Joe and Joanna Citizen, or Leslie and Robin Voter, rarely have available to them much of the detailed, statistical information they need to make fully-informed assessments of public issues.

But that shouldn’t disqualify them from having opinions, even if politicians and ideologues would prefer them not to, and if some intellectuals reckon they’re not worth heeding.

Reasonable people should feel confident in expressing reasonable and credible opinions without access to all the data, provided they have “reasonably” kept up with things, and qualify their observations with modifiers such as “as far as we can tell”, “if so ‘n’ so can be believed” or “according to media reports”.

So, even without ready access to most of the most relevant data, it looks as if Tasmania is finally going off the rails, as this article in The Mercury seems to indicate: HERE

A similar story in The Examiner was just as doleful: HERE

Prima facie, it is hard to imagine a more disastrous, indeed, a more stupid outcome: an extra couple of thousand heavy truck-journeys per week on roads already under-maintained and/or under-constructed.

And this, after graphic images from the US Gulf Coast, from New Orleans and Galveston-Houston in particular, showed all of us, including, one would assume, government heavies, union bosses and corporate suits, the folly of limiting heavy transport options to just one.

But wait — it gets worse: haven’t any of these decision-makers and stakeholders heard of how the price of crude is rising ?

But, as Joe and Joanna would probably say, those Big Wigs don’t actually drive up to petrol stations, open their fuel tanks and watch the “Dollars” panel on the bowser emptying their wallets and purses. Government and company cars, perks ‘n’ lurks plastic, often taxpayer, central committee or shareholder funded, isolate them from this everyday pain and insulate them from the consequences of their in/action.

This year is the 175 anniversary of George Stephenson’s Stockton-to-Darlington railway, recognised as the world’s first working railway as that term has come to be understood. It is also the sesquicentenary of the opening of the first railway in NSW, and Australia’s first carriage of mail by rail [although the actual first rail journey was from Melbourne to its port a year earlier in 1854].

Malign neglect

The point is that you’d reckon that after more than a century-and-a-half, politicians and bureaucrats would have has enough time to work out how to build and maintain an efficient rail network. Not so, apparently, as one of the problems highlighted by Pacific National is the state of the permanent way.

Now there have to be reasons for this state of dilapidation.

Perhaps rail has had its day, and in the situation of the horse ‘n’ dray and horse ‘n’ buggy, and is a transport technology that has been superseded by progress, just as rail itself put the canal systems of Britain and France out of business in the mid-1800s. That seems to have been the attitude in the USA, when rail networks were sold off to their natural competitors-turned-predators — motor, oil and rubber interests, who then used measures ranging from malign neglect — and what an expressive phrase that is — to deliberate sabotage to “prove” that rail was uncompetitive.

Interestingly, The New York Times ran this OpEd article on Wed 28 Sept 05: HERE

Perhaps a lesson is being learned over there, but whether it’ll filter through from atypical NY NY to Middle America is anyone’s guess, given the continuing strength and influence of the auto lobbies. The feebleness of Geo Bush’s call for his citizens to take one less car trip shows how pathologically auto-bound that nation is.

Much the same attitude followed in Australia from the 1960s. There were almost no extensions of suburban commuter networks to new residential areas in the outer suburbs which became so car-dependent that two cars per family became the norm. Victoria built two new universities inaccessible by rail; Sydney, and other capitals, ripped up their tramlines, and Melbourne’s were saved only by Tramways Commissioner Rissom’s preventative concreting in of the tracks.

Gauge differences, 19th century track alignments, union featherbedding and inter-state jealousies proved to be readymade excuses to hand heavy haulage over to the trucking industry; that Liberal politicians had many mates there, and that ALP ones had new unions waiting for affiliation were not altogether insignificant factors as well.

Yet in Europe and in Japan, the opposite was happening. New rail technology in the form of the Japanese Shinkansen [the famous bullet trains] and the French Trains de Grand Vitesse the [TGVs] set new standards for late 20th century rail travel.

