BOARDING Newcastle’s new light rail system, Pia Clarke “felt like I was in Europe”.
Despite carrying a hat and towel for the beach at the free community open day on Sunday, Ms Clark said the first of what would become a daily trip on the network reminded her of living in London and easy-to-navigate public transport networks in cities including Strasbourg.
“It will be perfect,” said Ms Clark, who lives at Hamilton East and will walk to catch the light rail every day from Newcastle Interchange to work in the East End. Services officially start at 5.05am on Monday.
“I love it, I think it’s the best thing ever,” she said.
“Anything that’s new in this town is a bit whoa, but once it’s here you think it’s fantastic.”
Her partner Sam Ryan said sometimes Newcastle was “far too parochial for its own good” and that the light rail was a “major coup”.
“My grandfather used to say ‘My darling boy, this town will be all it can be one day. I will be dead and my son will be probably gone, but you my darling boy, will probably see it. You’ll be an old man but you will see this town suddenly rise up’.
“And that’s what happening now. It’s wonderful.”
Passengers of all ages queued at Newcastle Interchange well ahead of the first service, which was scheduled to leave at 11am to make the trip through Honeysuckle, Civic, Crown Street and Queens Wharf to Newcastle Beach station.
For Don and Colleen Prider, the day had been a long time coming.
“I campaigned hard [for light rail] eight years ago,” Mrs Prider said.
The couple, in their 80s, relocated from Balmain to Newcastle Beach a decade ago.
“We always used to catch the train to Sydney – I think we’ve taken the car to Sydney six times in 10 years – but would often be the only people getting off at Newcastle,” Mr Prider said.
“What a terrible waste of land and people and electricity. It looks great now.”
Mrs Prider said any new project was likely to attract negativity.
“One woman said to me ‘It’s a tram to nowhere’ and ‘Where is the parking?’ and I said to her ‘Move into the 21st century. A lot of young people don’t use cars nowadays’,” she said.
“This is a great success. The initial part is always the most expensive, but now there is opportunity to extend.”
Andrew Irvine of Maryland brought his folding bicycle aboard and his son Hayden, 10, brought his scooter.
“It only starts once and when Hayden grows up and looks at the photographs he has taken he’ll be able to remember this day,” Mr Irvine said.
“He’s also going to show the photos to his mate who recently moved to Adelaide.”
Mr Irvine said he was “absolutely in favour” of light rail but it was “really disappointing” the system hadn’t been built on the former corridor and had been associated with the closure or relocation of businesses including Frontline Hobbies, which has moved to Broadmeadow.
“There are new developments where light rail don’t need tracks anymore – for the expansion that may be the way to go.”
The interchange queue stretched more than 100 metres for the first two hours and was the longest line at all six stations for much of the day.
Town crier Stephen Clarke and Joyce Foster, 79, with her large Australian flag, stayed all day welcoming passengers.
Many on the first few services from Newcastle Beach station who intended to alight at the interchange decided to stay on the tram after seeing the length of the queue they would need to join to make the return journey.
Officials soon started telling passengers in the crowded carriages – which had standing room only for the first three hours – they must alight once they reached the other end.
While this drew complaints from some families with young children and prams who said they should have been forewarned, it didn’t seem to dampen the overall mood.
Passenger conversations meandered from the excitement of being part of history to whether it was too early to give a verdict on the project, where the network should be extended, the decision to lay tracks on only part of the former corridor and whether the size of the open day crowds would ever be replicated with weekday commuters or special events.
The last beach-bound train departed the interchange at 4.02pm, but a backlog at Newcastle Beach station meant interchange-bound services continued beyond 4.15pm.
Margaret Laverick used to catch the city’s former trams from Broadmeadow to Newcastle as a child in the 1940s.
“They were rattly old things,” she said. “I just wanted to experience it today.
“I’ve had to put up with the construction at the front of my building on Scott Street so I thought I’d see how it all turned out – I wanted to see how smooth they are.
