From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.


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Enough with the fatuous point scoring, just fix the trains

29 May 2012

It was 8.30 on a crisp morning and I was walking with the dingo down at the park, watching the peak hour trains roll towards Central, packed to the rafters.

“Who are all those people and why are they squeezed in like that?” Jesse asked.

“Ah, they’re poor working stiffs and there just aren’t enough trains for them.”

“I never saw anything like that on the One Tree Plain”, Jesse muttered.

The standoff between the state and federal governments overnew rail infrastructure is costing us all dearly, I reflected. And now Infrastructure Australia chief Michael Deegan is casting doubt on the usefulness of the North West Rail Link and he’s preposterously exaggerating its cost. He’s right when he says that there’s insufficient track capacity between Chatswood and Redfern for an adequate number of services on the new line, but it’s a moot point serving dubious politics.  Both the feds and IA are on record as supporting the Parramatta-Epping rail proposal which would complete the original Parra-Chatswood scheme foolishly truncated by Labor’s very own Michael Costa but that project is complementary to, rather than a replacement for, the NWRL, and it would also require additional capacity between Chatswood and Redfern.

The critical issue that can no longer be avoided is the need for additional rail capacity across the Harbour Bridge and through the CBD and a solution must come soon because the splendid heavy rail system bequeathed to us by John Job Crew Bradfield is effectively at capacity. The solution won’t be cheap, but with the additional tracks, the experts say we can increase services to every station in Sydney by 50 per cent.

That boost cannot come too soon because relentlessly tightening oil availability is driving up the price, not just of petroleum, but of all other energy sources. This ain’t speculation about a distant future. The dirty secret is that, in all Australian capital cities, road traffic has been flatlining for eight long years and the average amount we drive as individuals is actually falling steeply. This trend set in around 2004 – four years before the GFC – when petrol passed 90c a litre. If it weren’t for population increase, total vehicle kilometres would actually be falling. In this situation it would be madness to waste public  funds on new roads.

In Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne, there’s been a sharp rise in public transport usage, because those cities had spare public transport capacity, but Sydney’s peak period trains and buses are effectively full. People are trying to get out of their cars but the lack of seats is discouraging them and, of course, vast areas of Sydney are effectively unserviced.

In the past, it was assumed a costly rail tunnel under the harbour would be needed to fix the Chatswood-Redfern  choke-point, but with road traffic at stasis we can simply reclaim for rail the two eastern lanes of the bridge once used by trams.

The road lobby will howl, but pent-up demand for rail means that every additional train that passed over the bridge would replace one lane of road traffic 10 kilometres long and the harbour tunnel still has spare capacity.

North of the bridge, there’s sufficient reserved land to add two tracks on the surface between Chatswood and St Leonards. From there, it would be best to tunnel to North Sydney Station. South of the Harbour,  the best route under the CBD would be the reserved corridor under Pitt Street.

All this is eminently do-able. Advances in engineering mean the work should be vastly easier (and no more expensive) than the construction of the City Circle line, which was mostly built between 1915 and 1932 using cut-and-cover techniques, day labour, and primitive equipment.

But here we encounter the greatest obstacle to Sydney’s public transport renaissance: the official habit of wildly overstating the cost of new infrastructure. According to Deegan, the NWRL would cost “tens of billions”, a nutty advance on the already-absurd $9 billion usually quoted in the media. Nine billion would put the technically unremarkable 23km NWRL in the same league as Switzerland’s A$10 billion Gotthard Base Tunnel – the world’s longest and deepest –114 kilometres of big-bore,  single-track high speed rail tunnel, served by 34 km of emergency access tunnels. 

If only our politicians would swear off fatuous point scoring and grapple with these practical issues. If they do not find the money for urgently-needed projects like the NWRL and more cross-Harbour tracks the economic consequences will be dire indeed.