Now, it may well be that two factors not applicable to us were operating over there.

Firstly, consider the destructive powers of the RAF and the USAAF during World War II, with the RAAF playing some part also in Europe. Such was the almost total destruction of the pre-war networks that re-building could begin on a tabula rasa basis, and, therefore, new and emerging technologies had greenfields sites to begin operating on.

This factor was entirely absent from Australia — our only excuse for lack of progress was the gauge-wars between the States, typified by the famous double-length station at Albury [on the NSW-Victorian border] where “All Change !!” rang out in the middle of the night for drowsy passengers to change trains from one State’s choo-choos to the other’s. Mark Twain found it highly amusing.

In Britain, the Luftwaffe, having lost the Battle of Britain, concentrated mainly on terror bombing; the railways, although severely damaged, were not so devastated that there was an opportunity for a Continental-style re-building, and Britain’s trains muddled through, with HM Transport Ministers following, at some distance, the US model of favouring road over rail. The infamous Beeching Plan succeeded in making the UK almost as car-dependent as the US, and British Rail, or whatever it is called now, is definitely a poor cousin to the network in Western Europe.

Naturally, in the way these things work, Richard Beeching was rewarded with a life peerage for identifying “5000 miles of track and 2000 stations for closure, [which] had a tremendous effect on the future of the railways”, as Chambers Biographical Dictionary so blandly puts it. Anyone who has Eurailed extensively in original EU Six will appreciate that “effect”.

Heavy haulage

The other factor often cited is our low population density.

It is possible that there is some relevance in this, although it seems that it is often more of an excuse or a ex post facto rationalisation, where something is done and reasons justifying it follow later. Low population density could even work the other way: OK, our population centres are further apart than those in a European country of similar population, but wouldn’t that be a reason to make sure that expensive per-capita roads are not unnecessarily damaged by excess numbers of 18-wheelers and B-doubles ? Wouldn’t it make just as much sense to put that heavy haulage on the rails where and when possible ?

Perhaps it all comes down to that most unglamorous of activities: maintenance. Maintenance, like teaching spelling, can be boring. So clever people find ways to rationalise it away.

Politicians looking for photo-ops and bureaucrats looking for Great Career Moves are almost Totally Bored by maintenance: pictures of burly blokes in boilersuits working behind road signs saying “Men Shovelling Shit” don’t rate on the nightly TV news. Even Lara Giddings, who should be dubbed the Minister for Glad Tidings, would struggle. It’s so easy, as a succession of Victorian and NSW transport ministers have demonstrated, to get your moniker in front of the latest cosmetic makeover of Central or Flinders St, or to be shown pretending to drive a new Millennium Train [before it is discovered that it drains too much power from the system] or a new double-decker [before it is discovered that it won’t fit through most tunnels in the network].

Well, what about setting aside an untouchable, and indivertible, fund that is mandated for maintenance ?

Can you imagine politicians leaving it alone, letting it sit there for such a boring purpose ? Besides, clever-dick constitutional lawyers would probably claim that “Parliament cannot bind its successors” — each parliament is sovereign, and cannot regulate what the next will do.

Is there any hope, let alone expectation, that 2000 trucks won’t be joining the Mums & Dads, the L-platers and the P-platers, the elderly and the inexperienced, on our roads next month ? Can we hope that the usual blame-passing between State and Federal authorities won’t be the main game ?

Will the State Liberal Opposition rise above opportunism, despite being on the side of politics most responsible for the decay of our rail networks ? Is it too much to hope that our ALP government might ignore the shameful precedents set by their Victorian and NSW co-partisans, and actually take a long-term view and put Tasmania back on the rails ?

Heading towards a car you’re in, speeding beside a stretch of disused and abandoned permanent way: an 18-wheeler on a wrong-cambered curve — on your side of the road.

Leonard Colquhoun, 7248