so seriously flawed and deceptive that the Minister should initiate an independent review of the statements in the report (and its supporting documentation) that purport to convey the university’s views on this matter, and the consequent flaw in the basic assumptions underlying the cost-benefit analysis with a view to taking appropriate disciplinary or legal action against those involved.
We note that, in response to public questions since the publication of the report, the HDC has itself now muted its claims (though not the report’s absolute assertion) about the extent to which the development of a university CBD campus is contingent on removing the rail line, moving from a position (stated in the supporting documentation and repeated in the report) that development of a city campus was entirely dependent on removing the rail line, to one claiming that the benefits of such a project “would be harder to realise” without cutting the rail line (Paul Broad, Newcastle Herald, 18 July 2009). Whilst this represents a significant shift from its former unqualified claim, the HDC has not publicly acknowledged its previous misrepresentation, or modified the cost-benefit analysis that was based on that misrepresentation. Neither has it presented any analysis or argument to support even its latest, more qualified view, and to fairly compare it with the benefits that retaining the current rail line would bring to a future city campus.
The fact is, of course, that the current Newcastle rail line (including Civic and Newcastle stations) would be a major benefit for the future development of a CBD campus, and therefore to the revitalisation of the city. The rail line would provide a fast, convenient and cheap transport link between the current Callaghan campus and a future CBD-based campus, facilitate single-mode public transport access to the CBD campus by students from outlying areas (including Maitland, Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast), and help achieve east-west connectivity and integration between the components of such a future campus. As the success of the Warabrook railway station has demonstrated, students are keen rail users, and rail use would increase significantly if future development of university facilities in the city were close to Civic and/or Newcastle stations, in accordance with the principles of Transit Oriented Development.
Such proximity to the rail line would also make a significant contribution to alleviating future car-dependency and parking demand in the city. Transport and parking demand are clearly major considerations in planning for the development of any future city campus, given the magnitude of the parking problems already apparent at both the Callaghan campus and the Newcastle CBD. We note here that the HDC report’s proposal to cut the rail line at Wickham gives scant attention to this aspect of future development of a city campus, is inconsistent with the Transit Oriented Development approach advocated by the federal government, and would increase both current and future motor vehicle dependency, exacerbating associated greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion and parking problems. It is difficult to escape the impression that the significant advantages of proximity to the current rail line for the development of a future university campus in the city presents an inconvenient truth for the report that is ignored because it does not support the case for cutting the rail line.
2. Support for federal funding to establish a university CBD campus
The development of a university CBD campus would be a worthy recipient of federal infrastructure and revitalisation funding, which would represent an investment in both the commercial revitalisation of the city, and in the education of those who will determine the future of the city. Such a project could achieve strong unified support from across the entire Newcastle community to take to the Federal government for funding assistance, provided such an approach is not conditional on removing any of the city’s rail infrastructure.
Whilst we understand that the space requirements of the university may eventually necessitate development north of the current rail line (in the Honeysuckle area), we believe that the city revitalisation objective would be best served by giving public funding priority to site consolidation and (where possible) adaptive reuse of public buildings (and some former public buildings) south of the rail line, to compensate for the past focus on new development in the Honeysuckle area, to the detriment of the redevelopment and revitalisation of Newcastle’s traditional CBD.
In the early days of the Honeysuckle development, Newcastle Greens warned of this possible impact of the Honeysuckle development (which was actively – and injuriously - marketed as “a new heart” for the city) on the traditional Newcastle CBD, but successive state governments have ignored this in favour of an imbalanced emphasis on developing the Honeysuckle area in isolation from the rest of the city, with insufficient regard to the impact of this development on the traditional CBD. This approach has contributed significantly to the deterioration by neglect of the Newcastle rail corridor and the city’s rail services, and the lack of any genuine and sustained effort to provide north-south connectivity across the rail line, fuelling constant campaigns (since the late 1980s) by developers and other vested interests to cut the rail line.
However, we believe the rail line can make a valuable contribution to an integrated university CBD campus, and that a focus on establishing a city campus should go hand-in-hand with addressing these landscaping and connectivity issues, whilst retaining and improving use of this valuable public transport infrastructure. The report’s complete silence regarding the obvious benefits that the current rail line would bring to a future CBD campus is a major deficiency in its assessment of the options for the future of the rail line. Certainly, federal revitalisation funding should go to establishing this city campus in conjunction with the rail line, rather than wasting such an opportunity on removing valuable public transport infrastructure.
3. Opposition to the report’s proposal to remove the rail line and service between Wickham and Newcastle
This submission strongly opposes this aspect of the HDC report. The report’s support for cutting the city’s rail line is not based on any credible evidence or argument, and is more likely to contribute to the long-term demise of the city, as a result of increased motor vehicle (especially car) dependency. This approach is unacceptable and unsustainable in terms of both the local challenge of revitalising the Newcastle CBD, and in terms of the global challenges of climate change and peak oil, which are ignored in the HDC report.
The lack of any substantive argument in favour of removing the rail line is a key deficiency in the report. Most of the report’s treatment of the rail line relies on assertion rather than argument, an approach which is consistent with the strategy adopted by anti-rail advocates over the past two decades that if the claim that “the rail line must be cut” or “is in the wrong place” is repeated often enough, people will begin to believe it. Unfortunately, some decision-makers have become victims (or even willing accomplices) of this strategy.
