A monumental restoration effort has breathed new life into historic railway infrastructure in the Tweed Shire, with construction of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail (NRRT) reviving and preserving 26 ageing railway bridges and 574m of railway tunnel.

The 24km trail follows the Tweed region’s historic rail corridor from the central hub of Murwillumbah to the southern village of Crabbes Creek, weaving through lush landscapes, charming towns and, significantly, restored bridges and tunnels – some built more than a century ago. The $14.5 million project was delivered and managed by Tweed Shire Council, in partnership with NSW Public Works, construction company Hazell Bros and heritage specialists Urbis.

In recent years, the Tweed region has been devastated by floods, bushfires and droughts, but this new trail offers a chance for the local communities to bounce back, with recreational, economic and tourism opportunities along the route.

Commitment to preservation

The project team’s commitment to preserving and celebrating the heritage of the trail has already been acknowledged, taking out first place in the Conservation – Landscape category at the prestigious National Trust Heritage Awards in May 2023. The award underscores the success of the Tweed section of the Rail Trail, which has attracted more than 108,000 visitors since its opening on 1 March 2023.

NRRT Project Director, Iain Lonsdale, said the Rail Trail’s win in the Conservation – Landscape category was testament to the dedication invested in preserving and showcasing the rail, natural and cultural heritage aspects of the NRRT. “This recognition highlights our commitment to preserving and celebrating the diverse cultural and rail heritage of the Tweed region,” Mr Lonsdale said.

“The Rail Trail was recognised for several key heritage components. Notably, it showcased a strong commitment to cultural heritage by integrating a range of Aboriginal stories along the trail, paying homage to and celebrating the heritage of the trail, villages and region.

“Another notable heritage component is the rail heritage signage strategically placed along the trail, providing informative insights into the region’s rail history and its enduring significance.”

Rejuvenating history

Left vacant and abandoned since 2004, the State heritage-listed Murwillumbah Railway Station was also lovingly rejuvenated, restoring its captivating charm and historical features. Restoration of the trail’s tunnels and bridges stands as one of the largest heritage components of the project. Out of a total of 26 bridges, 16 were meticulously restored for Rail Trail users to traverse, while ten were bypassed and retained for their inherent heritage value.

The Rail Trail also features two tunnels—the Burringbar Range Tunnel, spanning an impressive 524m and showcasing the habitat of microbats and glow worms, and the Hulls Road Tunnel, measuring 50m in length. NSW Public Works Project Manager, North Coast Region, Clint Nittolo, who helped manage the project, said construction and restoration of the bridges and tunnels was of particular importance to the job.

“Construction of the Tweed section of the NRRT was the result of a collaboration between Tweed Shire Council, NSW Public Works, Urbis and Hazell Bros’ construction teams,” Mr Nittolo said. “Our project’s intention, from concept stage, was to maximise the opportunity for an elegant and efficient design by incorporating existing infrastructure where possible.

“After thorough assessment and reporting on the condition of bridges along the trail, we chose to utilise the existing bridge substructures wherever possible, including timber piles and pile caps, only replacing the superstructure as part of the project works.”

Responsible heritage restoration

The restoration process was complex, as some bridges had an American-inspired steel through-truss design, most notably the Dunbible Creek Bridge. Works took five months and required consultation from leading steel treatment experts, including the team behind the steel preservation treatment of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

“Utilising the existing structures limited the need for extensive construction materials, plant and personnel and also reduced project capital costs,” Mr Nittolo said. “We also removed and replaced steel protection on existing steel bridges. Some bridges required sandblasting to remove existing lead-based paint protection, necessitating significant environmental and health and safety controls, as well as temporary scaffolding and encapsulation.

“A standout example was the heritage-listed Dunbible Creek Bridge, where the removal of lead-contaminated coatings and the application of a new paint system extended the bridge’s design life by another century. “A small number of bridges were bypassed but remain in place along the trail as significant landmark features. Their decayed condition provides a stark contrast to those that have been restored which highlights the significant restoration work that went into this project.”

Mr Nittolo said minimal work was undertaken on the trail’s railway tunnels, constructed in 1894, to preserve their history. “The Burringbar Range Tunnel is one of the longest in New South Wales at 524m in length. It was important to ensure this tunnel and the Hulls Road Tunnel (50m long) retained their original material and form.

“Lighting was not introduced to help preserve the habitat of local glow worms and microbats. To increase public safety, a hard-packed gravel surface was established, and reflectors also installed along the edges of tunnel walls.”

Galvanising success

Mr Nittolo said the restoration journey was met with some obstacles that threatened to derail the project, including the 2022 floods.

However, these setbacks ultimately galvanised team resolve and contributed to the project’s success. “Some bridges presented unforeseen issues, including termite damage and unsuitable abutments,” Mr Nittolo said.

“As a result, we needed to either replace these elements or design and construct abutment extensions to meet design intent. When we installed new timber bridges and, more specifically, abutment retaining walls, we took measures to mitigate the risk of termites affecting the new structures.” Heavy rain at times meant the project also faced water damage to unsealed tunnel paths, with the team forced to clear drainage paths and use a polymer product to prevent erosion.

“The heavy rainfall event in February 2022 was a significant obstacle, causing record flooding that not only inundated parts of the project, but also thousands of homes in the Northern Rivers region,” Mr Nittolo said. “We decided to pause the project for six weeks to assist in kerbside clean-up and minor emergency restoration works, which helped our teams form stronger bonds and ultimately contributed to the project’s success.”

Back on track

Since the Rail Trail’s opening in March, the Tweed has hosted 108,829 trail guests – averaging 16,329 visitors per month, 3,726 people per week or 532 people daily. With such great numbers, plenty of people are taking advantage of what the NRRT has to offer.

Tweed Shire Council Manager Destination, Communications and Customer Service, Tiffany Stodart, said the Rail Trail provides a smorgasbord of recreational activities for residents and visitors. “While Rail Trail users can enjoy walking, hiking, trail running and cycling on the trail, there are a variety of additional ways to enjoy the Tweed’s newest major recreational attraction,” Ms Stodart said.

“The Rail Trail passes through natural areas, making them excellent spots for bird watching and wildlife observation and some amazing vistas of Wollumbin/Mt Warning. “This is in addition to the many local experiences on offer along the trail including farm stays, picnics, cafes, wine and cheese tasting, local farms and produce stalls, art, printmaking and much more. The Rail Trail also offers a connection point to visit the must-see Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre to complement the experience.”

Ms Stodart said the Rail Trail had already demonstrated significant benefits for the local community and economy. “The Rail Trail attracts visitors from all over Australia and that has enormous positive impacts for the Tweed,” Mr Stodart said. “These include economic growth for local businesses, job opportunities, promoting an active lifestyle, contributing to environmental preservation and providing an eco-friendly means of transportation.”

The Tweed section of the NRRT forms the first section of what will be a 132km trail, connecting the Tweed with Byron Shire, Lismore and Casino. Funding for the Tweed section of the NRRT was provided by the Federal Government, under its Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Package Fund, and the New South Wales Government under the Restart NSW fund.

By restoring these heritage features, the NRRT has become an asset for the local community to attract visitors and keep people active, while also educating the public about the history and biodiversity of the region.

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