Owen McShane Guest Post Redux

Back in 2006 Owen McShane wrote a guest post for the blog.

In honour of his remarkable contribution to New Zealand and free enterprise I am re-posting it today:

It is Time to open the “Main Truck Line”

New Zealanders are getting anxious about the ongoing closure of freight lines in the regions.

We shouldn’t be.

Instead we should be welcoming this opportunity to upgrade our transport system to make road travel easier and safer for us all.

We should get the trains off these rail beds, tear up the tracks and lay down a road bed dedicated to trucks – and express buses if need be.

This is such a logical and cost-effective move you would think it would have been done long ago. But the idea is always challenged by those who believe our transport solutions lie with nineteenth century technology rather than the advanced technology waiting in the wings.

Certainly, the rail operators in the UK were outraged by the report by Paul Withrington, “Reigniting the Railway Conversion Debate” published by the UK Institute of Economic Affairs, in June 2004. The abstract reads:

[quote]The economic functions of railways could be carried out by express coaches and lorries at one-quarter the cost of the train, using 20 – 25% less fuel, requiring one-quarter to one-third of the land, and imposing a casualty cost on passengers half that suffered by rail passengers. The railway conversion debate was initiated in the 1950s by the late Brigadier Lloyd and carried forward by the Railway Conversion League, subsequently renamed the Railway Conversion Campaign, until the death of its chairman, Angus Dalgleish, in 1994. The purpose of this
paper is to reignite that debate. The government should remove all impediments to the conversion of railways to roads.[/quote]

The UK railroaders should know better than to reject such findings out of hand – because good managers should be asking these kinds of questions, and examining these kinds of strategies, all the time. Sue Kedgley deplores closing these rail lines because, she asks, “Hasn’t the government heard of climate change?” Well, the UK study finds that
the trucks use 25% per cent fuel than the trains, and this efficiency improves by the day. Trains are only kept on the rails by their weight – everything is heavy and weight needs fuel. So “steel on rail” is doomed to become less efficient than “rubber on road” with every passing day.

Some tunnels may need widening and some bridges may need modifying. Some tunnels can be controlled by traffic lights. Hardly any of the actual rail corridors will need widening and the adjoining land is normally farmland and hence quite cheap. Any costs can be financed out of tolls, and the savings on reduced upgrading of our regional highways will be massive. The Government as owner of the corridors could actually make some money instead of everyone operating at a loss.

My analysis of the emerging transport technology suggests
“rubber-on-road” will almost certainly totally displace “steel-on-rail” from all rail beds, just as gas turbines displaced pistons in aircraft.

While the efficiency gains would be immediate the next generation of trucks will “drive by wire” on these converted “rail corridors”.

The driver’s hands and legs will instruct the computer which will instruct the drive train and the hydraulic power systems. A guide-wire down the centre of the newly constructed road-bed, laid over our present railway lines, will allow the computerised steering system to keep the truck “on-line”. Truck drivers will drive their trucks to the shunting yard where they will leave them and drive away on an incoming truck to deliver its local load. These trucks will be mechanically and electronically connected into “truck-trains” driven by only one “driver” in the front cab, monitoring the performance of every truck in
the train. At the next “station”, trucks will peel off to be driven away, again by local drivers, to their local destination. The savings in labour costs will be immense.

The coupled trucks will reduce drag. Accident rates will decline.

Drivers will never drive far from home. Lots of short trips will replace lots of long ones.

Hardly any trucks would drive on the regular roads which would then require much less maintenance and be much safer for everyone. Tourists in particular will be much happier.

The AA Advocate (Winter 2006) foresees massive on-road conflicts between huge numbers of logging trucks, milk trucks and foreign tourists. By 2030 the AA suggests every other drive on the road could be a foreign visitor.

Sadly, it appears the current operators of the steel-on-rail trains won’t make the switch because, like the vacuum tube manufacturers of the fifties who failed to switch to transistors, they are committed to running their hardware rather than providing a service.

So when the first “truck train” calls into your local station it will be operated by a company with a name like Freightways or DSL. And a bundle of companies with names like X-track and Y-rail will disappear from corporate memory.


THANK YOU for being a subscriber. Because of you Whaleoil is going from strength to strength. It is a little known fact that Whaleoil subscribers are better in bed, good looking and highly intelligent. Sometimes all at once! Please Click Here Now to subscribe to an ad-free Whaleoil.

  • rouppe

    What about when the “main truck line” and the commuter rail line are one and the same, like between Kapiti and Wellington

    • Allanspear

      There is no reason why it can’t be the same line. It is done all over the world.

  • Hakim of phut

    I have a better idea,put the containers on the train.  Think of the labour saving ? One train driver instead of   60 truck drivers.

