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The 5m rule is a devastating and demoralising blow to cycleway plans and the enthusiasts behind them, especially for the link between Dunedin and Central Otago.
KiwiRail last week issued empty pronouncements about how it supported the development of cycleways on railway land, as long as their design ensured safety and did not restrict business operations. It even said it recognised the community's desire for a cycleway between Abbotsford and Wingatui and it would continue to work with parties on how the cycleway can proceed.
But all that is meaningless if, as it seems, the 5m is an impossible impediment. This is not a question of escalating costs, although they might come into it. But, as Dunedin Tunnels Trail Trust chairman Gerard Hyland said, the ruling meant parts of the track could not be built. On the Dunedin side of the tunnels there were pinch points ''we can't get around''.
The trust raised $500,000 on property and worked to build part of the track at a tunnel entrance. It had been working with KiwiRail, a design was submitted and then the 5m, instead of 3m, emerged.
Central Gold Trail trustee Murray Paterson, meanwhile, said the change ''could well make a difference'' to plans for the proposed Lawrence to Waihola trail.
The safety reason for trail users is perverse. First something has to come free from a train. Then that something has to jump the 3m and the fence. Then it has to occur at the very moment a cyclist, or perhaps a walker, is going past.
Of course, such an incident can never be ruled out but the odds of all those happenings coinciding are close to negligible.
How much more dangerous it is just to drive a car? And how much more dangerous to cycle on highways with cars and trucks passing close to a metre away? Even the concrete dividers on the new parts of the cycleway on the one-way system in Dunedin are only about 1.5m. Most vehicles are also much less than 3m across.
Cycling for recreation is booming. Off a low base, it is also expanding for commuting across the South. Mosgiel is Dunedin's growth area, and the trail from Wingatui to town through tunnels would have provided a route both direct and interesting.
Cycling in safe places is also healthy, but KiwiRail is doing its bit to undermine both health and safety through this over-the-top ruling.
Perhaps the real reason lies in making life safer, but particularly easier, for its staff and for its business operation. And these considerations are acknowledged in its statement. While KiwiRail has managed with a 3m gap, no doubt the wider area makes operations more straightforward. The safety excuse becomes a nice add-on, especially with the changes in recent years to safety legislation and potential culpability.
Port Otago, likewise, is proposing to extend restrictions on its Dunedin wharves under the health and safety rationale. Although there are underlying and legitimate concerns, it appears to be unwilling to put up with a little inconvenience for the sake of public recreation.
KiwiRail is publicly owned and the taxpayer has regularly had to come to its aid. The company, and the Government as owners on the public's behalf, owe it to the community to find a way that cycleways can be built. If in places the 5m is not possible, so be it.