THE Korumburra Round Table says the timing’s all wrong on a new proposal to revive the South Gippsland tourist railway, given the amount of progress that’s already been made on plans for an extension of the Great Southern Rail Trail and a new Community Hub at Korumburra.
The Round Table heard a presentation from Luke Macwhirter, vice-president of the Melbourne-based Southern Rail Preservation Group (SRPG) at its most recent meeting, detailing a three-stage plan to return tourist and commuter train services to the South Gippsland rail corridor.
Stage 1, Mr Macwhirter said, would involve getting a tourist rail service up and running between Korumburra and Leongatha as soon as possible.
He said with the existing infrastructure in good condition, this stage could be completed within 12 months of getting the go ahead from VicTrack.
Stage 2 would involve re-laying the section of track between Korumburra and Nyora to run steam and diesel locomotives seven days a week.
Mr Macwhirter said this would provide 20 to 30 part-time or full-time jobs.
The final stage would involve providing a regular commuter service from Leongatha to the nearest suburban railway station (Clyde or Koo Wee Rup), while continuing to run the tourist train from Leongatha to Nyora.
Mr Macwhirter said this would provide an additional 50 plus jobs.
He said the Southern Rail Preservation Group had been motivated to act on the South Gippsland rail corridor after hearing of plans for the extension of the Great Southern Rail Trail.
“Once you start removing infrastructure to convert it to a rail trail, you’ll never get a passenger service back,” he said.
The Round Table didn’t hold back when it came time to question Mr Macwhirter on Southern Rail Preservation Group’s credentials, and the feasibility of its proposals.
When asked about the private investors ‘the Gilbert Group’ who according to SRPG have already committed $5 million to “fully fund” the first stage of the project, and “will provide more funds as [they] go along”, Mr Macwhirter admitted he “didn’t know a lot about them” but was confident they were “a very well-off company” and were not seeking to make a profit from the tourist train. They would instead be getting their returns from the eventual commuter service, he said.
Mr Macwhirter also said he was “not fully aware” of the details of SRPG’s corporate structure or whether the group was incorporated.
Round Table member and manager of Korumburra’s Milpara Community House Jenni Keerie, questioned how SRPG’s plans would fit in with work already done, by numerous groups including the South Gippsland Shire Council, on masterplans for the railway precincts at Leongatha and Korumburra.
Mr Macwhirter’s response that plans for a community hub at the Korumburra station would need to be altered, as in their current form they “hinder SRPG’s operations”, was not well received by Ms Keerie, who questioned the community benefit of the tourist train.
“An incredible investment of time and energy has gone into the work that is already on the drawing board,” Ms Keerie said.
“There’s a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm about what is possible for that four hectares of land in the middle of the town, and everything that’s being proposed has add-on benefit to the whole of the community, as well as improving the amenities for the residents of Korumburra.
“I’m just not quite sure how I would feel about a great community space… with a big train shunting through periodically. I’m not sure how that would factor into the lifestyle of people in Korumburra.”
South Gippsland Shire Council’s manager of Infrastructure Delivery John Moylan was also present at the meeting and questioned the practicalities of SRPG’s plans, which included installing boom-gates and traffic lights at a rail crossing in Leongatha and having the tourist train and extended rail trail running side by side, six metres apart.
Mr Moylan said the council was “well advanced” with plans for the rail trail extension from Leongatha to Korumburra, a ‘priority project,’ and had the support of Cardinia, Casey and Bass Coast shire councils to extend the trail as far as Clyde in the future.
He said altering existing plans, to put the rail trail beside the train tracks instead of in their place, would involve “massive earthworks” which would blow out the cost of the project and “render building a rail trail… almost impossible”.
Discussing Mr Macwhirter’s presentation with the Round Table, Rob Cosson, standing in as chair for PeeWee Lewis who excused herself due to a conflict of interest (she is related by marriage to Mr Macwhirter), said the SRPG had gotten the timing of its proposal all wrong.
“I wish they’d come along 10 years ago,” Mr Cosson said.
“It would’ve all worked. But we’re just too far down the track [with the hub and the rail trail] … They either want us to totally change what we were going to do or put it on delay. But we’ve got that momentum now and we need to really keep moving.”
The Southern Rail Preservation Group plans to return to South Gippsland to make a presentation to the South Gippsland Shire Council and to invite the community to an open information session.