Once the locations of possible settlements have been identified, the next step is to determine the best modes of access and the routes that they should follow.
In this post, I hope to make the case that, for remote communities, the most effective modes of transport are trains and lighter-than-air vehicles. Of course, roads are necessary for personal journeys and for transport operations where waiting for scheduled services is inconvenient and they will also be discussed. Conventional air services are useful for those occasions where there is an urgent need to travel long distances, but they do require space for and investment in airfields and service buildings and for the present, we can assume that their main uses will be to connect the hubs of outlying settlements with capital cities or other major centres.
Let us discuss each mode of transport in turn. 1.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vast tracts of Africa, South America and to some extent, Australia, were opened up to settlement and exploitation by building railways in from the coast. In Australia’s case, the main interest in railways was to interconnect capital cities in the various states, though there was a quite substantial network to join up settlements supporting agriculture and mining. Sadly, a lot of this secondary network was dismantled or left to languish in the 1970s and 1980s, with a greater emphasis on road haulage. In some cases, this was due to political reasons, with the Railways Union seen as having an undue influence on railway management. However, much of it was also due to the inability of the old and relatively lightweight lines to carry increased traffic. Railway technology has made great advances in recent years and it can be argued that it is time for a renascence of this mode of transport (Note 1).
Arguments for the adoption of railway transport.
Railway transport is better placed to take advantage of green power of various kinds; solar generation (either on-board or sourced from local power plants), hybrid systems (diesel-electric power has been available for more than 50 years) or biofuels (railways can haul more tonnes per kilolitre of carbon-based fuel than the corresponding number of road or air vehicles).
Many years of constructing heavy-duty railway lines for mineral transportation have generated a track construction technology capable of withstanding substantial heat variations and supporting higher speeds. In addition, improvements in engine power have enabled the adoption of trains nearly a kilometre long, loaded with ores or other heavy minerals.
Trains are very versatile, offering services dedicated to carrying people or goods or mixtures of the two. Last-minute variations in the services are also possible, simply by adding carriages or wagons as required.
The width of a railway “traffic lane” is about the same as that of a road. The unit cost of a railway line is usually somewhat more than a road with the same number of lanes, because the gradients of railway lines must be kept fairly flat, resulting in the need for substantial cuttings and embankments, whereas roads can follow the ground contours to a greater extent. However, the unit cost per lane must, for roads, be multiplied by the number of lanes. On a per-lane basis, maintenance of railway tracks is cheaper than for roads and the capacity of a railway line can usually be increased simply by adding more or longer trains. The capacity of roads beyond a certain point requires additional lanes, in effect creating a second road. Hence, there is a payback over the longer term for railways.
Systems usually entitled Very Fast Trains or VFTs, with speeds of 300 km/hr and more, have been in service in Japan and Europe for many years, though the technology has yet to be adopted in Australia. However, they require specialised track with very long straight sections and where curves are required, they must have a superelevation appropriate to the speed at which the train is travelling. (Superelevation is where the outside rail is higher than the inside rail to counter centrifugal forces). The range of speeds where the superelevation is comfortable is quite limited and in cases of vehicles which are simultaneously high and heavy there may even be a risk of overturning at very low speeds. Hence, VFTs generally require a dedicated track used only by these services, though they may also travel over general-purpose tracks which meet the required specfications for VFT travel..
In Australia, trains are currently quite slow by world standards, though there are now intercity services which do reach speeds of about 100 km/hr on selected sections of standard track. However, it is quite feasible to introduce services (at least in open country) where speeds of 150 km/hr or more can be maintained over long distances on existing tracks. In hilly country where the tracks are weaving through valleys and gaps between hills and outcrops, some realignment with cuttings and embankments may be required to maintain this level of service (Note 1). Nevertheless, in assessing infrastructure needs, speeds of this value will be taken as the norm and services of this kind will be referred to as Fast Trains, or FTs. Trains such as the very long trains which carry ores and other heavy volumes of materials cannot be expected to reach these speeds in the immediate future and they will be referred to as Standard Trains or STs.
Some advantages of train travel.
In addition to its usefulness in transporting goods and people between communities, efficient train services have amenity value which can act as an encouragement to persons thinking of moving to more remote settlements. Features which should be considered include: ·
- At the local level, FTs provide very quick access between clusters of settlements, which may then behave more like the traditional cities we have become used to. They may be conventional trains or railcars, depending upon the amount of traffic to be accommodated. ·
- Currently, great value is placed on having a home within easy reach of the sea. However, sea access for the large majority of residents is mainly valued for recreational reasons. With FT services, a day beside the sea is feasible for people living two or three hundred kilometres away, particularly if the environment and services on the trains are of a high quality.
- Given the time currently required to travel from airport to capital city centres, VFT travel may be a very competitive option between adjacent capitals in cases where time is critical. While the reduction of air travel prices due to the simplification of services offers a substantial challenge on cost, the more comfortable accommodation and better in-journey service on trains plus the city-centre to city-centre routing can still be very attractive. (Note 2).
It is almost axiomatic that the development of new railway lines will start from current centres and especially capital cities, though it may be feasible to commence the construction of railways connecting satellites to hubs in advance of the completion of the external connections. As we are postulating a more distributed population in smaller settlements, a service which is targeted at a very remote settlement will pass others on the way, which means that traffic (and therefore earnings) can be generated well before the project is finally completed as each section comes into use. Some sections of the project may be designated as part of a future VFT link and built to the appropriate specifications, leaving only the final sections connecting projects extending outwards from the major city termini to be a direct charge to the VFT project.
