For many years, the daily Gold Coast Motorail train and other trains travelled through Casino then 130km through Lismore and Byron Bay to Murwillumbah. The Motorail was popular with tourists from Sydney and ran at times convenient for trips between Lismore and Byron. In 1990, the Greiner/Fahey NSW government replaced the Motorail with a night-time XPT which did not carry cars or any other freight. Soon there were concerns that all country passenger trains in NSW were to be cut and, although many were, the XPT outlasted the Fahey government.
Eventually, government bean-counters noticed that the freight on the Murwillumbah line was little more than supplies for the maintenance of the track. Transport minister Michael Costa responded by withdrawing the Murwillumbah XPT service in 2004. Rejecting barbs from the Liberal opposition he stressed that the line remained open even though no trains ran on it. At that time, a special Act of Parliament would have been needed to close the line.
In the years since then, much of the railway has become overgrown with lush vegetation, many sleepers have rotted and some bridges and embankments have collapsed. Yet some of the track is in near-usable condition and a short stretch running north from Byron carries a solar-powered tourist train.
On 23 September 2020, a bill allowing parts of the rail route to be converted to bicycle paths ("rail trails") easily passed the NSW Legislative Council with bipartisan support. Oddly, one of the excisions is a 9km stretch from Casino part of the way towards Lismore. The track there is close to roads which would seem ideal for cycling without all the trouble and expense of clearing old rails and sleepers. Hence, this whole action is presumably a foot-in-the door from interests that want the railway eliminated permanently (we think that railway land in North Lismore may be attractive to developers, rather like what happened in Newcastle). For the other proposed excision, around Murwillumbah, constructing an attractive cycle path beside the old rails would appear to be a simple matter that does not require millions to be spent digging out the old track.
Thinking has changed since the 1988 Booz Allen Hamilton report recommended, on purely financial grounds, closing all NSW country passenger services. It is now recognised that efficient passenger railways are an important contribution to country living and can have environmental benefits if the need for car or air travel is reduced.
Rather than cutting the rail corridor, the NSW government should prepare a transport plan for the Northern Rivers region that recognises population growth along the coast and its closeness to the Gold Coast conurbation (popn. more than 500,000). At the western end, Lismore and Goonellabah comprise a substantial town (over 40,000 people) with the main campus of Southern Cross University. On the coast, there are numerous growing towns from Ballina northwards to Tweed Heads totalling over 50,000 people. Byron Bay already has so much car traffic that the council is seeking ways to limit car travel.
The major travel demand lines are east-west between Lismore and Byron and north-south from Ballina through Tweed Heads to Queensland's Gold Coast. The Queensland government has funded investigating a business case for a Stage 4 extension of the Gold Coast light rail southwards to Coolangatta. The NSW government, working in conjunction with the Queensland government, should seek Federal funding to restore rail services (passenger and freight) to the Northern Rivers region, with a connection to Coolangatta.
You could help save the rails by signing Abigail Boyd's petition here.