Mr PETER DRAPER
(Tamworth) [11.58 a.m.]: Two weeks ago National Rail Safety Week was held, and I used that opportunity to remind local residents to take care and to obey all signals at railway level crossings and when near rail lines. Locals in Nemingha, Kootingal and Duri have welcomed recent upgrades to their level crossings, as have motorists on the Kamilaroi Highway. Those safety devices are vital on rural and regional roads, where long, dark trains can run at irregular intervals. Rail crossings are causing different problems in Gunnedah, where residents are calling for a second rail overpass to help deal with delays caused by increasing rail traffic through the town. While we all welcome and encourage as much freight traffic as possible being moved onto rail, this must be balanced with investment in the necessary infrastructure to support those movements.
Planning Minister Tony Kelly met recently with the Mayor of Gunnedah, Adam Marshall, and me on site to witness the impact of longer and more frequent coal trains on traffic movements through Gunnedah's level crossings, including the impact on the town's one ageing and narrow overpass when the crossings are blocked. With approximately 700 metres between the New Street and Marquis Street crossings, slow-moving coal trains that are 1.2 kilometres long can block them for extended periods. Often these blockages cause virtual gridlock at the Abbott Street overpass. This in turn can prevent emergency service vehicles from moving from one side of town to the other, and obviously that could be disastrous.
Gunnedah residents are rightly concerned that as new coalmines are brought on line this problem will be greatly exacerbated. Currently there are approximately 12 coal movements through Gunnedah each day in addition to wheat, cotton and container traffic, plus the two passenger trains that use the line. Alarmingly, it is estimated that by 2018 Gunnedah could see a coal train pass through the town every 24 minutes, 24 hours a day, in addition to the other rail traffic. While the coal boom has had many benefits for Gunnedah, there is growing pressure on the town's infrastructure, which urgently needs addressing. The rail line cuts the town in two, which poses major problems, particularly when the fire brigade, police and ambulance are on the opposite side of the rail line to residential areas.
Gunnedah's rail overpass, which forms part of the Oxley Highway, was built in 1941, and while council says that it is structurally sound, it does have major concerns due to its narrowness, such as safety issues with pedestrian movements. Council has already identified the need for this overpass to be widened to address those safety issues, and also the need for an overpass to be constructed at one of the three other level crossings to alleviate delays. Gunnedah Shire Council is very proactive, and in conjunction with the Roads and Traffic Authority and the Australian Rail Track Corporation it is undertaking a traffic study to determine future needs regarding Gunnedah's rail crossings and supporting road infrastructure. They should be congratulated on this initiative.
Mayor Marshall went to great pains to explain to Minister Kelly the need to be aware of the impact on infrastructure in Gunnedah when he makes planning decisions on future coalmines to the north of the town. Minister Kelly clearly understood the issues and promised to take on board the outcome of the traffic study when it is released. Gunnedah Shire Council and its residents are hopeful he will adopt any recommendations quickly and support the need for new infrastructure to overcome this increasingly dangerous situation.
Gunnedah is not the only community in the north-west to face railway crossing challenges, with both Quirindi and Scone residents recently highlighting the problems their towns face. Last week, sadly, we saw a clear example of the problems a blocked level crossing can cause, when unfortunately a man died after being hit by a train at Scone. The man was struck by a Pacific National coal train at about 2.20 a.m., leaving the crossing on the New England Highway closed or partially blocked until about 11.00 a.m. This accident caused an eight-hour delay for motorists, and highlighted a problem with rail crossings that will only worsen in many towns as the coal haulage task rapidly increases.
If action is not taken quickly to address this problem in Gunnedah, we could well see the crossings closed more frequently than they are open as rail traffic volumes continually increase. As planning proceeds for new mines north of the town, supporting infrastructure needed to deal with the expansion must be funded and built concurrently. This need for infrastructure investment is a good argument in support of the royalties for regions concept, to support communities impacted by mining developments. The latest Whitehaven licence conditions require the mining company to contribute to the upkeep and improvement of infrastructure in the area. It is now up to the Government to ensure this is done to meet the evolving needs of the Gunnedah community.