Cowper a ‘catalyst’ for highway upgrade 30 years on

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"THE Cowper bus crash … was a seismic shift in how road transportation happened in Australia."

 The Cowper and Clybucca bus crashes in 1989 were "catalysts" that helped garner attention and push forward the immediate need for dual-carriageway.

The road that saw Australia's two worst road disasters will be completely dual-carriageway from Newcastle to south of Brisbane next year, more than three decades on from the tragedies dubbed the "catalysts" that led to the project.

Clarence Valley Councillor, former mayor and 2GF radio presenter Richie Williamson was a schoolboy when the crash happened, but even as a child he knew the impact it had on his community.

David Bancroft, Richie Williamson and Bryan Robins look over the Cowper Memorial at See Park in preparation for the 30th anniversary of the Cowper Bus Crash.
David Bancroft, Richie Williamson and Bryan Robins look over the Cowper Memorial at See Park in preparation for the 30th anniversary of the Cowper Bus Crash. Adam Hourigan

"I remember walking out and Mum said there's been a terrible crash. The early footage of the bus being laden over in the paddock … I've never forgotten that," he said.

"I know people that were the first responders. It's impossible not to know them in our community. Some of them volunteers, some of them paid, and they all tell varying stories of how that's affected them, and it has deeply."

Councillor Richie Williamson reads the names of the victims of the Cowper bus crash before a minutes silence.
Richie William speaks at the 30th anniversary of the Cowper bus crash on October 20, 2019. Jarrard Potter

Decades later, Williamson made his way into local politics and joined a taskforce of councillors from Newcastle to the Queensland border, with a common goal - to lobby for the road that had claimed too many in their communities to be dual-carriageway.

Mike Emerson was mayor of Grafton City Council from 1987 to 1991, he knew all too well the treacherous road that lay just beyond the council border.

"That stretch of highway outside Ulmarra is a very narrow part of the highway and one can see how it occurred, and subsequently the one at Kempsey at Clybucca," he said.

"It was a terribly tragic event and most people would've been aware of the dangers that the highway presented because it was such a major artery and yet the governments hadn't given it due recognition."

Emerson stood for the federal seat of Page in the 1993 election, securing funding for the project was the key issue for local communities at the time.

"Even though noises were made at the time by state and federal (governments) to do something about it they wouldn't allocate funds … at the time of the bus accident everyone's attention was focused on producing a dual highway as soon as possible but it took many years to get to that stage," he said.

"It's one thing to promise but another thing to provide the funding to carry out the promises."

By 2001 small sections of the highway upgrade had begun, but the entire project was years from completion with funds still to be sought. When project director of 17 years, Bob Higgins arrived in the role around 20 per cent had been completed, but a mammoth task lay ahead of him. 

When he began in 2000, fatalities were common, in the high 40s and 50s each year.

The intersection of the Pacific Highway and Gwydir highway, with a roundabout construction as part of Grafton bridge project.
The Woolgoolga to Ballina section of the Pacific Highway upgrade section is due for completion in 2020. Adam Hourigan

"This was even well after the Cowper and the Clybucca bus crashes, which led to the decision to dual-carriageway the highway," he said.

"We were still getting them even though we were doing work on the highway and had safety measures to try and keep it as safe as we could. Ultimately the decision to dual-carriage was the decision that led to the reduction."

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Higgins visited communities along the highway and the memorials dedicated to the lives lost in the Cowper and Clybucca tragedies, he quickly realised the deadly road symbolised grief and loss for those communities and agreed it has been a long wait for safety measures to be implemented. 

"These are things that affect the community in a big way, directly and indirectly," he said. 

Mr Higgins took that role seriously wanting to leave behind a legacy of a safer road with the hope it could closure to some of the victims. 

"They were all involved and to a large degree when you talk to them, they've lost family and friends on that highway and to help them get some closure is to be involved in the highway upgrade," he said.

understanding the emotional toll, Higgins said the logistics of the operation couldn't be underestimated. 

"We've got to understand the amount of money that governments had to put into it, 15, 16 billion dollars, and it's had to come from somewhere for it to happen."


The Woolgoolga to Ballina highway upgrade director Bob Higgins at the Harwood Bridge. Picture by Luke Marsden.
Pacific Highway upgrade project director Bob Higgins.

"We would all like things to happen quickly … it's a long process involved … we had to work with property owners to acquire the land … then we have to work through the design and the concept design and all the environmental issues that go with it."

"Our job was to get the job done, but also to drive value for money and so we're building a highway that's safe, that c an reduce accidents but also it's a highway that services those communities along the east coast, that services traffic, local and regular traffic, and looks after as best as we can the environments and the land holders that live along it."

By 2006 Higgins said the route had been finalised ready for when the funds flowed in. 

"The actual building process of a section might only take three or four years but getting it all set up and then getting it all timed when money is available when the money does become available."

Higgins retired in 2017, three years before the project's scheduled completion, but he is looking forward to seeing it finally completed. 

"You look at the standard and what we were trying to achieve early and the team are there. It's just we just need a little bit more patience with the road users and everyone and it will all come together and we'll have this safer road along the east coast, from one end of the state border right through to Newcastle. A much safer drive than it was in the past."