Far from substantiating a case for removing the rail, the HDC report begins from the assumption that the rail line should be removed, and sets out to construct a case for achieving this premeditated outcome.
The “arguments” offered in the HDC report in support of removing the rail line are:
• It is a barrier to connectivity between the north and south of the CBD.
The connectivity argument is the most well-worn misrepresentation of Newcastle’s anti-rail lobby, and has been rightly rejected in every previous attempt to remove the rail line. The current anti-rail campaign simply rehashes these arguments. As with previous attempts to cut the rail line, the “connectivity” argument against the rail line fails to sufficiently acknowledge:
• the connectivity function of the current rail service for areas outside the CBD, in Newcastle, Maitland, Lake Macquarie, and the Central Coast,
• the current (and potentially greater) role of the rail line in providing internal east-west connectivity within the city. If genuinely promoted and improved (perhaps with the addition of tram-trains in conjunction with the heavy rail service), the rail line could make an even greater contribution to this aspect of the city’s public transport system. A shared tram-train system on the Newcastle rail line could also provide the basis for future expansion of such a system beyond the current reach of the city’s rail network.
• the ease with which north-south connectivity can be achieved without losing the rail line. As cities elsewhere have demonstrated (e.g., San Diego) connectivity across the rail line can be safely and cheaply achieved without removing it, and the impediments to doing this have been continually exaggerated and misrepresented by anti-rail advocates. This misrepresentation is repeated uncritically in the HDC report. Unfortunately, the past failure to landscape the existing rail corridor and install safe controlled level crossings at strategic points has fuelled repeated calls by vested interests to cut the rail line.
• It was originally designed and used for freight, not passengers.
This is factually incorrect. Robert McKillop and David Sheedy’s “Our Region, Our Railway – The Hunter and the Great Northern Railway, 1857 – 2007” (p.27) records that the primary original use of the Newcastle rail line was as a passenger service, with freight only a minor use, and that demand to extend the passenger service east from an original terminus west of Civic station was actually the reason for establishing Newcastle station (in its current location) in 1858.
• It is the superior cost-benefit option.
As discussed elsewhere, this conclusion in the report is based on a fatally flawed cost-benefit assessment in which the entire projected value of a university CBD campus ($536,921,777) is added to the benefit side of cutting the rail line, whilst denying any financial benefits (beyond fare revenue) for retaining the line. As discussed elsewhere, the report “justifies” this approach on the basis of a serious misrepresentation of the University of Newcastle’s position on the rail line. The report’s own figures indicate that a fair cost-benefit assessment would result in retention of the line being the far superior cost-benefit option.
Some of the other “reasons” given in the report for cutting the rail line are bizarre examples of circular logic. For example, previously rejected and discredited calls to cut the line are invoked as support for the current proposal (e.g., page 49 of the report refers in positive terms to the original Honeysuckle Master Plan, which proposed an entirely different, but equally discredited – and ultimately rejected - plan to remove the rail line east of Civic station). In another instance, the HDC report argues that a reason for cutting the rail line is that “The future city will not be serviced by a terminus at Newcastle” (p.49). This is essentially arguing that “the rail line should be cut, because the rail line will be cut”. This calibre of argument would be embarrassing in an undergraduate report, and should certainly not be presented as part of a serious bid from the city or the state for federal revitalisation funding.
The arguments presented in the HDC report for removing the Newcastle rail line will not be taken seriously by any funding body that is genuinely committed to improving public transport infrastructure or supporting sustainable urban revitalisation. As it currently stands, then, the HDC report is more likely to jeopardise – rather than support - Newcastle’s bid for any such funding.
Rather than proposing to waste public funding on removing a valuable piece of public transport infrastructure, all spheres of government should use the current opportunity to revitalise the city around a landscaped and revitalised rail line to Newcastle station, facilitating improved north-south and east-west connectivity within the city, whilst maintaining and improving connectivity between the city and surrounding areas in Newcastle, Maitland, Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast. Landscaping of the current rail line should consider the advantages of narrowing the current line to two lines, visually improving infrastructure (such as the streamlined stanchions on Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs line), digitalised signalling to reduce time spent at crossings, etc. This should be carried out in conjunction with public domain improvements (including pedestrianisation) in the areas surrounding the rail corridor. Such a strategy would achieve a high level of community consensus, would be achieved far more quickly and cheaply than the Wickham terminus concept, and would set Newcastle on a genuinely sustainable path to revitalisation, rather than the divisive, anachronistic, unsustainable, motor-vehicle dependent agenda proposed in this aspect of the HDC report.
4. Major problems with the report’s proposed “alternative” to the current rail service
Another key deficiency of the HDC report is the lack of any adequate description or costings for the bus system it proposes as a replacement for the rail line.