“They’re quieter than what I thought they would be going past.
“Onboard it seems very good so far, I’m quite impressed.
“The seats are quite firm. It’s running on time, they’ve done well there. With all the hiccups they must have had with renewing sewage pipes they’ve done quite well.”
Ms Laverick said she was originally not a fan of the project – mostly because of the inconvenience of works outside her building – and still believed the system could have been built on the former corridor, which she said would have saved money.
“It’s early days,” she said.
“I don’t think this [patronage] is going to be the norm. It will be interesting to see how many people catch it. I’m still making up my mind about it – time will tell.”
Jan and Warwick Williams were also wary of jumping the gun.
“It looks good from the outside and is appointed reasonably well,” Mrs Williams said.
“But we can’t rush in. It’s far too early to say it’s a success – the government has said that as a political comment.
“The city isn’t buzzing and it will never go back to what it was because the shopping centres are now in the suburbs.”
Mrs Williams said she would liked to have seen the trams extended along Hunter Street to Newcastle West.
Ken Rutledge, 90, arrived in Newcastle in 1952 as a RAAF radar technician and was measured in his praise, too.
“They pulled the old [train] line out because of congestion [between the city and the foreshore],” said Mr Rutledge, who was accompanied by his daughter Dale.
“Now, they have put them back.”
Mr Rutledge said he didn’t regularly travel from his Waratah home into the city, but the light rail would make navigating the CBD more straight forward.
"It’s a lot easier to get around now with parking the way it is,” Dale Rutledge said.
Mr Rutledge said while inner city residents would find the tram convenient, accessing it could be challenging from outer suburbs.
“You've [still] got to get people into Newcastle first.”
Merewether’s Neil Sansom said he was confident the light rail would attract regular passengers, but it was “madness” it still cut Stewart Avenue.
Daryl Fletcher said his son had been “dying to ride this thing,” and the trip was a “birthday present”.
He said construction had been disruptive for businesses, but now the line was open the future looked bright.
“It helps improve the look of Newcastle, the train line was awful.”
Few passengers travelled further than Sarah and David Lilja, who hail from Saint Paul, Minnesota.
They last visited the city three years ago and said they were pleasantly surprised at how much it has changed.
“We inaugurated Saint Paul’s light rail so this is the second time we’ve been there on a first day,” Ms Lilja said.
“It’s very similar to what we have in Saint Paul, except we don’t have surfboard racks.
“We were very excited when we knew it was going to be open when we were here – once we got the start date it was on the calendar.
“We think it’s really cool there are no wires, it’s quite an innovation. It makes it feel like magic.”
New Lambton teenagers Taris and Ravelle Eaton, 17 and 15, weren’t as effusive.
They caught the tram from Honeysuckle to Newcastle Beach station for lunch and back, but said they were likely to drive or catch the bus next time.
“It’s alright, but it’s a bit slow and there are no water refill stations at the platforms,” Taris said.
“It doesn’t seem like a success – we did not get what we were promised.
“We were told there would be five trams but we only have three. [The government ordered six trams. Five have arrived and three are operating on the line at once].
“We thought they’d have plans ready to go to expand when they finished this but they don’t.”
Ravelle said “it doesn’t seem like the project was planned out, with all the businesses closing”.
“It seems disorganised. It is not as exciting as it was made out to be. We were told to ‘look at the view’ but there’s lots of high rise buildings along the way.
“I don’t think it’s made any real changes to the city.”
Jelena Maksimovic brought her two sons from Mayfield to be “part of a moment in history”.
“It’s overcrowded and hot, but really, really nice.
“It’s unreal to see these in Hunter Street.”
She said while there were still questions hanging over the project, it had “revitalised Newcastle and helped it fit in with the modern world”.
“Change takes some time,” she said. “People will start to get used to it and forget about all the bad things.”
She said trams could one day be featured on postcards of the city.
“If they were yellow or blue they would blend in, but being red they stand out.”