3 January 2022

BEST OF 2021: Why the ACT should care about the future of the Cooma Bombala rail line

| Jo Clay MLA
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Bombala rail line

The Cooma Bombala rail line could be re-opened or repurposed. Photo: File.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2021. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2021. Today, ACT MLA Jo Clay tells us why the Cooma Bombala rail line should be re-opened.

November this year will mark the centenary of the opening of the train line from Cooma to Bombala.

It’s a sad anniversary, to be honest, because trains stopped running beyond Cooma 35 years ago this month. An enormous amount of work and expense went into creating a major piece of transport infrastructure that was only used for 65 years.

Two and a half years after the Cooma to Bombala section of the line closed, passenger services south of Queanbeyan were also suspended and eight months after that, it was decided that the bridge over the Numeralla River 20 kilometres north of Cooma was unsafe so freight trains stopped along the route as well.

If you’ve lived in Canberra for a good while, you might remember the scenic heritage train trips that the Canberra Region Heritage Rail used to run from Canberra to Royalla, but those stopped in 2007. These days, there’s a stop block on the line at Queanbeyan and that’s as far south as you can get.

Now the whole line is slowly deteriorating, and it seems such a shame when we know how important it is to find alternative forms of transport to the endless lines of trucks and cars that clog our ever-widening highways.

Last year, the NSW Government released the results of a million-dollar feasibility study on re-opening the line for freight and extending it in the north to Canberra airport and in the south as far as the deep-water harbour of Twofold Bay down near the Victorian border at Eden.

Short answer – it’s too expensive. This is due to the almost 20 kilometres of tunnelling required to navigate the steep and wild terrain between the escarpment and the coast.

But the Cooma and Monaro Progress Association doesn’t agree with this assessment. They’ve commissioned their own feasibility study which has come up with an alternative route that requires only three tunnels totalling a distance of just one and a half kilometres and bringing the projected cost down to $2.9 billion significantly less than the NSW Government’s estimate of well over $6 billion.

With the ongoing – seemingly perpetual – discussion about building a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne, a branch line to an excellent yet underutilised harbour could make a difference in the viability of both projects.

Meanwhile, there’s another very different plan on the drawing board as well – to transform the scenic and gently undulating rail corridor into a cycling and hiking trail. These “rail trails” are springing up on disused railway lines all over the world, from New York’s High Line on the west side of Manhattan, to Paris’s “Coulee Verte” to the 390 kilometre Katy Trail in Missouri.

Here in Australia, there are now more than 100 rail trails, ranging from ones that are less than a kilometre in length, like Ballarat’s Bunny Rail Trail, to trails of more than 100 kilometres like the Great Victorian Rail Trail.

Canberra is in a unique position with regard to the Queanbeyan-to-Bombala line. It basically runs through our backyard, yet it’s across the border so it’s hard for us to get a say in which, if any, of the above visions for the line’s future is pursued further.

As a Greens MLA, it seems to me that the worst option is for nothing to happen at all. If no one takes responsibility for the abandoned 200 kilometre corridor, it is unlikely to turn itself into a valuable, revitalised ecosystem as the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea has done. Instead, it’ll be overtaken by the weeds that tend to proliferate beside railway tracks.

The old wooden sleepers will slowly rot, and the rails will rust. Do we want that? I don’t think we do.

Both the Rail Trail plan and the plan to re-open the line potentially have good green credentials as well as clear lifestyle and economic benefits to Canberra and the Monaro region. A Rail Trail would contribute to eco-tourism in the region and a well-cared-for and thoughtfully planted route would encourage the regrowth of native vegetation and habitat along either side.

A renovated and extended rail line would take trucks off our roads and streamline the movement of goods and waste. At the very least, re-opening the line as far as Hume would provide alternative freight transport opportunities for Hume businesses, especially existing and future waste processing facilities.

I believe that the ACT Government needs to develop a clear position on what we would like the future of the Queanbeyan-to-Bombala rail corridor to look like, so that we can communicate our vision government-to-government with NSW.

Original Article published by Jo Clay MLA on The RiotACT.

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John Maunder7:34 pm 07 Jan 22

Fifty years ago certain captains of industry lobbied the NSW government to close all the branch lines that served rural areas, arguing that trucks were more efficient. Today with containerisation those arguments have been lost.

This should be a national project, built to high speed rail standards, and as a start to high speed between Sydney and Melbourne. The money the government has wasted building Western Sydney airport should have been directed to this project.

So why can’t the heritage group run trains to Michalago? I heard it’s due to the developer of Royalla estate not building the overpass to the correct size to allow trains under it. If this is true have built correctly at thief expense.
Put trains on the rails not cyclists. Trains have more chance of being profitable. We will all need to subsidise it for cyclists.

Griz Hendriks4:18 pm 06 Jan 22

Too expensive ? To whom does the Govt owe the money too ? Itself ?… bugger the economic benefit for the rural parts of the country,the Govt already ignores climate change so the added benefit of two locomotives pulling the same as 50 plus trucks doesn’t cut it as an argument then at least look at the employment aspect…. loading, unloading, delivering goods and maintenance are all a plus in my book..go ahead and spend the money… you have no problems spending that and much more on submarines.

