Maximising The Value Of Railways To The Environment.

Once again I must apologise for my lack of contribution to this blog in recent months. Retirees such as myself tend to glory in the apparently limitless time available to pursue interests or make oneself socially useful. One signs up for just about every opportunity to work for the public good (as one sees it), only to find that the incremental demands on one’s time curtail the ability to engage in one’s personal interests. Fortunately, I can say that quite a lot of my activity has enabled me to gather a substantial amount of information that is relevant to this blog. For instance, I was fortunate in being invited to be an observer at a series of conferences called Melbourne 3.0 which took place over a period of three months in 2013. The overall topic was the future role and significance of IT in various areas of government and business activity. As well as having access to all of the bulletins and communiqués produced throughout the event, I was able to communicate with some people (by telephone and email) whose interests were aligned with my own to a greater or lesser degree. Some of the ideas which I gained from this and other events or by studying material published in various online journals, blog sites, library books and the print press will be discussed in this post (and hopefully, future ones too).


The main thesis of my blog is that we must make the most effective use of our land mass area to support the maximum number of people, protect our indigenous flora and fauna and extract the raw materials that we need in the most efficient and environmentally sensitive way that we can. To this end, we need to examine the natural characteristics of every piece of land on the continent with a view to optimizing its usage and I have suggested that a 1 km. sq. grid, defined by GPS co-ordinates, be set up. Each cell (which I have called a Basic Land Unit, or BLU) will be populated in the first instance with data obtained from satellite imagery, after which it will be placed in the public domain, where organisations and people may contribute their own information or use the entire database to develop proposals for research, development, production, regeneration and the like. The intention is to identify hotspots already suitable for various land usages or as candidates for modification or regeneration so that they may become more valuable hotspots. A more detailed discussion can be found in the earlier posts Land Usage Mapping.,                    Some Database Considerations. and Core Data Considerations.


Once we have identified these hotspots, the next thing to be considered is how to access them, modify them (if necessary) and develop them. Bear in mind that the hotspots will appear on the map as a series of random dots and access paths will be developed by connecting dots (usually sites for settlement or some commercial/agricultural activity in the first instance). The selection of dots to be connected for any particular route largely depends upon the economics (i.e. costs versus benefits of the project) but may also depend upon something called the Public Good, where a public benefit can be derived which will be worth the cost of construction and/or operation, but offers little, if any, monetary payback.


The economics of the construction and operation of railways is a very complex matter. At one extreme, one has the railway as the gateway to a large undeveloped area as in nineteenth-century USA or Africa. A myriad of business opportunities raised by the provision of the railway almost guarantees the returns necessary to at least meet the construction costs with the possibility of decent profits for some time to come. At the other extreme, the so-called Very Fast Trains or VFTs are designed to provide specific services, connecting capital cities with other capital cities or with substantial regional centres. Their role is essentially to expand or improve on existing services or travel options, relieving stresses on housing and other types of infrastructure such as air travel. Their success depends almost entirely on the degree of uptake of the services offered.

As I pointed out in my previous post, where there are substantial gaps between fast train services, slower services can be interspersed, if facilities can be provided for them to exit the main line at the appropriate time and location to let the following fast train go through. The returns offered by the additional traffic could improve the profitability of a VFT project, but there are some offsetting issues which must be addressed. For instance, the required superelevation of the tracks on curves increases with speed, so that slower trains are more vulnerable to derailment or even overturning on bends. However, I have seen pictures of a narrow-gauge railway where the rail cross-section was an inverted L shape. The main wheels rode on the upper surface of the horizontal part and outriggers with small wheels rode on the underside of the same part, in effect hooking the train to the track. Then there is the matter of points and crossings to be considered. Grooves in the rails must be provided for the flanges of the wheels to pass through and it is debatable whether VFTs can traverse these features safely without loss of speed. This is not usually an issue where VFTs alone use the line, because points and crossings usually occur close to the terminals where the trains are already slowing down. Moderately fast trains (e.g. up to about 200 kph) may offer the same possibilities of alternating slow and fast traffic, but without the need for specially designed rails or points and their adoption will be assumed for the remainder of this post.


Another concept which can increase the usage of the elevated railway is what I like to call the Night Zone. This is the period between the arrival of the last train of the day and the departure of the first train of the next day. Because of the standardised cross-sectional profile of the elevated railway, a train carrying materials stored in shipping containers can stop at any point along the railway and offload or pick up the containers on demand. People accompanying the containers can also disembark and descend to the ground via temporary extensible ladders. Because trains operating in the Zone are one-off commitments, there is no specific need for them to observe the up and down track rules. This allows for some flexibility in the methods of offloading at the delivery site.

