Save our Station - Benalla fights back

By Simon Ruppert

Submitted by SOS committee member Suzie Pearce

Benalla grew with the railways and for many years was known as a railway town.

Numerous railway families have fond memories of that heyday. They were a proud, hard-working multicultural community following World War II.

There is little evidence of that thriving period today.

All buildings except the neglected Goods Shed and Signal Box have been demolished or moved.

Especially notable is the engine turntable, which has historic classification yet is now an unidentifiable brick-lined hole.

Of greater sadness is that Benalla's once beautiful station, built in 1873, was partly demolished in 1974 to correct an oversight.

Its original design with clocktower was similar to Albury Station.

Today Albury Station and its surrounding precinct are a tourist attraction in their own right.

Emotions and mistrust run hot when there is another threat to Benalla's station and limiting access to the station is that threat today.

So, too, potential flooding and safety.

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Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) wants to build a new, large overpass to enable 1.8 km-long double-stacked freight trains transit Benalla as part of the Inland Freight Rail Project.

It would use the XPT passenger Line beside Mackellar St, built in the 1960s, as the standard-guage line and known to railwaymen as the Eastern Line.

This new overpass would compound existing access problems not resolve them.

The Eastern Line was built when Benalla had no room for a new track west of the station.

It created the need for an overpass to give access to the station.

Those works undercatered for pedestrians and cars and didn't cater at all for regional buses arriving and turning at the station.

To address the bus oversight it was asserted that part of the station building was irreparably riddled with white ants and needed to be demolished.

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With the first blow to the clock tower the misinformation was revealed.

It was built of oregan, which white ants do not eat.

ARTC plans for the new overpass show entrance/exit ramps running parallel to Mackellar St from Salisbury to Carrier Sts rising to an about 10-metre-high overpass almost opposite Smythe St.

It would dwarf the existing overpass and have an undoubted visual impact on the local area.

Past and present VicRoad engineers, civil and shire engineers, plus town planners question the ARTC design.

All dislike the current overpass access from Mackellar St and have expressed great concern for the new plan.

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If built, the new overpass would reduce the already-limited parking by 20 spaces and force passengers to park and then walk from surrounding residential streets.

This is problematic because Benalla has an especially large ageing population and because the existing underpass access does not meet Australian Standards for disabled or elderly use.

It is too long on the Railway Parade side and too steep from Mackellar St.

It is not identified for improvement.

There is no dedicated taxi rank now and none proposed.

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Up to 44 coaches a day access the station when used to replace passenger rail services.

They are proven too large and dangerous to easily manoeuvre in an area created for smaller buses.

The new plans will not resolve this.

Residents are fearful of future flooding with an increased overpass.

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In 1993 the existing overpass became a flood barrier deflecting water into surrounding residential areas causing inundation as water tried to get to the river around the station.

This disallowed their insurance.

Minimal flood mitigation works have been undertaken since to allay their fears.

Of note, the Eastern Line flooded, but not lines west of the station.

An artists impression of access to Benalla Station with the XPT line removed

Some residents also fear that the proposed double-stacked containers might tip onto Mackellar St as the track is rocky.

Better Benalla Rail proposes relocating 1.3 km of the Eastern Line from the east to western side of the station, so all freight trains can travel straight through Benalla more quietly and safely, in both directions.

This would negate the need for a new overpass or new underpass.

The plan is based on professional advice and is easily achievable.

Stubbornness not logic opposes it.

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ARTC argues line relocation would be more costly than their allocated budget for Benalla because of signal works, but will not substantiate those claims with actual figures.

Railwaymen say signal works need upgrading anyway under this or the $235m north-east line upgrade and infrastructure program.

ARTC is playing with the truth.

It stated at a public meeting (BPACC, Novemeber 20) that it would not build a new overpass, would remove the existing overpass and build a new underpass instead.

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No underpass details were forthcoming then or since.

They showed an image of a steep three-level set of access stairs, but would not be drawn on how disabled or elderly passengers would manage these.

Threat of flood should cancel this idea.

Since that meeting all information presented at that meeting has been verbally rescinded.

Better Benalla Rail made a presentation to Council's Planning Committee last Wednesday asking that council fully commit opposing a new overpass or underpass and support relocating the Eastern Line.

BBR also asked that it (BBR) be included in stakeholder discussions as representatives of the community.

While agreeing with everything said, "council has not yet framed any recommendations.”

Subsequent discussions with Benalla Rural City Council chief executive officer Dominic Testoni has revealed that council has finally secured a meeting with state and federal government representatives on February 18.

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They are also not confident that they have been fully and correctly informed.

The community will not accept any compromised agreement that might result from that meeting.

This is a difficult threat for a community based group to fight.

Benalla and its wider community who also use our station must be united, loud and determined in opposition.

The fight involves a federal plan using state government land and assets, leased or otherwise.

There are five bureaucracies involved: ARTC, VicTrack, VicRail, Federal Department of Infrastructure and Benalla Rural City Council who all want to achieve the best outcome, but many are led by desktop plans conceived in South Australia.

Our politicians have all implied they will help when they see that we are more than just a handful of residents opposing the ARTC plan.

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As a regional town none in Benalla should oppose the Inland Rail Project intended to help grow regional businesses and reduce the number of trucks using public roads and highways.

What we oppose are the planned works in Benalla to achieve it.

If we lose, the damage to our station and railway precinct will be forever.

Passengers will be disinclined to use trains and tourism will find our Benalla rail gateway uninviting.

We want to improve, not lessen, opportunities for our rail future.

There is an urgency for decisions to be made as ARTC wants to put plans out to tender by the end of the year.

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BBR has prepared an extensive program of community consultation and will operate from a pop-up shop in Nunn St from March 5.

To be convincing they need thousands of you to commit to their campaign and be prepared for militant action to get political support if need be.

The group has a website, which is due to go live in the near future - The Ensign will promote that as and when it is available.

● In the meantime, for more information, search for @Better Rail for Benalla on Facebook.