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Government seeks power to rip up rail

NO CONSPIRACY: Transport Minister Andrew Constance would have the power to rip up rail lines across the Hunter if new legislation passes.THE state government willseekto avoid a repeat of the court case that delayed the removal of the Newcastle heavy railby giving Transport Minister Andrew Constance the power to tear up lineson land designated for major infrastructure projects.
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The government has tabledlegislation that would, if passed, give Mr Constance the authority to remove rail lines subject to “state significant” infrastructure projects, like the Sydney Metro, or Newcastle Light Rail projects.

The scope of the legislation would coveran area that stretchesacross the Hunterand all the way to Kiama in the state’s south.

The existing Transport Administration Act states the government has to seek the Parliament’s authorityto close a rail line, and states that a line isclosed if the land concerned “is sold or otherwise disposed of or the railway tracks and other works concerned are removed”.

The government says that section of the act is supposed to stop rail links being “lost at the whim of a rail infrastructure owner”, but, introducing the amendment in the upper house on Wednesday, Roads MinisterDuncan Gay said the actwould “address the uncertainty around the re-use of railway lines within the greater metropolitan region where they are required for the purposes of a project declared to be state significant infrastructure”.

That “uncertainty”was used by Save Our Rail in its legal case to try to prevent the removal of the line, and the group’s vice-president Kim Cross said the amendment would contribute to a“rapacious development push and privatisation of public land” across the state.

NSW Greens Transport Spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said the government was “trying to remove the ability of parliament to scrutinise the shutting down of rail lines”.

“We saw last year in Newcastle, after a long fight, the government couldn’t wait to rip up the Newcastle rail line despite the lack of a clear transport plan for its replacement, and this bill would simply make it much easier for them to do things like that,” she said.

“Rail infrastructure and rail corridors are protected under the current legislation because we know that these are invaluable and precious assets, and they must not be touched without the full authorisation of the elected parliament.

“The Upper House numbers were very tight last year on the Newcastle rail closure bill, so the government will face a tough fight this time around. The Greens will be working hard to defeat it.”

But Mr Constance said there was “no conspiracy theory” behind the amendment.

“The proposed changes are all about delivering better transport infrastructure through projects such as the Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail, the Sydney Metro and Western Sydney Light Rail, meaning more transport services for customers, not less,” he said.

“The reforms will allow the reuse of urban rail infrastructure, through the delivery of major transport projects that will provide benefits to communities in years to come.

“Rail lines would only be repurposed, upgraded or utilised for a new project if they’re deemed State Significant and have gone through the normal planning approval processes.”

The government eventually did pass an act permitting the closure late last year, andSave Our Rail’sargument was lost whenthe court of appeal found removingthe section of track from Wickham to Newcastle stations did not amount to the closure of a railway line.

Mr Gay said the government had hoped the issue “may have been clarified” by the court case but “that has not happened” because the judgement did not set a wider principle beyond the Newcastle case.

“The litigation has highlighted that determining what actions a rail infrastructure owner may take without requiring authority of an Act of Parliament may involve a difficult matter of degree in the particular circumstances of each case,” he said.

He said the “ongoing lack of certainty” was“causing delay and additional cost, and casts a shadow over many of the State’s most important transport and infrastructure projects”.

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