A train may consist of one or more three-wagon sets, where the first and third wagons hold the containers, while the middle one holds a crane which can unload the containers, depositing them on the same side of the structure as the train. This method is necessary where separate trains are using both tracks within the same Zone access period. If there is only one train, or all trains are travelling in the same direction, one or more cranes may be despatched on the unused line, following or meeting the trains and unloading each one in turn on the side opposite to the train.

These are only two of many possibilities, but the point to note here is that the standardisation of the equipment and processes for construction and transport provides a useful backdrop against which specialised equipment can be designed and operated in order to recover or develop hotspots. The availability of such equipment could be a driver in the selection of hotspots to include in any given railway route, as could the availability of any other services such as water and power carried on the railway structure itself.


The conventional view of rural railway services is that they will carry people between settlements, country stations and major cities and agricultural produce or raw minerals to centres from where they were grown or extracted to centres where they can be sold or shipped overseas. If these were the sole drivers for the construction of railways extending over the long distances envisaged, then it is possible that construction would not be worthwhile, even with substantial government subsidies. It is therefore necessary to look for activities which can be classified as being for the Public Good and therefore attract financial grants and support from organisations which engage in them.

I suggest that Public Good activities can be broadly divided into three categories; transformative, restorative and productive.

Transformative activities will change a tract of land from one ecological type to another type which bears no relationship to it (at least not in the recent past). One obvious candidate is a sandy or rocky desert, but one could also consider man-made tracts such as the abandoned sites of mining operations. If the tracts are to support the growth of vegetation, then the need for the importation of soil may or may not render the activity uneconomic, even as a Public Good. There are other possibilities, however. A major one is water storage. There are surprisingly few appropriate sites for large dams in Australia, but there are opportunities for many smaller dams, some of which can be covered with concrete structures carrying enough topsoil to support various types of agricultural activity, as described in my post Infrastructure 3. Water. The water may be conducted to or from the tract by a pipe carried on the railway structure or by simply creating channels to places which would benefit from the water, such as farms or wetlands.

Regenerative activities are, as the name implies, those which take a damaged or modified tract of land and restore it to full health or the type of ecology that it formerly enjoyed. There is a degree of overlap with transformative activities here, but the matter is discussed in this section because the technologies available to make the changes are the same. There is an underlying principle in land regeneration, which I came across while reading about the work of Robert Vincin, One of his major achievements was the regeneration of many thousands of hectares of land in Mongolia, which was slowly declining into a desert. The thesis that underlaid his work is that most plants can be apportioned to one of two categories, related to the way they deal with carbon. Plants classified as C4 take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Plants classified as C3 feed on the carbon already present in the soil. It happens that many native Australian plants are C4, which can be used to regenerate lands intended for biodiversity protection or simply to enrich the soil with carbon, which can be viewed either as a capture exercise to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or as a preparation for agricultural production. The plants that provide most of our vegetarian food are, as one might expect from the previous discussion, of the C3 family.

Productive activities may include immediate agricultural operations such as the harvesting of wild fruit and vegetables or preparatory work for other agricultural or non-agricultural activities. For instance, a nearby rock outcrop might be a good site for a quarry to provide aggregate for a road which will pass under or run alongside the railway, eventually departing to service a settlement some distance away from the railway.


At this point, we have a complete audit of the Australian landmass from which we have selected a number (hopefully a large number!) of hotspots which are candidates for protection, improvement, agricultural activity or settlement. One or more elevated railways connect selected hotspots. Out-of-hours trains can service these hotspots on demand, so that there is uninhibited access for people, materials and equipment. The next question is – how do we use all of these resources efficiently?

Given the nature of traffic in the Night Zone, it is probably not feasible to have staff getting on a train in the early hours of the morning, doing a day’s work on site, then coming home on another train early in the evening. A better model is the fly-in, fly-out arrangement used on large-scale mining and construction projects. Temporary housing is already available in the form of containers, which can be transported to site at the beginning of the project and retrieved again after work has been completed.

