Big infrastructure opportunities don't get much cheaper than this.
The state can commission a passenger railway connecting the rapidly growing Cessnock and Kurri Kurri districts with Newcastle Interchange and everything in between for probably less than a third of the cost of a single Sydney metro station.
It can do it, and should do it immediately, because the line is already there and requires little more than track renewal and some simple stations.
At first, no new trains would be needed.
Like all NSW urban railways, the line would operate at a loss but provide public benefits. Among them would be providing an alternative to the Hunter Expressway, New England Highway and miserable route B68, the one that winds through the communities from Cessnock to Maitland. Those roads are getting too busy and will need improvements, which the state could delay if it offered a rail alternative.
That alternative would be the Cessnock Line, what has been the trunk route of the South Maitland Railways, a collection of lines built successively from 1893 to serve collieries. Because the towns and villages between Maitland and Cessnock also grew around those collieries, the old trunk line passes through or alongside them. So it's ideal for passenger services.
It carried coal trains until 2020, when its last mine closed. Until 1972 it also carried passengers. Now advocacy group Train to Cessnock has organised a petition to the NSW Parliament for promptly re-establishing passenger services as far as Bellbird, one stop past Cessnock.
It's not 1972 any more. The population along the route is surging, and the state government has designated the area for much more Lower Hunter housing. Now is the time to give those people a chance to rely less on cars.
The government would have to acquire the line from the current owner, rail-freight operator Aurizon. Its value isn't known, but Aurizon's acquisition of it last year was evidently too small a transaction to warrant a stock exchange announcement. Perhaps only tens of millions of dollars was involved. A spokesperson for the company said it would be willing to discuss possible options with the government.
After acquisition, the line would need improvements. But Andrew Fenwick of Train to Cessnock plausibly estimates an upgrade cost of less than $100 million - for 28 kilometres of passenger rail line including eight stations. What a bargain.
That compares with something like $450 million for a typical Sydney underground metro station (just the station - not the tunnels for the line). Such a Sydney station might have a catchment population of less than 15,000, says rail consultant Bill Palazzi, another advocate of restoring passengers services to the Cessnock area.
How could the Cessnock Line be so cheap? Basically because it is almost an operational railway now. It has been out of ordinary service for just three years, and Aurizon maintains it for storing rolling stock.
The campaigners say its bridges and formation, such as embankments and cuttings, are good, except that a bit more elevation around Gillieston Heights may be needed to keep trains above floodwater. No immediate route changes are necessary, though eventually a diversion to take Cessnock Station back to a site near Vincent Street would be highly desirable.
The current track (that is, the rails and sleepers) would need replacing, but that cost should be less than $40 million. The line mostly has just one track, which would be enough. Trains could pass each other on lengths of double track here and there.
Stations on the restored Cessnock Line could also be inexpensive. Some old platforms might be fixed up; elsewhere, simple new structures and shelters would be good enough. Commuter carparks, a key part of the offering, would cost little.
Altogether, nothing extravagant is needed. The aim should be to promptly get a passenger service into operation for the least possible outlay. That includes the trains. Current rolling stock used on the Hunter Line (from Newcastle Interchange to Maitland, Scone and Dungog) could also be used on the Cessnock Line, supplemented by diesel units due to be withdrawn from long-distance routes.
The services would be extensions of those already running between Newcastle Interchange and Maitland. They'd probably be arranged so that passengers could change between express and all-stops services at Maitland. A typical trip from Cessnock to Newcastle Interchange should take an hour. For many passengers, booming Maitland would be the main destination.
There is no chance of the Cessnock Line covering its operating cost, but notice that many passengers using its stations would add to ridership and revenue of the current line between Maitland and Newcastle Interchange.
A powerful characteristic of any public transport route is that its usefulness rises disproportionately as stops are added.
For example, the 14 current stations from Maitland to Newcastle Interchange offer 91 station-pairs, each defining a possible return trip - such as Thornton to Maitland, or Waratah to Victoria Street. If we add eight stations out to Bellbird, we get 231 station-pairs - 2.5 times as many trip offerings.
A draft plan for Hunter transportation published last year said restoring Cessnock rail services should be investigated, but it was unclear on timing. When asked, a Transport for NSW spokesperson did not clarify.
I also asked the Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, Jenny Aitchison, for her view of the proposal. Aitchison, who is also the member for Maitland, said the final Hunter transportation plan, due next year, would "explore the feasibility of opportunities to better align the growth areas in the Maitland and Cessnock LGAs with a focus on the rail corridor."
Does that mean the government will seriously look at starting up the Cessnock Line? If so, I can tell it now what it will learn: it will never again see so inexpensive a way of adding a valuable urban rail service.
- Bradley Perrett is a Newcastle journalist