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Outdoor enthusiasts chuffed as rail trail funding gathers pace

Date

Nicole Hasham

Snaking round hills that once echoed with the chuff of steam trains, the state’s abandoned rail lines have lain silent since the last services departed decades ago.

But they could soon be filled with walkers, cyclists and, according to former deputy prime minster Tim Fischer, “scantily clad Scandinavians”, as the push for so-called “rail trails” gathers pace.

Rail trails are public paths built along former rail corridors, taking users past scenic landscapes and country towns, and following gentle slopes perfect for hill-shy legs.

Nationals leader Andrew Stoner this month singled out rail trails as likely beneficiaries of a $110 million regional tourism fund in the state budget.

One of the first trails likely to be funded runs between Casino and Murwillumbah, which a feasibility study last month found would cost $75.5 million and attract up to 97,000 people a year. If approved, Mr Stoner said it would become "a major tourist attraction" with international appeal.

The funding follows lobbying by rail trail enthusiasts such as John Moore, who questions why NSW is not taking better advantage of hundreds of kilometres of vacant state-owned railway corridors.

“You are following the contour of the hills, you are riding through pristine country where no one has gone through before except the trains,” said Mr Moore, coordinator of Rail Trails for NSW.

“It’s easy going, you can just take your time strolling along … and the economic value that it will bring to NSW is incredible.”

He said rail trails in other states and overseas attracted thousands of visitors and tourist dollars annually.

Towns such as Gundagai, Tumbarumba and Bungendore had identified stretches of forsaken rail corridor ripe for conversion into trails.

Many traverse old tunnels, rustic timber bridges and 19th century railway stations so well-preserved “you think the train is about to arrive”, Mr Moore said.

Train buff and former Howard government minister Mr Fischer is a rail trail advocate. But he warned proposals in other states had been opposed by those who want train services restored.

Farmers have also objected to trails running through their property, but were persuaded by the prospect of “having scantily clad Scandinavian bicyclists in summer … sweeping along the rail trails, adding to the conversation variety”, he said.

Lucy Fisher, of Ballalaba, wants a rail trail along the 42-kilometre corridor from Bungendore to Captains Flat, near Canberra.

“It would get people out into the country doing something healthy and cheap. You can make a day of it, pack a picnic and it would be a huge boost to the towns [along the way],” she said.

"I’ve been to Victoria and had a wonderful time riding with my kids and dog and stopping at wineries and just having a really good holiday." 

NSW Labor MP Mike Veitch has introduced a bill that would keep regional rail corridors in public ownership for future use as trails, to prevent them being sold off “to the highest bidder”.

A spokesman for Mr Stoner said the government was examining the Casino to Murwillumbah plan “although there may be other potential proposals that could be considered on a case-by-case basis”.

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