The HDC report claims that “the cost of implementation based on the existing and augmented network (capital and operational) is achievable and relatively inexpensive when compared to other options” (p.53), but provides no argument to substantiate this assertion nor any data to quantify the associated costs. The report envisions that:
A free ‘in CBD zone’ shuttle bus will await travellers for the CBD accessing stops along Hunter Street right through to East Newcastle and beaches. The shuttle buses should be modern, low emission, air conditioned buses with luggage carrying capability for suitcases or surf boards with internal message and information boards. (p.54)
This is the only “detail” the report gives about the replacement system for the rail line. No detail is provided about how such a system might operate (e.g., integration with the proposed new Wickham terminus, number of extra buses, etc). Moreover, no costings are provided for acquisition of any of the proposed “modern, low emission, air conditioned shuttle buses” themselves, or for any of the associated infrastructure that they may require (e.g., new stops at the proposed new Wickham terminus/interchange, new storage facilities, drivers, etc). These are certainly not trivial costs.
This deficiency in the HDC report has two key implications:
• It leaves a gaping hole in the report’s cost-benefit analysis, which is thereby even further stacked against the rail retention option. The cost of any replacement for the loss of the rail service is an obvious financial implication of any decision to remove that service, and the complete omission of any such costs from the cost benefit assessment raises major questions about the competence and integrity of the process, and is another example of the pre-emptive anti-rail bias that characterises the HDC report’s approach to the rail line.
• It provides no opportunity for the community to assess the viability of the report’s claims about the adequacy of what would replace the rail line. The report’s description of the replacement system is nothing more than a general (and highly contestable) set of statements and claims (p.53) about the suitability and capacity of buses to fulfil this task. Notably, spare capacity is invoked as an argument in favour of buses, whilst the same argument is used (very misleadingly, as discussed elsewhere in this submission) against the rail line. Of course, an approach based on proper urban transport planning principles would regard such spare capacity in any existing public transport services as providing a great opportunity to reduce car dependency and its associated problems, and would give priority to rail over road-based transport modes. Instead, the HDC report contains no proposals for improving the city’s public transport system or increasing public transport use, and would increase motor vehicle use in the city.
We also note in passing that the report appears to give scant consideration to the proposal by the Newcastle Transport for Business Development group for sharing the heavy rail line with a tram-train service (which was presented as complementary to, rather than as a replacement for, the current heavy rail service), and the consultants seem to have fundamentally misconstrued the nature of that proposal, treating it as the same as a previous, and completely different, light rail proposal. We leave this deficiency to be taken up by the proponents of the tram-train proposal, but we would support any proper assessment of the potential for sharing the current rail line with any rail-based service that would improve the city’s overall public transport system.
5. Need for an integrated transport system for Newcastle
This submission strongly supports the HDC report’s recommendation that the state government recognise “the need for an improved integrated public transport system in the city and connections to key regional facilities” (p. 3), but notes that this recommendation is starkly at odds with the position the report takes on the future of the Newcastle rail line, the removal of which would exacerbate problems with the integration of public transport in the city, and reduce valuable connections between the city and key regional facilities. Ecological sustainability and social equity should be foundation principles for any future integrated public transport system for the city, which should specifically aim to increase general public transport use, reduce dependence on private motor vehicles, ensure that transport-disadvantaged people have improved access to cheap public transport, and prioritise rail over road based transport modes. The approach to transport taken in the HDC report is contrary to these objectives, since it would reduce public transport use, increase car dependence, further disadvantage the most transport disadvantaged people (older people, disabled people, young people, and poorer people), and shift transport from rail to road. Any genuine integrated transport strategy would recognise the wider public policy benefits of maintaining and improving the current rail service to Newcastle station, and reject the narrow and backward approach to transport adopted in the HDC report.
6. Qualified support for other catalyst projects mentioned in the report
Justice Precinct: This submission supports the investment of public funds in renewing and expanding a city justice precinct as a matter of priority, but urges further discussion about its most appropriate location. The argument in favour of the report’s proposal to locate this precinct in the Civic area (i.e., shifting it from its current Newcastle East location) is not based on evidence, and is not supported by the local legal community. The current location of the justice precinct is important in supporting current and future commercial activity in the East End (as noted in the GPT proposal), and relocating the precinct raises major issues about the future of the buildings and public land in the present justice precinct, a number of which have major heritage significance. The report’s key argument for relocating the justice precinct to the Civic area is that this would ensure better integration with a university CBD campus. However, the distance between the Civic precinct and the current justice precinct is roughly equal to (though slightly less than) the distance between the Civic precinct and the location of the proposed new rail terminus at Wickham, which the HDC has argued would be within ready walking distance for future students of a city campus. It is clearly inconsistent to argue that a walk between a new Wickham rail terminus to a new CBD campus in the Civic area would be consistent with the concept of an integrated city campus, whilst a shorter walk between the current justice precinct and the new city campus would not be. Of course, a rail service (perhaps bolstered by tram-trains) between Civic and Newcastle station would significantly enhance the east-west connectivity of a future city campus.
The HDC report is also silent on GPT’s support for retaining the current East End location of the justice precinct, which is inconsistent with the report’s emphasis on GPT’s view regarding the future of the rail line. Again, it is difficult to escape the constant impression that any argument that might possibly support cutting the rail line – however insubstantial, inconsistent and illogical – has been dragged in in an attempt to bolster the case for this preconceived outcome, and that this approach has contaminated the entire report.