Open it !!!! Look what happened in UK, and now they regret it, having to restore some old trains etc to keep our heritage. same with trams in Sydney, ripped up the lines in the 60s. then 40-50 yrs had to create new light rail. AND, just think, my neighbours can take their BARKING dogs on a real train trip, give us a whole day of peace !!! Open the track. Stop destroying our heritage

Paul W Mathews8:35 pm 05 Jan 22

Open it !!!! Look what happened in UK, and now they regret it, having to restore some old trains etc to keep our heritage. same with trams in Sydney, ripped up the lines in the 60s. then 40-50 yrs had to create new light rail. AND, just think, my neighbours can take their BARKING dogs on a real train trip, give us a whole day of peace !!! Open the track. Stop destroying our heritage

If the Federal Govt were to put funding toward it, it could be a big boost for tourism for both NSW & ACT!

We desperately need to get the trucks off our roads, and linking the far south coast to Cooma,and beyond is not only a brilliant idea, but part if the original plan ,,which was first proposed, over a century ago.

Luciana DiGrazia10:37 pm 03 Jan 22

Open it it’s needed . Such a large area with no public transport … when there could be . It’s a no brainer

Darren Cotterill3:55 pm 03 Jan 22

I have been saying this for years. It should be reopened and upgraded so as to take as many trucks as possible of our road, thereby reducing the road toll, decreasing the damage to the roads from heavy vehicles and providing many jobs in construction and maintenance.
It is a travesty that the port of Eden has been held back for so long. It is the natural outlet for the Monaro, Gippsland and the Riverine. Millions of tonnes of exports could go through the port giving economic advancement to the whole region.
It is extremely rare that I find myself in agreement with the Greens, but this is one issue where we could find common cause.

Cindy Heaton2:24 pm 03 Jan 22

It’s such a shame these old rail lines are no longer in use, traveling through country towns on a train was such a pleasureable journey, would rather train than bus any day.

From Twofold Bay, there is also an abandoned rail line coming through Orbost From Melbourne. Given that Victoria has no deep sea ports east of Melbourne, surely the benefits of a rail linking Victoria to Eden to Canberra would be a game changer for local industries.

Forest products, meat works in Cooma, ore carriers servicing mines in Vic, as well as benefits to international tourism from cruise ships into Eden, then Canberra or Melbourne or even rail tours all over SE Australia.

At present there is tunnel boring equipment in the Monaro area, drilling aqueducts for Snowy 3 projects, which I sure would be ideally placed to complete tunnel boring cheaply when that job finishes.

The land has been dedicated for a hundred years for a great rail connection, surely now is the time to bring it into being?

John Holstein2:07 pm 03 Jan 22

The fact the rail corridor is now 100 years old basically says it all. The current Hume Highway was, even in living memory, referred to as a goat track. It wound its way over hills like Razorback and the Cullerin Range at Bredalbane. It was single lane in each direction and was built along tracks used by Stage Coaches, Horses and swaggies before lorries and cars arrived. In the last fifty years, that Highway has been totally rebuilt, bypassing hills, cutting through them, bypassing towns and providing a better driving experience.
Back to the railway, built 100 years ago to cater for steam trains hauling short trains of 4 wheel carriages and decidedly uncomfortable passenger carriages on a track described above as a “scenic and gently undulating rail corridor into a cycling and hiking trail”
in a return to the ABC Documentary on Government “Utopia” our potential Labour leader, Mr Albanese trotted out “Fast Rail” as a cure for our countries woes. Does anyone really believe that a “gently undulating rail corridor’ with its inherent sweeping curves will be suitable for any form of transport that will surpass our current highways? In the meantime, lets’ jump on to the money making bandwagon that is Rail Trails.

robert whiter1:54 pm 03 Jan 22

I think that the link to Victoria taking in Twofold Bay is a great (old 1860’s Idea) BUT planting vegetation along the way where it has not managed to grow in the past is not the best outcome for wildlife

Gregory Lawrence7:25 pm 04 Oct 21

Use it for a direct high speed rail route. Sydney – Canberra – Bombala – Orbost – Bairnsdale – Melbourne.
Opens up more of the country that the freeways have not reached.
Follows Gippsland railway line now closed.
Avoids creating a time consuming branch line doubling back to Canberra, that via Albury would create.
Would strengthen business case once established, for Bombala to Port of Eden line.

This is a very sensible idea!

The issue with this is, it is more economically viable for the rail line to go via Wagga, Albury, Shepparton from Canberra to Melbourne.
However once someone wakes up and realise rail is a far better method of transport and we should be building new rail lines, then I can see new rail lines along the route proposed. But to be honest, the amount of work required to bring the current line up to spec for trains, is probably vastly undervalued and new rail lines would need to be laid, meaning we should develop this as a rail trail. A slow train service like we currently have attracts no one to use it.

