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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Gabriel Fowler

Hunter Valley's 'beloved' Picnic Train needs more time to find new home

Chris Richards standing in front of a R766 Steam Train which will need to be removed from the North Rothbury site to make way for the Huntlee housing estate development. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

WITHOUT enough time, and more than $1 million dollars to relocate by road, the Hunter Valley's beloved Picnic Train may come to a screaming halt and hundreds of historic railway items abandoned.

The Picnic Train and the charity behind it, along with a host of other not-for-profit entities involved with historic trains and railways, are pleading for up to three years to move off the $1.5 billion Huntlee development site at North Rothbury.

In a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, Huntlee Pty Ltd and their subsidiary, Misthold Pty Ltd, have won their bid to re-possess the land on Wine Country Drive which was once the hub of a $10 million heritage railway collection first homed there in 1990.

The only issue left for Justice Anthony Payne to resolve is when the land must be vacated. The developers behind the Huntlee housing estate are pushing for "no more than six months" in which time they say "the materials" on the site could be removed in "an orderly and safe manner".

Simone De Beuzeville of Aberglasslyn, a director of the registered charity Picnic Train, said her organisation owned about $2 million worth of locomotive equipment, tools, spare parts and machinery stored at the North Rothbury site.

It would take up to six months to move all of those items, and up to three years to organise and relocate the rolling stock, she said in an affadavit filed in the Supreme Court.

If it were forced to move in a matter of months, it would most likely for them to close down their operations, she said, which would be "devastating to the Hunter Valley region as our beloved historic trains are part of the community".

Her husband Paul Stapleton, who runs Sydney Railway Services Pty Ltd which operated the Picnic Train for six years before it was separately registered in February 2021, said that without a "reasonable timeframe", they would be forced to abandon about $150,000 worth of equipment and machinery.

The company, which employs 45 people including 30 full-time workers, had occupied the land since 2003 and had not been fully aware that their tenure could be at risk so soon.

"The impact on the Picnic Train would be devastating", he said.

Ben Parker, who owns 16 rail carriages stored at the site, estimates it will cost $235,000 to relocate his property by road, and would need up to two years to build a new shed to house them in at an alternative site.

The managing director of the Dorrigo Steam Railway and Museum, Keith Jones, which claims to have the largest collection of railway items in the world, said thanks to a deceased estate, they have $160,000 set aside to remove the six locomotives they have at North Rothbury, two of which are heritage listed, but that their removal would be a "logistics nightmare".

He described the North Rothbury site as "disorganised, undulating, severely congested" and with very little accessible space to accommodate the safe operation of mobile cranes and heavy haulage road vehicles, plus the needs of 20 other groups also needing to vacate the site.

Another affected trains enthusiast, the president of the Sydney Electric Train Society Inc, Hugh Burns, said he owned seven items of railway rolling stock at North Rothbury and asked for 12-24 months to remove them.

The society would have to conduct fundraising from its members and the public for the money needed to remove all of the society's items, up to $140,000 by road, and there was no guarantee they could do that, he said in his affadavit also tendered in court.

The matter comes back before Justice Payne on July 15.

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