The debate about whether it is better on environmental and social grounds to transport goods by road or train would seem to have been resolved, in Australia away. The answer is both. That is, trains that run on roads. The heavy transports that hurtle up and down our highways are longer than many trains, travel just as fast and are every bit as dangerous for those who inadvertently get in their way.
These enormous vehicles get bigger all the time. A few years ago those of particular vastness bore the legend "Long Vehicle" across their rear. This label has now become necessary on virtually every lorry you see. The legend on long vehicles really ought to be "Standard Vehicle".
And yet, for all the preponderance of road transport, federal and some state governments still spend money on railway "upgrades" to speed up delivery times by goods train. "It's a bloody waste of the taxpayer dollar," yells trucking industry magnate Mr Ron Hogg, CEO of Road-Hogg Heavy Haulage, speaking to Argus by mobile phone from the control tower and company HQ high on top of the three-storey cabin of his Helldriver "Speed Giant" road train as it thundered down the Hume Freeway, cutting a swathe through smaller vehicles and "tail-gating" an elderly Volvo with a "Friends of the ABC" sticker.
"Let's face it, it's roads that need more investment," he continued, as the ten-unit transport, its brakes shrieking, plummeted through a roadworks site, sending a workman holding a "Slow" sign diving for cover. "The roads we're stuck with are just not up to the kind of fleet that in an ideal world this country would have. As the slogan says, 'Australia would stop without trucks'. We contend that as the nation's heaviest-volume road users it is our right to have roads built for us that are up to the quality of the service we provide - shit, that was close! That guy's a f...ing menace, thinks he owns the road." A Winnebago went skidding and spinning towards the roadside where it landed on its roof.
Air horns blasting, the "Speed Giant" (legend on back: "Another Road-Hogg is passing you") shot along the freeway while its owner, ingesting a pep pill, spelled out his "philosophy of logistics". "Road-Hogg," he said, "recognises that better roads will not come overnight, so in the meantime we are doing our bit to reduce pressure on infrastructure, mainly by introducing more advanced equipment such as the new state-of-the-art 890-kilometres-long Intercity Overloader." This vehicle, he explained, would stretch from Sydney to Melbourne, allowing goods to be loaded on in one city and almost immediately unloaded from the other end in the city of destination. "The nett effect," said Mr Hogg, "would be to maximise productivity while minimising volume of traffic, at the same time reducing so-called wear and tear on roads." The latter, he emphasised, was a particularly desirable outcome, given that haulage companies had been "bled white" by successive governments in taxes for road maintenance.
The other means of reducing traffic volume, said Mr Hogg, was "by restricting non-commercial use of the roads." He said that unless governments were prepared to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to widen highways and freeways by at least twenty lanes, there would be "no alternative" but to declare "transports only" sections on all major roads.
"It is a matter of national priority that we stop the clutter of non-essential private transport getting in the way of commercial users like ourselves, frequently at considerable risk to the commercial vehicle," he bawled, as the Helldriver ("speed-governed at 100 kmh") rocketed past a tourist coach of pensioners enjoying a singalong on their way back from an outing to the pokies. The strains of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" froze in dozens of elderly throats as the coach driver, blinded by the swirl of diesel fumes and dust from the Helldriver, swerved from the freeway and careered through a roadside "rest 'n' barbecue" reserve, scattering picnickers, burnt chops and thermos flasks over a wide area.
7 February 2012