As an aside, I would point out that many of Australia’s capital cities are “overcrowded”, though this is due to the fact that our domestic plot sizes are among the most spacious in the world and many more people could be accommodated (with substantial savings in infrastructure costs) if more compact housing layouts, such as terraced houses and apartment units were made available. The main point I wish to make, however, is that housing pressures could also be relieved by turning adjacent towns and cities (which often have an attractive culture and lifestyle of their own) into satellites. FT connections to these satellites could be the starting point for the networks under discussion.
2. LIGHTER-THAN-AIR VEHICLES.
Like trains, these vehicles are enjoying something of a renascence. While they require ground space and services, the areas required for them is less than a conventional airport. Also, they are not long and narrow, but are quite compact and can be located nearer to the centres of the settlements they service. One issue is the limited supply of helium and research to create safer hydrogen-borne vehicles may pay dividends.
In the USA and Africa, many of the first roads (as we understand roads to be) were actually built to service the railway lines and ran alongside them for many miles. They were (and indeed, many still are) simple two-lane highways, relying on distance to sort out any local congestion. Australia started off the same way, but being a rich country, the arrival of cheap motor cars created a demand for more elaborate roads to make driving more comfortable and the switch to road transport for commercial goods exacerbated the situation by creating more risks for motor car drivers. We now have a situation where the multi-lane divided highways take up large areas of land which could be used for food production, reafforestation or other green activities. One interesting counter-argument is that the hard road surface could act as a significant water catchment if appropriately designed.
One of the greater segments of road transport today is the carriage of goods in standard containers which can be carried on trains with equal ease (and probably greater economy). The role of roads in future, so far as commercial traffic of this kind is concerned, will revert mainly to local distribution. Motor cars in the renewable energy age will not be very long-distance vehicles, due to the need to recharge batteries, although hybrid cars may be more versatile, at some cost to the environment. (Note 3).
There are currently arguments taking place regarding the relative economies of aeroplanes and VFTs. When first introduced, the trains had a certain advantage in that airports were situated well away from city centres, so that extra time and money needed to be spent to complete the journey. Travel costs have been substantially reduced (mainly by cheapening or removing on-board services). However, given the air industry’s dependence upon fossil fuels, it remains to be seen how much longer they can remain competitive. Overseas travel is, of course, a different proposition entirely and air services will be necessary for a long time to come (unless the Chinese vacuum-pipe-housed magdev train is an overwhelming success ! ).
I have been involved in the design and/or construction of railway lines in East Africa (the Gulu-Pakwach railway) and Australia (WA Rail Standardisation Project, Koolyanobbing-Kalgoorlie section). These have presented some interesting design problems. For instance, just how do you shape the intersection of a cutting and an embankment to discourage elephants from walking down the cutting and encountering a train bulging with cotton bales ? Or what is the fairest and most economical way to pay a contractor for constructing embankments out of bulldust (which really does exist and is a clay of the same consistency as talcum powder in its dry state). Also, the general method for computing flows through culverts consists of calculating the catchment area, looking up a table for the volume of rain per unit time and then calculating the maximum flow per unit of time reaching the culvert after flowing the length of the catchment area. However, in Africa and Australia, there are huge and flat catchment areas which result in computed maximum flows which are too small, resulting in frequent washouts of the line. I developed methods of calculation based on local thunderstorms which are much smaller than the catchment areas, but have much more intense rates of rainfall. Culvert capacities calculated in this way are often twice the size of the ones computed using the rote methods. I mention these experiences mainly to illustrate that there is still a lot of scope for innovation in design and construction.
I also at this point indulge in some opinion sharing, suggesting that innovation is stifled by the current practice of competitive tendering for the design and supervision of projects, allowing no time for second thoughts. In the days when I was involved in civil/structural engineering, fees were calculated as a percentage of the total cost of the project, which did give some latitude for comparing alternatives or digging more deeply into apparently wilder ideas. We were also supervised at all points by engineering staff working for the client. There are significant problems with Public/Private Partnerships, where any developed technology knowledge tends to remain with the private company, stifling future development by railway staff or future contractors. Furthermore, a signifcant management difficulty is that problems can in general not be anticipated (for lack of warning) and can only be dealt with after the adverse consequences have been experienced. Melbourne’s public transport systems have been leased out to private operators which have not resulted in any improvement whatsoever. In fact, one rusty overhead cable snapped one day and because of its proximity to the city centre, brought down almost the entire system for many hours. Development of the Myki “smart” ticketing system began in 2004 and only started operating in 2010. So far it has cost $1.3 billion AUS. (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/outsmarted-victoria-pays-the-price-20100223-p0tw.html)
While on holiday in UK some years ago, I travelled quite frequently between Buckinghamshire and central London. Two types of train service were available from the local station. One type was the London Underground trainset. The other was a fast train carrying commuters from Oxfordshire to and from London. These trains had economy class carriages with bus-type seating. They also had business class carriages where people could sit and work at tables fitted with aids such as internet and telephone connections. The travel time from Oxford to London was between one and two hours, which included several stops along the way.
When I first came to Australia, in the middle 1960s, I lived in Perth, Western Australia. In the early 1970s we moved to Melbourne. Instead of driving across the Nullarbor Plain, a very arid and hot area, we travelled in great comfort on a new rail service known as the Indian Pacific. This offered a drive-on, drive-off car-carrying service at a minimal extra charge. Given that in future, Australia is going to be a hotter, drier place (we believe), theis mode of long-distance travel would appear to be much more attractive than driving for hours in the glare and the heat (not to mention what happens when the air-conditioning fails).