$1m battle for Mountain Rail
GLENREAGH Mountain Railway (GMR) is a sleeping giant of Clarence Valley and Coffs Coast Tourism, but it faces an upgrade bill of close to a million dollars to find its feet again.
Before it was shut down in February last year due to legislative changes, the steam train museum was attracting 14,000 visitors a year to the otherwise sleepy town of Glenreagh.
Rail tragedies at Waterfall and Glenbrook in previous years prompted the introduction of the Rail Safety Act 2008, bringing in much stricter infrastructure standards and qualification requirements for operators.
The GMR board was granted a temporary accreditation by the Independent Transport and Safety Reliability Regulator (ITSRR) but the new safety standards could not be met by the accreditation's expiration date of February 2008.
Although some of the voluntary board members threw up their hands in frustration at the new legislation, GMR secretary Peter Dickson-Smith said any objection to cost or inconvenience was quickly shot down with one simple argument: “You can't put a value on human life.”
“When you sit down and look at what we have to do and why, it makes sense ... It's justified,” Mr Dickson-Smith said.
It's now been 20 months since the popular 2.8km railway was closed and the GMR board, with the help of authorities, is developing a plan to get the railway back on track by the end of next year with plans to open a static museum within months.
In one of the first steps, GMR has teamed up with training group MAP to supply training to GMR members in exchange for use of the railway infrastructure for its training facilities.
Mr Dickson-Smith said training of members was the key to the future of the GMR because every person involved in the running of the trains needed to be qualified under the new laws.
GMR has also obtained a quote for works required to bring its track up to the new standard.
The upgrade is estimated to cost $973,658 and mainly involves replacing old concrete sleepers, which were found to be Rocla rejects, with 4667 new timber sleepers.
The use of the reject sleepers, which were found to be unfit for use on the track, and the fact that the GMR undertook a complete reconstruction of the track without trained people or engineering documents were raised as concerns at a recent GMR meeting.
Mr Dickson-Smith said it appeared there had been a communication breakdown between the GMR and Rocla when the decision was made to use the cheap concrete sleepers in about 2002.
Mr Dickson-Smith is optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable regulatory conditions and is driven, like the other board members, by the love of steam engines and all they represent.
“It's a challenge ... It's a desire to preserve heritage and a love of steam engines,” he said.
“They're almost like human beings, some are moody, some are cantankerous but to a steam engine buff they're all beautiful.”
The GMR spokesman said he was concerned that on top of the new state regulations, the group also had to comply with Clarence Valley Council's development conditions, including the associated costs.
“In Coffs Harbour, railways are exempt from the need to comply with council's development conditions,” he said.
The GMR is asset rich. It owns 34 kilometres of railway corridor, a working 130-year-old steam train known as 'Betty', several carriages and other engines and a newly-acquired train station building which has been erected and dubbed Glenreagh West Station.
But none of these things will pay for the upgrades required. This will be up to the GMR's grant-hunting skills, the vision of governments and the goodwill of benefactors.