Retail development: We support the expansion of appropriate retail development in the city. Any such development should respect the nature, heritage and scale of Newcastle’s location and built form, and contribute to the sustainable revitalisation of the city. Major retail developments should show be expected to demonstrate innovation and superior urban design, and avoid replication of major suburban shopping malls (including their level of car dependency), which would be inappropriate for the Newcastle CBD.
This submission supports the proposed GPT’s proposed retail development in principle, but strongly opposes its ultimatum regarding the removal of the rail line. We note that even the HDC cost benefit analysis (which is heavily biased against rail retention) demonstrates that the GPT development would not provide sufficient benefits to justify removing the rail line between Wickham and Newcastle. We also note that another condition of the GPT development related to its support for retaining the current justice precinct in its present East End location does not appear to be considered in the HDC’s proposal to relocate the justice precinct. This aspect of the HDC report clearly needs further consideration.
Cycling: This submission strongly endorses the report’s stated support for improved cycling facilities in future city developments, and welcomes this change in attitude of the Hunter Development Corporation from that of its predecessor, the Honeysuckle Development Corporation. The current lack of a segregated commuter cycleway through the Honeysuckle area was one of the major failures of the Honeysuckle Development Corporation, which ignored the requirement in Newcastle Council’s original Honeysuckle Development Control Plan (removed after the project was brought under direct state government planning control) for the provision of a dedicated cycleway in conjunction with the construction of Wharf Rd during the early phase of the Honeysuckle project. This would have achieved more effective north-south cycling connectivity, especially for commuter cyclists, and would have prevented the “bicycle car-door death lanes” currently painted on the sides of the current Wharf Rd surface.
This previous failure to adequately provide for cycling should not now be used by the successor of the Honeysuckle Development Corporation as an excuse to replace the rail line for the so-called “benefit” of cyclists (as the current report proposes) since there is still ample capacity to install a segregated cycleway through the Honeysuckle area if the Hunter Development Corporation had any genuine will to do so. Newcastle’s peak cycling body (Newcastle Cycleways Movement) opposes removal of the rail line. In fact, no cycling group of which we are aware supports the removal of the rail line for this purpose, since the current rail service to Newcastle station benefits cyclists (because trains accommodate bicycles much better than buses), and since cyclists generally understand the real link between sustainability and transport, and the key role that rail services play in this. Newcastle Council has recently identified cycling as a key strategic goal for the current council term, and is establishing a cycling committee to work on this. Newcastle’s topography is generally well suited to becoming a “cycling city”, and the success of cycleways developed over the last two decades (including the Throsby Creek/Honesuckle/Foreshore shared pedestrian cycleway along the Throsby Creek/Harbour waterfront) demonstrates the untapped potential of cycling in the city for both recreational and commuter purposes. The further development of infrastructure that would facilitate cycling to, from and within the city (complementary to, rather than as a replacement for, other sustainable transport infrastructure) would be a worthy recipient of federal infrastructure and revitalisation funding, and the Hunter Development Corporation and the state government (in conjunction with Newcastle City Council) should urgently undertake the planning work necessary to position the city to take advantage of the often brief lead time available for applications to federal government funding programs that support such development. Past experience (e.g., with the Throsby Creek cycleway, funded by the federal government in the 90s) shows that “off-the-shelf” readiness for such programs is often necessary to seize these funding opportunities.
Cruiser and Conference Centre: We generally support the HDC report’s proposal for cruiser facilities, and for a CBD conference centre capable of hosting major conferences. Opportunities to integrate such developments with other catalyst projects (e.g., the conference centre with the university CBD campus, should obviously be explored. We also note that the identified location for the cruiser terminal (Queens Wharf) provides the opportunity for valuable synergies with the rail line to Newcastle station.
7. Questions and concerns about the probity of the report’s objectives, process and methodology
As a land development corporation charged with the task of developing state-owned land, the HDC has an inherent conflict-of-interest in this (as with any other planning) matter. The board of the Hunter Development Corporation comprises prominent and long term anti-rail advocates. For these reasons, the Hunter Development Corporation was not the appropriate agency for such a major planning task involving complex transport and development issues. The task should have been given to the NSW Department of Planning and/or the Department of Transport, with the process allowing for input by the HDC as an interested stakeholder, along with other vested and public interest stakeholders. The inappropriateness of this choice is clearly evident in both the report’s lack of professional objectivity, and in the qualitative deficiencies in its data and methodologies.
The inherent inappropriateness of the choice of the HDC as the lead agency for preparing this report was reflected in – and exacerbated by - a number of other relevant factors:
• The appointment of Steffen Lehmann to the Urban Design Advisory Panel. Since arriving in Newcastle, Steffen Lehmann has been a strong and prominent local advocate of cutting the Newcastle rail line. His views on sustainability (especially those related to rail transport) are not shared by the vast majority of professionals working in the field of sustainable urban transport, and his appointment to the key Urban Design Advisory Panel for this report – without any attempt to balance such an appointment with more credible expertise in issues of transport and sustainability - indicates either a significant lack of judgement by the HDC or a deliberate attempt to engineer a structure designed to produce a preconceived outcome consistent with Steffen Lehmann’s views on the rail line.
