Wheely important job creation scheme for NSW
by Ros Holcombe
Do you like cycling, Premier Mike Baird? No? What about job creation and reinvigoration of rural towns? You do! Well I have an excellent suggestion for you.
I have just returned from cycling the magnificent Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand’s South Island and have seen what economic benefits cycle tourism has brought to the region. New Zealand’s first purposely planned rail to trail conversion, it runs for 150 kilometres between Clyde (one hour from Queenstown) and Middlemarch.
The Otago Central Railway ran from 1879 until 1990. Measures protecting the railway from road freight competition were gradually wound back until 1983 when the track’s fate was sealed. With a gradient never steeper than one metre over every 50 metres, its potential for conversion for cycling was obvious. The Otago Central Rail Trail Trust was established in 1994 by the Department of Conservation to be the face of the project.
At first, not everyone was convinced it was a good idea. Former Trust chairwoman Daphne Hull said farmers were concerned about cyclists disturbing stock and damaging fences. One politician said “All you’ll see is a ribbon of weed from outer space. It will be unused.” Interestingly, Hull says, it was women who embraced the idea and saw the potential to rent out spare bedrooms and serve meals to cyclists, these becoming the first trail B&Bs.
JOBS AND REVENUE
Some $800,000 was spent on resurfacing and bridge remodelling and the trail opened in 2000. Now, each year 120,000 people spend an hour or more walking or cycling parts the trail and 16,000 complete the whole 150 kilometres, on average spending four to five days to cover the distance. Three main companies offer full-service holidays – renting bikes, booking accommodation and transporting bags and people between towns. Historic buildings in isolated landscapes are being renovated into cafes, restaurants and accommodation, earning the trail the nicknames Central Otago Ale Trail and the Latte Lover’s Dream, creating more than 120 direct jobs and pumping $5.3 million into the rural economy each year.
One such business is the converted Railway School B&B in Lauder – population 14. Owners Bruce and Esme Macdonald bought the property in 2010 and now have 1800 Trailers sleeping there each year, representing 90 per cent of their business. Across the road at the Lauder Hotel, publican Nobby says 60 per cent of his business comes from Trailers, who prop up the bar with local farmers.
The quality of the meals here and at all the pubs en route is astounding – local venison, lamb and steak, salmon ballotine, seafood chowder, locally caught trout wrapped in bacon and blue eyed cod with mash. And the pinot noir Otago is famous for. I can’t help thinking that in a hamlet of 14 in country NSW you would be lucky to get a pie and chips.
While 61 per cent of Trailers are Kiwis (Australians come second), overseas visitor numbers are growing as the reputation of the trail spreads worldwide. A recent survey by cycling equipment maker Velostar rated New Zealand, with its 23 Great Rides, the second best country for cycle tourism. France was first, Australia fourth. Even our Megan Gale is promoting NZ cycling.
And so to NSW Mr Baird. Our Victorian neighbours enjoy 850 kilometres of rail trails, including the famous Murray to Mountains passing through the gorgeous towns of Bright, Beechworth and Mt Beauty. Some 40,000 people visit north-east Victoria’s rail trails each year, spending an average of $244 a day per head.
MISSING THE ACTION
But here in the Premier State we’re missing out on the action and once again it’s our old enemy red tape that’s to blame. Unlike other states, the transport minister does not have the power to declare a line closed, and an act of Parliament is required to amend the Transport Administration Act before the land can be redesignated. If you could work on that Mr Baird, then the process of consultation across communities could begin.
A glance at the Rail Trails Australia website shows a long list of proposed trails in NSW “not yet open” that are in limbo due to the legislative impasse. They include Dubbo to Molong, Goulburn to Crookwell and Tumut to Batlow.
Tim Coen, Deputy Chairman of Rail Trails NSW, describes the development process as “low-hanging fruit”, as rail trails are relatively cheap to develop and the benefits to communities come quickly.
Can you see budding entrepreneurs getting cycle shops, cafes and B&Bs up and running, Mr Baird? Regional tourism growing? Of course the trainspotters who dream of a resumption of costly train services, and farmers already encroaching on the land, will need swaying but with your powers of persuasion that shouldn’t be difficult.
Tumbarumba to Rosewood, in pilot mode now, could be the first cab off the rank.