22 November 2023

Inland Rail swerves to avoid protest rumours ahead of Wagga drop-in session

| Chris Roe
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Cr Richard Foley and members of Wagga Residents & Ratepayers Association

Cr Richard Foley and members of Wagga Residents & Ratepayers Association gather outside the library to voice their frustration over today’s (22 November) cancelled Inland Rail meeting. Photo: Chris Roe.

While it’s not generally a good idea to play chicken with a train, it seems that in the case of the Wagga Ratepayers versus Inland Rail, the train has swerved first.

Just hours out from a scheduled community information session at Wagga Library today (22 November), Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) announced that they were calling it off.

“Inland Rail has postponed the drop-in session scheduled for Wagga Wagga City Library on Wednesday 22nd November on the Albury to Ilabo (A2I) Preferred Infrastructure Report (PIR),” they said in a media release at 6:30 pm on Tuesday (21 November).

“We have become aware of potential protest activity at the Wagga Wagga drop-in session so are postponing the event to allow us to make appropriate arrangements for a rescheduled event, including a revised location to ensure a safe environment for all those attending and to minimise disruption for the local community.”

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An ARTC representative confirmed that Thursday’s drop-in (21 November) at Junee’s Athenium Theatre would go ahead and the Wagga meeting has been rescheduled for next Tuesday (28 November) at the Wagga Showground.

Wagga Residents & Ratepayers Association’s Chris Roche said that while they had been actively encouraging people to attend, the news of a protest came as a surprise.

“We haven’t organised anything, the only thing I’ve heard of was that someone recommended people put red ribbons on their car aerials,” he said.

“I guess red ribbons must be very scary!”

The North Wagga viaduct.

The integrity of the North Wagga viaduct is one of the concerns raised by Wagga Ratepayers. Photo: ARTC.

In response to the postponement, a small protest of sorts did materialise today outside Wagga’s Council Chambers as Mr Roche, members of the Wagga Ratepayers and Councillor Richard Foley assembled the media to give ARTC a serve.

“I just think all this ducking and weaving’s really disappointing,” Mr Roche said.

“They don’t want to come and face the music … we don’t want a drop-in forum. We want a question-and-answer where we will ask questions from the floor and they will answer in a public forum.”

Speaking to Region on Tuesday (21 November), ARTC environment manager Wayne Window said the scheduled community information sessions were not designed as a forum for debate.

“So it’s not intended to be a public meeting or public debate on the merits of the project, that’s got to go through that formalised submission system,” he said.

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A small group of ARTC staff and security were on hand at the Wagga Library to advise anyone who may have missed the cancellation notice.

Cr Foley described the situation as “appalling”.

“They’ve got two security guards on the inside there because they’re concerned about the aging ratepayers going to attack them,” he shrugged, adding that while no one wanted a physical fight, the political “brawl” was heating up.

“We have to fight at a local level now to get what we want. It’s a political fight now, it’s beyond complaints. It’s beyond public meetings.”

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that there is more to ARTC’s decision to call off the meeting than meets the eye.

A letter to the editor, published in Wagga’s The Daily Advertiser on Wednesday (22 November), took aim at Inland Rail and the Federal Member for the Riverina, declaring that it was “Time to blockade the line and the office of Mr McCormack”.

A furious Michael McCormack told Region the letter bordered on “inciting insurrection”.

“I think people calling for a blockade of the line is next-level stupid and next-level irresponsible,” he said.

“It’s dangerous to all the passengers who use the XPT between Melbourne and Sydney and I think that letter should never have left that person’s typewriter.

“I’m really disappointed that that letter would surface in Wagga Wagga. I thought our city was above that.”

Michael McCormack

Member for Riverina Michael McCormack described a call to ‘blockade the line’ as inciting insurrection. Photo: Chris Roe.

Back at the library, after outlining their concerns over a lack of public consultation, Mr Roche and Cr Foley headed inside to speak with ARTC stakeholder engagement staff.

“We asked about the public forum next Tuesday and asked to make the first hour a Q&A session,” Mr Roche said.

“We got the same material, the same responses. We got nothing. They’re trying to pass the buck saying this is all the Federal Government’s allowing us to do.

“We want someone who can answer questions and make decisions.”

Cr Foley said they would take their call to the next level.

“We’re inviting McCormack and [Member for Wagga Wagga, Dr Joe] McGirr to invite the higher echelons of ARTC to come to Wagga next week,” he said.

Cr Richard Foley

Cr Richard Foley wants ARTC to include a Q&A session at the postponed Inland Rail forum. Photo: Chris Roe.

Both Mr McCormack and Dr McGirr confirmed to Region that they would support the call for a Q&A session.

“I think it’s imperative that appropriate senior personnel be available to answer questions from the community,” Dr McGirr said.

“‘I’ll be seeking the Minister’s support for this to happen.”

Mr McCormack agreed that ARTC should have a community forum that should be conducted in “a calm, reasoned and moderate fashion”.

“I think there needs to be explanations from the ARTC about the length of trains and need to reiterate the delays and potential delays at crossings and what is going to be done there, and they need to also explain the whys and wherefores of any potential bypass,” he said.

“But it’s also important to remember that Inland Rail has brought tens of millions of dollars to this city already and it’s been on the drawing board since long before I was the elected member.

“I would ask people to attend in a fair and open-minded manner because I think some of the stuff that’s been said and written about Inland Rail and about the project is beyond the pale quite frankly.”

The rescheduled drop-in session will be held at the Wagga Wagga Showgrounds, Kyeamba Smith Hall, between 3 and 7 pm on Tuesday 28 November.

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