• The appointment of Parsons Brinckerhoff as consultants. The General Manager NSW and ACT of Parsons Brinckerhoff is Glenn Thornton, who, in his former capacity as General Manager of the Hunter Business Chamber, was a strong public advocate for cutting the Newcastle rail line. Mr Thornton was also a member of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group (along with two current Hunter Development Corporation Directors, John Tate and Gary Kennedy). In their consultancy work for the current HDC report, Mr Thornton’s company, Parsons Brinckerhoff, has drawn heavily on data from the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group report. The reports of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group –including much of the data used by Parsons Brinckerhoff in the current HDC report – were comprehensively discredited in an independent review conducted by Professor Graham Currie (Chair of Public Transport, Institute of Transport Studies, at Monash University) that was commissioned by Newcastle City Council and Hunter Councils in 2005. The uncritical re-use of discredited data raises serious questions about both the credibility of the report itself, and about the probity of the process.
In response to criticism of the appointment of consultants with such a clear local link to established anti-rail advocacy, and consequent community concerns about the integrity of the process, the HDC indicated that it had conducted a probity audit, and that this had accepted Parsons Brinckerhoff’s consultancy on the grounds that Mr Thornton would be playing no direct role in the conduct of the research. Setting aside the naivety of such an approach (which ignores the well-documented dynamics of self-censorship that operate among employees in such circumstances), the use by Mr Thornton’s firm of discredited data that Mr Thornton had been involved in collecting (as a member of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group) raises obvious probity issues that go to the heart of both the credibility of the report’s contents and recommendations, and the integrity of the process itself.
We call on the Minister to ensure that these matters are independently and transparently reviewed by relevant professionals, and that any future public policy processes that directly affect the general community provide for a more balanced representation of community interests.
8. Questions about key claims in the report
8.1. False and misleading claims regarding the University of Newcastle’s position on the rail line, and consequent fatal corruption of the Cost Benefit assessment
As discussed above, the report (and its supporting documentation) falsely claims that the development of a city CBD campus is “contingent on removing the rail line”. This appears to be based on assertions in the report that “UON sees the termination of the train line as a key success factor” (p.37), and in section 2.4.2, p.5 of the Urbis Cost-Benefit assessment report, under the heading “Catalyst Projects that are Contingent on Removal of the Rail Line”, which states:
The University of Newcastle perceives the removal of the rail line to be a key success factor for development of a CBD campus. To this end, if the rail line is not removed, this may jeopardise the development of the CBD campus going ahead. Thus the economic benefits of the CBD campus development are also only considered realisable if the rail is removed. These benefits are therefore incorporated into the CBA analysis of the preferred rail option.
The report itself acknowledges that including the full estimated value of a university city campus ($536,921,777) as a benefit unique to cutting the rail line is crucial to the financial case for cutting the rail line, since any other cost-benefit calculation for cutting the rail results in a benefit/cost ratio that makes cutting the line not “a positive investment of community funds” in terms of quantifiable benefits for NSW (Urbis Cost Benefit Assessment, pp.59-60).
Thus, the misrepresentation of the university city campus as “contingent on removal of the rail line”, and the consequent flow-on of this misrepresentation to the cost-benefit calculation is a fatal flaw for the HDC’s case for cutting the rail line. When corrected for this mistake, retaining the rail line emerges as the clearly superior cost-benefit option.
Subsequent to the release of the report, and in the face of public pressure to corroborate the claims in the report, the HDC has effectively conceded that the university did not make the statements attributed to them in the report, and has retreated from its original, more emphatic claim about the extent to which the development of a university campus depends on removing the rail line. However, it has not yet corrected the cost-benefit assessment, which is based on its original (and now disproven) assertion that led to the entire estimated net present value of the city campus project ($536,921,777) being added as a benefit of the cut the rail option.
Given how fundamental the university campus project is to the cost-benefit case presented in the HDC report for cutting the rail line, the misleading and deceptive statements attributed to the university (which turn out to be merely the HDC’s mistaken interpretation of the university’s position) demand further investigation and public correction. The report’s attempt to use the university campus project to substantiate its cost-benefit argument for cutting the rail line is perhaps the most blatant, transparent and reprehensible of the many failings of this deeply flawed and biased report. At the very least, the cost-benefit assessment should be independently reviewed and recalculated to fairly reflect the real benefits that would accrue to the development of a university campus from both of the rail options analysed by Urbis, since it is clear that retaining the line would provide some substantial and unique benefits for the city campus project, and that adding the full estimated value of the city campus project as a benefit unique to the cut the line option is totally unjustified. There is no doubt that a fairly conducted cost-benefit assessment would significantly favour retaining the line, and that the HDC report’s contention that cutting the line is “the superior choice” in cost-benefit terms (p.6) is false.
