Push to turn Otford to Stanwell Park tunnel into rail trail

The disused rail tunnel between Otford and Stanwell Park has been overgrown and covered in graffiti for years, but a small group of Helensburgh residents sees big potential in the heritage-listed track.

Supported by cycling, walking and tourism bodies, the newly formed group is asking the NSW government to fund a ‘‘rail trail’’ through the tunnel to help attract more visitors to the northern Illawarra

They are initially asking for $130,000 to fund feasibility, engineering and heritage studies for the 1.5-kilometre tunnel. They have written to Heathcote MP Lee Evans in the hope of gaining his support.

‘‘The tunnel would give an alternative route for cyclists or people who want to do the walk from the Royal National Park and the project would link up with [Wollongong City Council’s] Grand Pacific Walk,’’ rail trail tunnel group president Warwick Erwin said.

‘‘And the history of the tunnel makes it very attractive, especially for railway enthusiasts.’’

The trail is supported by various sports and tourism outlets, including the Illawarra Bicycle Users Group, which says it would provide a safer link between the ‘‘hazardous’’ road between Bald Hill and Lawrence Hargrave Drive.

Destination Wollongong general manager Mark Sleigh said he ‘‘wholeheartedly’’ supported the rail trail.

‘‘[It] has the potential to greatly enhance tourism in the northern Illawarra, provide safe cycling and walking paths and create an alternative link to the southern fringes of Sydney, while traversing the beautiful escarpment, enjoying spectacular scenery and resulting in a marked economic impact for local businesses,’’ he said.

Despite this strong backing, it seems unlikely the tunnel will be funded in the immediate future, after it was announced last week the Restart NSW fund would set aside $50 million solely for the development of ‘‘pilot’’ rail trails in northern NSW.

The fund guidelines say any  expressions of interest for a share of the cash must relate to projects on the Casino-Murwillumbah and Rosewood-Tumbarumba rail lines.

The Wollongong group has decided to push ahead with their application anyway.

On Monday, Cr Greg Petty will ask Wollongong council to write to various state and federal politicians to garner support.

‘‘The history, uniqueness and geography are all good reasons why we should be doing something about this,’’ Cr Petty said.

‘‘And there is a whole group of day destinations in postcode 2508 - like Symbio Wildlife Park, Otford pie shop, Bald Hill – but this tunnel trail would make this place an overnight destination to boost accommodation and get people continuing on to Wollongong.’’

■ The 1.5-kilometre tunnel was built in the 1880s to link Otford with Stanwell Park, during the construction of the South Coast rail line. It runs from Domville Road in Otford to near Chellow Dene Avenue in Stanwell Park.

■ It was closed after just 40 years due to problems with the steep grading of the track. The tunnel became infamous as train carriages were filled with steam and soot during uphill journeys, and drivers and engine men reportedly had to stoop towards the track to try to breathe the air from under the engine.

■ These problems meant a ventilation shaft and chimney were installed in the tunnel.

■ During World War II, the entry of the disused Otford tunnel was blown up as a test run, as part of a plan to slow down any advancing Japanese invasion by destroying tunnels, bridges and roads.

■ A company called Eden Industries set up a mushroom farm in the tunnel in the 1960s, clearing some of the debris from the World War II explosion and replacing the entrance with a concrete section.

■ In recent years, the Chellow Dene Avenue entrance to the tunnel has become a place for graffiti artists and partygoers to congregate, despite attempts to block the entrance with a gate.

Source: Rail Trails for NSW