EDITORIAL: State government unveils light rail and university expansion plans

HIGH up above the city, at the top of the University of Newcastle’s futuristic NeW Space building, NSW Premier Mike Baird and his transport minister, Andrew Constance, are glowing withgoodwill about the benefits they say will flow from their Revitalising Newcastle program.

Meanwhile, in the shade of nearby Civic Park, a crowd of about 40 people has gatheredto hear Save Our Rail founder Joan Dawson and other speaks determined to keepup the fight. To them, the Wickham transport interchange, the light rail line on Hunter Street and the promise of new university buildings at Honeysuckle are nothing more than a property grab by the government’s developer mates, paid for with taxpayer dollars. Even at this late stage of the debate, their mantra remains: “Bring back the track”. To be fair to Save Our Rail, they are not the only ones still questioningthe decision to opt for a hybrid light rail that runson the corridor between Wickham and Worth Place before moving out onto Hunter Street and Scott Street. Indeed, the Newcastle Herald has voiced suchconcerns. And the government has only invited criticism by refusing to release key documents related to the Newcastle light rail:especially the business case, which would surely quieten the critics if it turned out to be as strong as the government implies that it is.

As things stand, the community is compelled to take the government on trust.Andtrust is in short supply when it comes to the public and politicians. But there is nothing in it for the government to come here and destroy the place. Having truncated the old heavy rail line, it now needs to make this venture work. Keolis-Downer, which will run the bus, ferry and light rail services, has a contract in which itsincentives are based around patronage. The more passengers it has, the more it will be paid. This alone should be incentive enough to design a public transport system that people want to use.

In the meantime, therewill be delays while the light rail tracks are installed. And the protests will continue, although Keolis-Downer says the usual response in cities that have received light rail is for the protests to be replaced by calls for track extensions. For the time being, though, Monday’sannouncements mark a major milestone on the road to the city’s reinvention. There will be no turning back, as Newcastle embraces its destiny, whatever that may be.

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