The quintessential blogger seems to be either a professional writer/journalist or an amateur with lots of time available (almost on a daily basis) to set down their thoughts and share them with the world. Unfortunately, as any viewer of this blog will realise, this is not me! If I must wear a descriptive cap, then I might claim to be an essayist. However, I will chip in now and again if something interesting pops up which I am not yet ready to put into a more extended post, or if someone has been kind enough to comment on one of my posts.
I have not made a recent contribution, partly because I have been involved in various activities related to environmental and planning issues (most notably, trying to get Heritage status accorded to an open-air stage with a graceful hyperbolic paraboloid roof close to where I live) and partly because reviewing the many public submissions to a Government sustainable population strategy issues paper has proved to be a surprisingly complex exercise. Anyway, that will be my Next Big Thing. Today, I will mention some matters of interest which have cropped up and deserve a little attention.
In my initial scan of the submissions, I came across an interesting specification for a monorail model (the MonoCab) which I believed could usefully serve the many small communities which were postulated in my sustainable population model. This was discussed and relevant links provided in my previous post (The Sustainable Population Strategy 1). Since then, a gentleman called Philip Wong, commenting on another post (Infrastructure 2. Modes of Access), drew my attention to another interesting form of monorail – the evacuated tube transport system. In this design, a large tube is constructed above ground and supported on columns (or possibly A-frames, which are more likely to withstand the lateral forces due to the extreme flooding that we have experienced in various parts of Australia recently). The air is sucked out of the tube, creating a vacuum. Vehicles of various types and sizes can travel through the tube, powered by electricity. The key point is that the removal of the air, which in other circumstances provides a substantial amount of drag, reduces the amount of power required to drive the vehicles. Philip postulates that speeds of up to 1,000 km/hr are feasible, though I am not sure that I would like to experience the acceleration and deceleration from such speeds. Also, I would like to know about the quantum and characteristics of any noise generated. However, there could be a great role for remotely-controlled goods trains. During the floods which I mentioned earlier, a lot of rail and road infrastructure was damaged. The floods were succeeded by a record harvest, but farmers were unable to take advantage of it, because of transportation difficulties. Imagine if we could close down a vacuum-tube line to normal traffic for, say, 24 hours and then send one grain-laden train after another down it at full speed. The potential flexibility of these kinds of rail transport is quite breathtaking. It might even be possible to design vehicles that could travel on both systems. Imagine travelling from station to station picking up ones friends in various rural settlements, then once you have arrived at your regional hub – Woosh! You are getting out of the train in your capital city in less than an hour!
Although a relatively small proportion of my career was actually spent designing and building railways (not counting the years as a small boy when I designed many model railway layouts), I still have a huge affection for those days – even those spent in a remote African game park, where my dear wife got a nasty dose of malaria and elephants used to scratch their behinds on the gable ends of our prefab house! I am totally convinced that rail transport has a pivotal role in the future well-being of Australia and I would now like to draw your attention to an article written by Paul Cleary in The Australian on February 11 this year. It was entitled “Reforms Must Run Faster”. Here are a few quotations from the article.
“Australia’s geography makes freight a huge and rising cost for industry at a time of high oil prices. Freight rates for road haulage can be up to twice the cost of rail and have increased twice as fast since 2001, according to the Bureau Of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. Yeat half of all domestic freight is still moved by road. Holden ships its vehicles by rail to Western Australia and Queensland, but these account for only a quarter of its sales; the rest goes by road.”
“Transport and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese has become a passionate advocate of investing in the rail system to reduce business costs and boasts funding of a modest $3.4bn under the economic stimulus plan to make the national system work more efficiently. But that investment is modest when compared with the $16bn spent on school halls and canteens. As Albanese argues, a single train can take 100 semi-trailers off the road, and yet major Companies such as Woolworths still run about 160 B-double semi-trailers from Melbourne to Brisbane via Sydney. The focus on the Brisbane to Melbourne freight line involves new signalling systems and the removal of sharp bends. The investment should allow the Australian Rail Track Corporation to shave 11 hours off the route, he says”.
“The faster rate of road freight charge reflects the higher degree of energy intensity compared with rail. Ian McGowan, a senior industry analyst with IBISWorld, a consulting firm, says rail uses one third the amount of fuel compared with road for each tonne that it transports”.
“Farmers on the Darling Downs and in the Bowen Basin in Queensland are paying more to ship their grain by road because the mining companies now monopolise the rail network. Agforce president Wayne Newton, a grain farmer from Dalby, believes that up to 70 percent of all grain produced in Queensland has now been forced onto the road. Without government and business giving greater emphasis to making our national transprot network more efficient, Australians will pay even more for their daily loaf of bread, and just about every other consumer item.”
I have deliberately reproduced quite substantial parts of the article, because I wanted to keep the focus on the technical and economic aspects and not be distracted by the references to the attitudes and behaviour of politicians and powerful industry groups. However, the entire article can be read here.
In another recent post (Urban Landscape For A New Era) I suggested that we could build houses with substantial steel frames, which could be easily modified for different uses. If we were to adopt this idea and we were to be build a monorail network on the lines I have discussed here, I would suggest that any construction contracts should specify the use of Australian-made steel. The Australian steel industry is in a parlous position at the moment because the iron ore we ship to China and other countries is being imported back to Australia at prices we cannot match. In a true free-market economy, one would have to say “so what”, but the trouble is; we do not know whether the steel articles we are importing are manufactured under the same free-market rules, or whether they are subsidised to reduce the amounts payable in Australia by overseas mining giants (and others). Already, we have seen substantial overseas investments in Australian agribusiness and real estate and now we read (“Mining’s Small Change”, in The Age on 18/02/2012) that flaws in the mining tax legislation will allow tax avoidance on the grand scale. We really must have an open discussion on a comprehensive future vision for Australia. The current political operating mode and the capture of many media resources by business and political interests stifle open debate and I look at my gorgeous grandchildren and think about their future with some dread. Whoops! Once personal feelings intrude on what is meant to be an intellectual and practical discussion, it is time to close the file and turn off the computer. Well, for another day.