Anthony Sales9:41 am 15 Jun 21

It is tragic that Government negligence and vandalism has resulted in the closure of so many railway lines in NSW. Re-establishing the railway from Canberra to Bombala and on to Eden should be high priority for the current government…quite a change from building countless new football stadiums.

David Cummins12:55 pm 20 May 21

Unless such a group has been formed already, I propose holding a public meeting to form a group of like-minded and interested parties to promote the re-opening of the Queanbeyan to Cooma Railway line.

If such a group already exists, would someone mind letting me know the contact details?

My email address is [email protected]


David Cummins12:16 pm 20 May 21

I would love to see and fully support the reopening of the Queanbeyan to Cooma to Bombala railway line. If cyclists wish to promote the idea of a Rail Trail, perhaps a cycle path next to the rail line would meet their needs.

The Cooma Monaro Railway has done an impressive job with the work that it has been doing. Along the line there are a number of railway stations, such as Royalla, Michelago & Bredbo which could be beautifully brought back to life and used.

As well as the tourism potential for the reopened line, it is highly likely that increasing numbers of people working in Canberra will be living along the Canberra-Cooma corridor and particularly with an upgraded Monaro Highway. It is only a matter of time.

As for funding, there are a number of options for this.

The reopening of the Queanbeyan to Cooma line is both timely and commendable.

Roger Gagliardi3:35 pm 05 May 21

Exactly, re-open the rail line and put a branch to Jindabyne, this would greatly alleviate the multitude of cars going to the snow from Canberra, and cut down the road toll on the inadequate Monaro Highway.

Furthermore it is idiotic to think that you can supplement the benefits of reopening a railway with a rail trail as the benefits of increased tourism will never match up with the benefits of a railway, Even if the costs are high it doesn’t matter because made up numbers on a page that get argued about for years on end by politicians will never be good enough justification for withholding a public good. The same people who say that railways are too expensive and not worth are the same people who will support or at least turn a blind eye, when useless highway projects that do almost nothing but increase traffic that they were supposed to decrease.

Whatever it costs to reopen and extend it is worth it for the benefits the region will receive from the railway for too long railways have been neglected by the federal and state government. There are few railways that serve regional coastal area and we need more projects like the proposed extension and we need them now.

Electrified, a rail system would be carbon neutral, free of emissions, due to solar and wind piwer already in this region and growing.

Frank Ward. OAM10:02 am 19 Mar 21

I have some sympathy for the Greens as they strive for the ultimate but there has not been a line reopened anywhere in the country as te economics nevervstack up. However the economics of conversion to rail trails is very favourable as is evidenced by the success of the Tumbarumba trail that is celebrating its anniversary next month and has provided a substantial contribution to the community in its economy and revitalised the district.
The pandemic has revitalise the cycling sport and recreational use and now bike sales outnumber cars and the government would get a much bigger dividend in the increased health of community if these abandoned rail lines were put to community use as rail trails as has been shown at Tumbarumba

Roger Gagliardi3:39 pm 05 May 21

Bike riders do not spend tourism dollars. They bring their own lunches, stay in the cheapest possible accommodation if they don’t camp…..we see it all the time down here. Sorry but the benefits of a rail line are far greater, for tourism and for freight.

The line has been largely unused for over 30 years. Will it take another 30 years to do something useful with it? Meanwhile the sleepers, bridges and culverts rot, the rails rust and the fences fail. Use it as a rail trail very SOON for a few $ millions (which will bring just as many millions and more over the years into the area through low impact, low carbon tourism) while the benefits of spending N or NN BILLIONS (remember- a million is one thousanth of a billion) on trains is thrashed about for years and years to come.
The existing rail service from the nation’s capital Canberra to its most populous city Sydney is still a relic of the pre-internet 20th century, providing a slow and often bumpy ride that is an embarrassment for a supposedly advanced nation. So why should anyone spend buckets and buckets of $s more to link Canberra to a smallish fishing and occasional cruise ship port when Canberra can’t support a quality train service to Sydney? Meanwhile every year a rail trail is NOT built is another year without the social benefits and millions of dollars tourists spend while bisiting and enjoying what will easily ve a SPECTACULAR world class tourist trail, jam packed with panoramic vistas, quaint villages, interesting towns big & small and geography and character unlike anywhere else in Australia. A rail trail will be a huge success.

Another great piece of potential for the line is the novelty of a Ski Train.

Running this fun alternative transportation to the snow at strategic times of peak travel to/ from the snow would take pressure off of the Monaro highway. Also take fatigued drivers off of the road.
This has been a great feature in Denver, Colorado – USA where the train runs from Denver up to Winter Park Ski resort.
A good time is had by all!


Rachael McKenna6:31 pm 18 Mar 21

I would love to see it re-opened as a railway again, the amount of money it would save on our roads would outweigh the cost of fixing and extending the line, would provide other means of transportation to Canberra, and down the coast, which I feel is desperately needed in this area.

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