The Hunter Valley's future and prosperity is strongly linked to the great milestones in the railway system that has served us.
The Hunter's first public railway, opened in 1857, was from Newcastle to East Maitland. Construction continued northward towards Murrurundi with the Ardglen tunnel just to the north completed in 1877. Development progressed to Armidale and by 1888 had reached Wallangarra on the NSW-Queensland border.
To the south, the tracks were extended to Gosford. In 1887 a single track line was opened between Hornsby and the Hawkesbury River.
Rail passengers and freight were trans-shipped to a paddled wheeled steamer General Gordon for the three-hour journey out to Broken Bay and up Brisbane Water to Gosford for reloading on to the Newcastle train service despite the extensive coastal shipping trade.
The 1899 opening of the Hawkesbury River railway bridge was the final link in a railway network that connected Newcastle to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Without doubt the rail network was an amazing system, built from scratch in less than 50 years. That rail system stimulated trade, population growth and huge economic boost.
It is essential that the Hunter has a major rail system upgrade that allows double stacked freight trains to operate along-side the existing coal freight fleet
After 120 years the Australian rail system is now undergoing a major shake up with the 1700km Inland Rail project creating an inland pathway for freight from Melbourne to Brisbane via a major hub at Parkes. Completion is aimed at 2025.
The Perth-Adelaide rail-line joins the Inland Rail at Parkes and Newcastle needs to be part of the action.
A double stacked rail route from Newcastle to Perth via Adelaide would revolutionise Newcastle Port's freight potential and the Hunter's economy.
The Perth to Parkes and Melbourne to Brisbane routes are high axle loading lines capable of large 1800m long double stacked trains at speed up to 115kmh. Double stacked trains can carry containers stacked two high.
Port Newcastle is pushing hard to increase freight volumes and plans include a major container terminal.
To support the plan, it is essential that the Hunter has a major rail system upgrade that allows double stacked freight trains to operate along-side the existing coal freight fleet. There is also need for additional passenger services.
Connecting Newcastle to the Inland Rail via Werris Creek and Narrabri is a "must have" just like the Hawkesbury River bridge was 120 years ago.
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Apart from lacking the Newcastle Portside Rail Line, the track from Newcastle to Narrabri (406km) is in place, with much of it constructed to 40 tonne axle load standards. The track is dual to Muswellbrook however only single with passing loops to Narrabri.
Standard trains in NSW have a clearance height of 5.2 metres however the double stacked Inland Rail will have 6.5 metres clearance.
The two major costs in bringing the Newcastle-Narrabri rail line up to Inland Rail Standard are upgrading the track carrying capacity to the 40 tonne axle load and increasing the clearance of infrastructure to 6.5 metres.
The minimum for the Inland Rail is 21 tonne axle loads however coal freight prefers 40-tonne loadings.
These upgrades at about $6.5 million per kilometre will not only connect Newcastle to the Inland Rail and Perth but also will be of considerable benefit to coal and freight transport to the Port of Newcastle from Northern NSW.
The rail line upgrade to Narrabri means lots of business activity and jobs both during the upgrade and when in operation.
The Hunter's COVID-19 recovery projects must include rail improvement activities to provide a first-class track to Narrabri.
It's time to turn our entrepreneurs and workforce loose to raise the signal heights, adjust the bridge clearances of the 42 bridges and 15 footbridges and rebuild 1876 brick lined 483-metre Ardglen tunnel.
Werris Creek to Narrabri is comparatively easy with only about five bridges needing attention to achieve clearance.
Work could start now with all projects being identified, designed and built using local contractors, labour and Hunter supplied materials. Revenue should easily offset the cost of the project.