Proposal for the reconstruction of the Cooma-Bombala railway line examined by the new council

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The newly merged Snowy Monaro Regional Council is considering the viability of rebuilding the long-closed Queanbeyan to Bombala railway line.

The council’s development strategy paints a picture of employment and industry growth around import and export freight, with rural and remote communities being linked to major cities by passenger services.

It also focuses on growing tourism by connecting Canberra International Airport and the developing cruise port to Eden.

With ACT developing as a major economic hub, the strategy anticipates the growth of hinterland villages like Bredbo and Michelago as satellite communities for an ACT workforce, linked by rail.

Planning director Mark Adams said now is the time to look at the benefits of rail for regional development.

“We just want to expose this idea and see what happens,” he said.

New South Wales began expanding its rail network from Sydney in the 1860s, with the first rail line reaching Cooma in 1889.

It then spread further south to Nimmitabel in 1912 and Bombala in 1921, with plans to eventually connect to the Victorian network.

The railway engine carries passengers between villages on the Monaro. The freight train heads to Cooma and Sydney with regional products.(Provided: Ray McDermott)

The Bombala Line, as it became known, was a transportation backbone in the state’s remote southeastern corner, serving communities in Monaro as well as coastal communities in the Bega Valley.

Dean Lynch, administrator of the new board, said the state government decided to shut down the line in the 1980s.

“The government of the day obviously saw that it was operating at a loss, and to cut costs … they closed the tracks,” he said.

However, the view is now that a different economic environment, along with new efficiencies in rail operating models, is leading to a resurgence of regional rail services.

Railways now much more viable

Alan Gardner, a rail industry consultant, was involved in the reintroduction of freight services on the Canberra-Sydney line last year.

“Rail is 10 times more efficient than roads,” he said.

Citing factors such as the privatization of rail network management, the emergence of locomotive and rolling stock rental providers and the development of Port Botany, Mr Gardner said regional rail services were now much more viable than In the 1980’s.

Mr Gardner said that if the line was restored from Queanbeyan to Cooma, it would open up opportunities similar to an innovative reestablishment of freight services from Canberra to Port Botany which began in early 2015.

He said it was a business model formed by ESPEE Railroad Services, a spin-off company of the ACT division of the Australian Railway Historical Society.

ESPEE’s customer was a recycling company in Canberra that needed to transport steel to Port Botany.

ESPEE has gone through the accreditation process with the national regulator as a rail operator, which is necessary to purchase access to the rail network from the network’s commercial managers.

Then they rented locomotives and rolling stock from a commercial rental company.

“You don’t have the large capital investment required to buy million dollar locomotives. So you can lease against contract,” Mr. Gardner said.

Cooma station platform
The railway reached Cooma in 1889 and closed in 1989.(ABC South East NSW: Bill Brown)

NSW Government funding to reopen regional rail lines

However, the first step is that there must be a railway line open for business.

Mr Gardner cited recent NSW government funding of $ 5 million to Hilltops Council to reopen 56 kilometers of the Cowra Line between Maimuru and Demondrille.

It was one of 10 projects across New South Wales to receive an initial funding of $ 15 million under the Fixing Country Rail pilot program.

Announcing the funding, NSW Freight Minister Duncan Gay said: “The NSW government is committed to shifting more bulk cargo to the rail lines for to ensure that we get the products from the paddocks to the ports as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Mr Lynch said his board had previously been approached by large investors whose plans required access to a rail network.

“Being able to get people and goods in and out is important for a region to develop,” he said.

Mr Lynch said he wanted a business case to be developed in the coming year.

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