8.2. Misleading references to the Newcastle City Centre Plan
The report’s cover letter asserts that the Newcastle City Centre Plan “forms the basis of this report”. The report itself states that it supports the Newcastle City Centre Plan (developed by Newcastle City Council and the NSW Government), that its approach is “consistent with the vision set out in Newcastle’s City Centre Plan” (p.9), and that “the heavy rail line is an obstacle to achieving the vision of the City Centre Plan” (p.16). This creates the highly misleading impression that the City Centre Plan supports cutting the Newcastle rail line. In fact, the City Centre Plan is based on retaining the Newcastle rail line. One of its recommendations is to “work with the State Government to provide additional pedestrian/vehicular crossings across the rail corridor”. In this sense, it is the HDC recommendations that are an obstacle to achieving the vision of the Newcastle City Centre Plan, since that plan envisioned the retention of the rail line. The HDC report significantly misrepresents the Newcastle City Centre Plan, which offers no support for the HDC report’s recommendation to cut the rail line.
8.3 Claims regarding so-called “low patronage” of the Newcastle rail line:
The report’s presentation of patronage figures (e.g., pp.50-51) is heavily distorted against the rail line. Anyone who is familiar with rail operations would be aware that providing a passengers / seat capacity ratio is only meaningful in the context of an entire rail journey, and is highly misleading if applied to particular segments of such journeys, since a train is assembled with sufficient carriages to provide enough seating for its maximum passenger load during its entire journey. Obviously, carriages could be shed at various stages in a journey to “improve” the passenger/seat ratio, which would give the statistical appearance of greater “efficiency” (without changing actual passenger numbers), but such a practice would introduce other much more significant operational inefficiencies. The cost of keeping the extra carriages on the train is negligible. It is therefore meaningless, and highly misleading, to assess patronage of Newcastle and Civic stations on the basis of passenger / seat capacity ratios, such as those cited in the HDC report. Emotive references to “empty” trains by anti-rail advocates (repeated on p.51 of the HDC report) compound and exploit this misrepresentation.
The fact is that Newcastle and Civic stations are among the busiest stations on the Newcastle rail network, and that new carriages have recently been added to the Newcastle/Maitland rail service to cater for increased patronage. This is in the face of a lack of significant resources to encourage increased rail patronage (e.g., promoting rail services, introducing more commuter-friendly ticketing systems, developing viable park-and-ride systems at railway stations, etc). One of the keys to Newcastle’s transition to a modern, twenty-first century city is to focus development around a sustainable public transport future, which means focussing on retaining and improving rail infrastructure and services, and the revitalisation of the Newcastle CBD offers an exciting opportunity to apply the principles of Transit Oriented Development to promote both revitalisation and increased rail patronage. The approach taken to the city’s transport needs in the HDC report is mired in ways of thinking that belong to now outmoded and ecologically unsustainable twentieth century approaches to transport and development, based on private motor vehicle use. Newcastle’s future does not lie in attempting to emulate the unsustainable, car-dependent growth of private suburban shopping mall complexes. Its future lies in its liveability and cultural vitality, both of which will be far better achieved by retaining and improving the rail line and rail services than by facilitating even greater dependence on private motor vehicles, as the HDC report advocates.
8.4. Flawed data
The Parsons Brinckerhoff report (Newcastle CBD Integrated Transport: Identification of Preferred Scheme, March 2009) relies heavily on reports and data collected by the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group.
These reports and much of their data were comprehensively discredited in an independent review conducted by Professor Graham Currie, Chair of Public Transport at the Institute of Transport Studies at Monash University, commissioned by Newcastle City Council and Hunter Councils in 2005. The Parsons Brinckerhoff report references the Currie report (in its Appendix B, though not in the body of the report), but proceeds to use the discredited Lower Hunter Transport Working Group reports and their data in apparent disregard of the serious deficiencies observed by Professor Currie.
Furthermore, the Parsons Brinckerhoff report misleadingly inflates rail travel times between Wickham and Newcastle stations by 50% (from 4 minutes to 6 minutes) by adding a 2 minute “dwell time” to the times indicated on rail timetables for this trip. Dwell times are already built in to the times indicated in Cityrail’s timetables, which indicate a 4 minute trip for a passenger boarding at Wickham and alighting at Newcastle. Adding this extra time (effectively a double-counting) gives the false impression that rail trips take longer than cars or buses. On the other hand, bus times have been manipulated to create the impression that these are faster than they are in reality, by using an artificial “average” inbound journey time (which is well below what Newcastle Buses own timetables show that most commuters would actually experience in a normal inbound daytime bus journey through the city), and by disregarding longer outbound times for buses, which are significantly longer than inbound bus trips for the city section of a journey due to the time required for issuing tickets to boarding outbound passengers (again, the relevant bus timetables show this).
The apparent inability of the consultants and the HDC to read and understand rail and bus timetables reflects poorly on their own understanding of public transport operations (both rail and bus), and raises serious questions about the quality of other data used to skew results in favour of a preconceived anti-rail outcome. Professor Currie observed this tendency in the work of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group, and the HDC reports exhibit an alarmingly similar approach. The general conclusions reached by Professor Currie in his assessment of the work of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group are just as applicable in the case of the HDC reports:
The term ‘sham’ has been used to describe the analysis which has been used to assist the NSW State Government make its decision to close the Newcastle Branch line. This is a colourful description of events which implies premeditation. This reviewer is unable to comment on such issues however it is clear that an assessment of the facts presented suggests that rail closure was favoured in the analysis and that wider options were not objectively considered. In addition there are significant errors, misrepresentations and omissions in the technical work. It is at least highly suspicious that in almost every case these act to make rail closure seem more attractive and retaining the line less attractive.
