Newcastle's Flat Earth Society

If Don Lane were alive today, he would have been the perfect host for the Newcastle Institute's latest event - The Railway Stalemate.

Lane was a proud sceptic on national television - famous for ridiculing the spoon bending Uri Geller and lampooning earnest Flat Earth Society advocates on his talk show.

"Flat-earther" has become a common epithet for someone who stubbornly adheres to discredited or outmoded ideas.

In the bowels of City Hall on a bitterly cold Wednesday night last week, Lane would have been in his element. He would have found a sober crowd lamenting the removal of archaic infrastructure from our post-industrial coastal city.

A crowd who accepted as gospel the ideas put forward by a retired lawyer, economic historian and architect, as if they were modern transport planning gurus.

One of the opening remarks from Professor Howard Dick was that "transport planning should be done by people who are experts in the field."

Himself an applied micro-economist specialising on Indonesia who has been published in the fields of "transport and logistics", Professor Dick proceeded to lecture the crowd on transport planning for the Hunter.

Relying on 25 PowerPoint slides, heavy in prose and devoid of economic analysis, I thought his address was full of sweeping generalisations and what I would call false assumptions. More were to come.

Alan Squires, convener of a small group of train-tram enthusiasts, informed those gathered that "light rail in Hunter Street would be a disaster" and "the street would fall apart." Mr Squires presented no facts to back those claims. Nor did he explain why light rail street networks from Melbourne to Phuket, Houston to Amsterdam, and Jerusalem to Kolkata, had not led to disaster in those cities.

But in my view the most outlandish thought bubble came from Hunter Independent Public Transport Program representative Ed Duc, when he said light rail could be running in the old heavy rail corridor "within a few months".

Meeting Mr Duc's timetable would require government contracts to be broken, workers to be laid off, taxpayers left liable for millions in penalty payments, community consultation ignored and the quickest approvals process in the history of NSW.

But more than that, urban planning experts are in furious agreement that routing light rail down the heavy rail corridor will not improve liveability, facilitate urban renewal or generate extra economic activity.

In my view such a statement might put Mr Duc's personal views at odds with his statements as chairman of Newcastle NOW - an organisation funded by a special rate levy on 1066 inner-city businesses, tasked with driving the city forward and supporting revitalisation.

Underlining the panel's missives was the over-arching theme of the event - that the "rail issue was a political stalemate" preventing a modern transport network for Newcastle. But there is no political stalemate. This was confirmed by the very first speaker of the evening, political scientist from the University of Newcastle, Professor Jim Rose. At the outset he said "if the government is required to enact legislation, it has the numbers to do so".

No recognition was given to the NSW government having a clearly articulated transport policy for Newcastle and the delivery of new infrastructure having been under way for several months. No mention was made of contracts for the Wickham Interchange, which have already been awarded and are fuelling a pipeline of hundreds of new jobs in the city.

And no acknowledgement was given to independent modelling by transport infrastructure experts which shows light rail in the city will ultimately deliver a $2.5 billion economic windfall to Newcastle on top of the enormous social dividends:

• Eight new connections from the city to the waterfront.

 

• An integrated pedestrian and cyclist network.

 

• Accelerating the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.

 

• Promoting the city's key public domain areas.

 

• Creating a city centre that is authentically Novocastrian.

 

Now consider the latest, undeniable facts from Transport for NSW about Sydney's light rail experience.

Then ask why the next generation of Novocastrians should be denied a piece of this action:

 

• 10,000 new jobs.

 

• $333 million in benefits for pedestrians.

 

• $308 million in environmental and health benefits.

 

• $264 million in benefits for road users.

 

• $707 million in operating savings.

I think only a Flat Earth Society would deny the weight of evidence and be afraid to step into the future.