    • Karlos

      I thought would would have liked the idea of 59 more jobs being created? Especially if it is the same cost as running a train. Or is it only good to create jobs when we mine (nope), drill (nope), farm (nope), actually, where are we allowed to create jobs without you complaining? And don’t say ‘green jobs’ unless you give an example where we could possibly compete on an international stage.

      Alternatively, if this idea was to fly, we could just allow road trains like they have in Aus. Seams to make more sense.

  • Guys not the post to have that kind of debate at the moment

    RIP Owen – a Straight Thinker who will be sorely missed – and who has left some pretty big shoes and tough mantle to take up in Straight Thinking for Auckland’s beleaguered state.

    Oh and the redux topic Cam has put here is the same topic that introduced me to Owen McShane a while back – and he has been a world of wisdom and knowledge – as well as a good sparring partner for bouncing and testing ideas off :-)

    • Hakim of phut

      Its just the same old worn out laissez- faire ideas. Nothing straight-thinking about it. lets call it what it is. Old wine in new bottles.

      • Watch it.

      • Mr_Blobby

        phut Phut (phoenetic fut ) a weak wet minor noise, weaker than a damp squib, or a supressed fart OE}.
        Generally accepted as being a disappointment considered against the potential pleasure.The dot-com boom fizzled briefly, but for many ended with a phut, much the same as a three-penny damp squid.

        phut An extreme goose. There are grades of stupidity. Phut represents the state of being a dense, absent-minded, fool who is quite ignorant of the fact.That dude is such a phut! He threatened to stab be and then proceeded to brandish a butter-knife… still covered with crumbs and Vegemite! (True story)

        Phut To be used as an adjective, does not technically mean anything. Also used as a verb when you “foot” someone. Make no mistake, this means absolutely nothing other than you are a foot.
        Hey you, you’re a phut What did you say to me? You heard me, you’re a phut

      • jay cee

        i’m with WO never speak ill of the dead. its disrespectful,

  • BJ

    And all services could be run alongside  the new road bed the length of the country – we could have had fast broadband to the provinces ages ago – it could have been dug up and services put in all at once – and the land is publicly owned already.

    • Hakim of phut

      Fibre optic was installed along the railways  in the mid 80s’ by the SOE . And its along side a lot provincial state highways too ( SH50) if you care to notice . The broadband issue is about connections to suburban streets.

      Old wine new bottles

  • Peter

    I met Owen a couple of times with my business partner. I found him to be a highly intelligent, and thoroughly likable person. He had a great sense of humour, and was highly knowledgeable across a wide range of topics.
    He was highly educated and had the level of experience that could have been a great asset to NZ. He would have been great in a university setting and he should have been utilised more widely in advisory roles. His passing is very sad. I feel a ‘disturbance in the force’ to quote someone else!

  • Dutyfree

    RIP Owen, an honest guy with NZ at his heart.  Another great loss following Roger Kerr.  Hope you guys have a great conversation where ever you are.

  • MrV

    Unfortunately steel wheel on steel rail has far reduced friction compared to rubber tyre on asphalt road.
    You can’t argue with the laws of physics unfortunately.

    • devlsadvocate

       Agreed, I know this is not the place to debate this but the only edge rail has over road is over long distances with no stops. There’s no way trucks will ever be as efficient as rail unless the rail equipment is crap (which unfortunately it is, but if you’re going to make a change, upgrade the rolling stock rather than replace the tracks).

      Trains here have to roll slow, speed up and slow down constantly, operate with inefficient engines and excessively heavy old equipment. Otherwise, tracks wear out a lot less than roads, rolling friction is drastically lower, air resistance won’t be matched until trucks can maintain the same spacing (which is still decades away, due to being a new technology – driving a compact car around at town speeds is a far cry from slinging a 50 ton B-train down a road at 100km/h with a spacing of a metre or so – same principle, bigger consequences of fuckup), the only thing that will match the two is constant momentum, and that lasts only as long as some bright sparks demand integration with normal roads to save on costs.

      Urban passenger rail can get fucked in all cases though. Worthless, worthless, worthless.

  • Engineer

    Electrifying the rail lines and getting Electric trains would be a good start to making them run more efficiently.  Removing subsidies to trucks would also make things interesting.

  • George

    RIP Owen.  You kept on punching right to the bell.

    • Dr Wang

      Hear hear.

      Owen will be greatly missed.

  • Qualanqui

    So with oil running low and the world resorting to fracking to get it out we should pull up our tracks and put more trucks on the road, ok that makes some good sense, or maybe we could use our brains and upgrade our rail system to reach to every corner of our nation and installing an electric/battery system in our NZ built trains to efficiently freight our goods, or maybe we could tell the oil companies to f*^% off completely and research one of the scores of suppressed engine technologies available.