The State Government has every right to review the future of expensive rail services and to test and evaluate options for improved performance. This is how the general public can be assured of value for money in the taxes they pay for the services they demand. However this reviewer is surprised at the minimalist level of analysis displayed in the work presented. Each of the reports reviewed admitted to presenting preliminary and outline assessments but these were nevertheless used to make substantive decisions involving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.
The passenger rail services in the Hunter region are a high quality feature of the regions public transport system. Many cities of substantially greater size than Newcastle lack rail services of this scale and would covet the opportunity for such a substantive resource as a means for providing sustainable transport into the future. Newcastle is clearly gifted in the physical and natural resources it possesses. It is unfortunate that its sustainable transport system is to be discarded so easily based what can be factually identified as biased, flawed and misrepresented advice.
[Professor Graham Currie, Decision to Close the Newcastle Branch Rail Line - Independent Review of Transport Reports, Final Report, November 2005, p.32].
8.5 False claims regarding the permissibility of installing level crossings
The report repeats misleading claims continually advanced by anti-rail advocates that NSW policy prevents the installation of new level crossings across the rail line. This claim is not referenced in the report, but our understanding is that there is no such policy, and that new level crossings can be installed provided the circumstances warrant it, as Newcastle’s circumstances certainly would. Controlled pedestrian level crossings in urban settings are regarded as very safe, and present a much lower level of risk than would the two roads (Honeysuckle/Foreshore Drive and Hunter St) that would continue to run parallel with the rail corridor (and whose risk would increase under the HDC’s preferred option, as a result of increased road traffic resulting from the extra buses and cars that would replace the rail service). Continued resistance to developing this north-south connectivity across the line has fuelled repeated campaigning by the local development lobby for the rail line to be cut to provide such connectivity. The state government should act urgently and decisively to install safe, controlled pedestrian crossing across the current rail line, in conjunction with landscaping of the rail corridor.
8.6 Greenwash: the report’s misrepresentation and misuse of the terms “sustainability” and “green corridor”
Newcastle Greens are particularly interested in the concept of sustainability, since ecological sustainability is one of the core principles of The Greens. We note, however, that the word is used constantly but inconsistently throughout the HDC report without any apparent understanding of its generally recognised meaning. The report’s use of this term would leave even the most attentive reader wondering what concept or definition of sustainability informs the report’s approach, since its explicit support for facilitating increased private motor vehicle use (e.g., p.50) is entirely contrary to any accepted understanding of sustainability.
The most widely accepted definition of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) is that provided in the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future) as being “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Despite its repeated references to “sustainability”, the HDC report has very little to say about anything that might fit within such a definition, and it is difficult to escape the impression that the term is employed primarily for “greenwash” purposes, to create the appearance of environmental responsibility without any genuine substance or commitment.
The approach taken to transport in the HDC report is the very antithesis of sustainability. Cutting the Newcastle rail line would (as the report itself acknowledges) facilitate road-based transport and increase reliance on private motor vehicles at the expense of rail (a more sustainable form of urban mass transport), with all the ensuing damaging environmental impacts, including increased greenhouse gas emissions, reduction in local air quality, and increased consumption of valuable (mostly non-renewable) resources. The report’s support for cutting the Newcastle rail line is contrary to accepted modern approaches to ecologically sustainable urban transport, which place rail at the top of the sustainable mass-transit hierarchy. We particularly note here the public opposition to the proposal by the Sydney-based Eco-transit group, an organisation that prioritises ecological sustainability in their approach to urban transport development. In fact, we are not aware of any established environmental organisation, or any person with recognised expertise in sustainable urban transport, who supports (or would support) the proposal to cut the Newcastle rail line, and we totally reject claims in the report (and by prominent anti-rail advocates) that imply that cutting the Newcastle rail line is consistent with any meaningful understanding of “sustainability”. Professor Graham Currie’s review of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group’s recommendation to cut the Newcastle rail line is equally relevant to the HDC’s proposal:
There is a substantive gap between the desires in the Metropolitan strategy for growth associated with quality public transport and the poor sustainability which will result if rail services are closed and car dependency encouraged. [Currie report, p.32]
The fact that the HDC chose to involve prominent anti-rail advocates (such as Steffen Lehmann) rather than advisors with recognised academic expertise in sustainable urban transport is a telling indication of how little regard the HDC actually had for genuine sustainability considerations in preparing this report.
