O’Keefe rail trail. Photo: Andrew Perryman

AN extension of the O’Keefe Rail Trail will be among the first sections built in an $18 million, 78-kilometre trail that could one day link Bendigo and Melbourne.

The plan will go before the Mitchell Shire council within a month, with the proposed route potentially forming the key central link of a trail running from inner Melbourne all to Bendigo.

But consultation about the Wallan to Heathcote Rail Trail proposal has come under fire from some residents, and the authors of the feasibility study who have declared the project “feasible” have acknowledged dissenting landowners along the route are a critical hurdle.

It has recommended a staged construction, starting around population centres or on stretches where there is little resistance from landholders stating, “experience indicates that many landowners would change their opinion as they become more aware of the proposal and speak to other landowners along nearby operational rail trails”.

Construction of the O’Keefe Rail Trail, which links Bendigo and Heathcote and took 15 years to complete, was used as a case study for the Wallan to Heathcote feasibility report and the City of Greater Bendigo contributed funding.

The author, Bendigo-based consultant RMCG, said the project was feasible when compared with other recent local rail trail developments.

It estimated the proposed trail would bring in tourism dollars and health benefits worth $23.1m.

But RSCG also cautioned the $17.8m cost was an underestimate and did not cover land acquisition costs.

Marla Stone, a resident at Pyalong in the Mitchell Shire, said she was concerned not enough effort had gone into the contacting landowners to consult them.

About 45 per cent of proposed 160-hectare area of the Wallan to Heathcote Rail Trail is owned by private landowners.

Of the 54 landholders, 17 were not able to be contacted, the report said.

Ms Stone argued that landowners who were unhappy about the proposal did not reply to an letter sent to them but there was no follow up.

She said no direct consultation had been carried out with landowners other than those who owned land despite some having commercial interests which intersected the trail.

Ms Stone said her family business was heavy vehicle transport for surrounding farms and her trucks used a road that formed part of the rail trail as mapped out in the feasibility study.

The study’s authors said cost projections did not include acquiring land.

Deviations from the proposed trail were an option if it meant land for the trail could be secured, the report said.

Once land access issues were resolved, construction was relatively simple because it followed the historic railway formation.

– Sharon Kemp