Except perhaps for the construction of buildings for settlements and dams for water retention, most of the on-site work is comparatively spasmodic, only requiring physical access for activities such as planting, checking for progress and quality, and harvesting. It is not a very efficient use of human resources to have people travelling to a distant site simply to see what progress is being made. When I began this blog, I thought that remote monitoring on a commercial scale would be a few decades into the future. I have been quite astonished to find that such processes are not only being used now, but are already at a commercial level, so it seems to be a reasonable assumption that much site management could be carried out using video cameras, sensing equipment, tracking monitors and so forth. Control equipment could, if necessary, be suspended from the railway structure.

During the 2013 Melbourne 3.0 event, I was able to make contact with Mr. Stewart McConachy, National Sales and Marketing Manager for Austracker, a company manufacturing tracking devices based generally on GPS and RFID technologies. He described a new product called Aglive which he expected to have on the market in the following October. It would offer some quite comprehensive services to farmers in both the production and business areas. I have had no response to emails asking for details of the product, nor have I been able to log in to the Aglive system, as one requires agribusiness credentials to be accepted. However, on the home page, there is a list of features which does provide sufficient information for the present discussion. These fall into three groups.

  • The first group defines the area (including any subdivisions) being monitored:

The PIC (Property Identification Code) is a master key which connects all items of data relevant to the property under remote management. One would imagine that it would contain a master GPS location (probably the farmhouse or office), which is analogous to the usage of the south-eastern corner of a BLU as an identifier.

A Geofence is a set of GPS locations or RFIDs which define an area, which in the case of a farm is a field or paddock. This is analogous to the lake structure in the landmass database. The reason why it is called a geofence is that it is managed by software which registers the movement of electronic tags across it and depending upon the information in any tag (e.g. an RFID), can initiate appropriate action to control or log the movements.

  • The second group describes the contents of the area being monitored.

Stock Description And Quantity, as the name implies, is a set of statistics usually describing the numbers of particular types of livestock on a property. However, it could also describe an area (perhaps a geofence) where a particular crop has been planted. In the context of the current discussion, it could include robots and drones, together with the descriptions of the items or materials they are monitoring.

Biosecurity details describe any cautionary information relevant to the export or import of the contents being monitored.

  • The third group describes the history of the contents being monitored.

Stock details And Transfers generally refer to movements of stock or produce in and out of the area being monitored. In the context of the current discussion, it could include movements around the area, changes or growth of vegetation and so forth.

Destination and agent details describe a transfer of control to someone outside the management or investigatory team.

Date and time stamps apply a sequence to multiple items of information collected.

While the data held in the Aglive product is, for obvious reasons, related to commercial activity, the general structural similarity to the database proposed in this block does suggest that, if sufficient demand were forthcoming, the software model could be adapted to record and analyse other operations designed to optimise the usage of any particular BLU.

Because the database is in the public domain, it is very likely that multiple organisations or activist groups will propose alternative usages for the BLU, so the next step is to analyse the competing bodies of data. I have come across a company called Agworld which apparently offers application software and storage which can analyse and report on agribusiness data from many different sources. From what I can see on its web site, it does not automatically read data on the ground (though there is a suggestion that it can process such data picked up by independent contractors). It provides apps which allow farmers and technical people to record the data that they see and measure and immediately forward it to Agworld. Again, depending upon the demand, it would seem to be quite within Agworlds areas of expertise, to examine multiple sets of data pertaining to a particular site and provide a ranking of its value for specific usages.

This is not to say that the highest value for a usage must always be accepted. Where the highest optimal ranking of a BLU is one step above that for a number of surrounding BLUs, this ranking may be rejected in favour of the lower one for reasons of practicality, such as ease of access, intensity of effort required to bring the usage to fruition and so forth. The important thing is that any rating must be based on rational argument and not on political or social preferences.


This post has not been at all comprehensive in its coverage of modern technologies and their potential role in analysing and modifying BLUs. There is simply too much development going on. Its only intention is to draw attention to some of the opportunities for handling measurements and analysis remotely. Aglive and Agworld are only exemplars of the widespread innovation taking place. The ABC program Landline is very useful as a showcase for ideas which have already hit the street (so to speak).

Although this blog began life looking at developments which may take many decades to make a really comprehensive difference, these examples of current inventiveness suggest that we are closer than we think to being able to transform Australia (and indeed other countries with arid climates and desert landscapes) to cope with rapidly increasing populations and food shortages.







About jimthegeordie

I was born in the north of England and am a Geordie. Geordies are celts who are noted for having long bodies with short arms and legs. After working in UK, Africa and Australia as a civil engineer and IT contractor I am now retired and living in a beautiful wine-making area. I am the patriarch of a wonderful family, of whom I am inordinately proud.
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