The report’s use of the term “green corridor” in reference to the land from which the rail line is proposed to be removed must be understood in a similar vein, and is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who understands what the term actually means. “Green corridors” are provided for ecological purposes (primarily for biodiversity), to ensure the retention of corridors of natural habitat that allow the natural movement and interchange of indigenous species that make up local ecosystems. The highly artificial, manicured environment depicted in the drawings of the so-called “green corridor” in the HDC report have nothing to do with real green corridors. If the term has been used for any purpose other than superficial spin to create an image of environmental concern (i.e., more greenwash), it would appear to derive from the colour of the grass that would be grown in patches along the vacated rail corridor, or to refer to the colour of the paving paint that would coat the many hard-stand areas depicted in the drawings. Whatever the intention, there is certainly nothing “green” (in any significant environmental sense) about the proposed disused rail corridor, which would become a memorial to the death of a rail line, which is the greenest mode of mass transit infrastructure currently available in modern cities, and into which forward-looking cities elsewhere around the world are investing considerable resources. In sustainability terms, Newcastle will become the laughing stock of the local, national and international environmental community if it proceeds to remove its rail line at this point in the city’s history, as the HDC report recommends.
8.7 False claims regarding the history of the rail line
In support of its case for cutting the rail line and as the primary “evidence” for its reiterated assertion that the rail line is in the “wrong place”, the HDC report repeats the false assertion that the Newcastle rail line was originally established as a freight rail service (e.g., “In fact originally the line was not planned for passengers but for freight movement.” (p.49), and the Parsons Brinckerhoff report’s claim that “In 1857, the City of Newcastle inherited an at grade rail service to the northern edge of its historical centre as an offshoot to the freight rail service to its working port”, Parsons Brinckerhoff report, p.1).
In fact, Robert McKillop and David Sheedy’s “Our Region, Our Railway – The Hunter and the Great Northern Railway, 1857 – 2007” (p.27) records that the primary original use of the Newcastle rail line was as a passenger service, with freight only a minor and secondary use, and that demand to extend the passenger service east from an original terminus west of Civic station was actually the reason for establishing Newcastle station (in its current location) in 1858. The repeated inclusion of this error in the HDC documents is further evidence of the poor research and data-checking that characterises the report, and the over-readiness of the report’s authors (and the HDC generally) to embrace any argument, however flimsy or erroneous, that supports the case for cutting the rail line.
8.8 Naive (or insincere) claims about continued public ownership of the disused rail corridor
The report states that a disused rail corridor would remain in public ownership. This proposition is either naive or insincere. In the same way as continued neglect of the rail corridor has provided the basis for repeated attempts by vested interests (particularly the development sector) to cut the Newcastle rail line over the past two decades, cutting the rail line would fuel future developer-initiated campaigns to use the disused corridor for private sector built development. Past experience demonstrates that, over time, the well resourced and politically influential development lobby will apply significant pressure for parts of the corridor to be sold or leased for private development, however sincere the current stated intention for the rail corridor to remain in public hands. It is therefore almost inevitable that removal of the rail line will ultimately culminate in the substantial transfer of the corridor to the private sector.
8.9 Misrepresentation regarding the participation of certain organisations in developing the report
The cover letter accompanying the report states that the project had “members” or “representatives” of various organisations on its Project Control Group and its Urban Design Reference Panel. In at least two instances, this claim is misleading or incorrect:
• The letter claims that the Project Control Group had “members” from Newcastle City Council. The staff members of Newcastle City Council who attended PCG meetings (the General Manager, Lindy Hyam, and the Director of Planning, Brent Knowles) were not appointed to that position by the elected council and were therefore attending and participating in their individual capacities, and were not appointed by any resolution of the elected council, which has the sole responsible for such policy matters.
• The letter claims that the Urban Design Reference Panel had “representatives” from the University of Newcastle. In fact, an employee of the University of Newcastle, Steffan Lehman, was appointed by the HDC (not by the University) to the Urban Design Reference Panel, and – according to the University Vice Chancellor - was representing his personal views, and not those of the university. He was certainly not a “representative” of the University of Newcastle, as the letter claims.
We can provide documentary evidence to confirm these statements. We have not investigated any of the HDC’s claims about the participation of other organisations mentioned in the cover letter and cannot therefore comment on their veracity, but – since the two claims we have investigated are either misleading or false – other similar claims should not be taken at face-value.
9. In conclusion
We believe that the Hunter Development Corporation’s City Centre Renewal Report identifies a number of catalyst projects that could provide the basis for revitalising the Newcastle CBC. Foremost among these projects is the development of a university city campus, which this submission strongly supports. However, the report’s focus on cutting the Newcastle rail line demonstrates an intention to try to justify a predetermined conclusion in favour of removing the rail line. In the course of pursuing this objective, the report is recklessly and embarrassingly deficient in its approach to the impact this would have on the city’s future environment and transport needs, using biased and flawed data; misrepresenting key organisations, previous plans and the history of the rail line; inflating the alleged advantages of cutting the rail line whilst suppressing or ignoring significant benefits of retaining it; and engaging in “greenwash” to give the appearance of environmental responsibility whilst making recommendations that – if implemented – would actually damage the environment, exacerbate transport disadvantage and increase the city’s current parking and traffic problems.
We strongly believe that no decision should be made to cut the Newcastle rail line before conducting an independent and expert review of the report’s process, methodology, data and conclusions in relation to its preferred rail option. In the meantime, we urge the immediate adoption of a more credible approach that is capable of uniting the Hunter community in the effort required to secure much needed federal urban revitalisation funding for Newcastle that is focussed on the development of a university city campus that takes advantage of its proximity to a rail line into the CBD that would be the envy of other cities.