July 28th 2018

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COVER STORY The Strange Case of the Vanishing Safe Schools Resources

EDITORIAL By-elections will test Shorten's 'politics of envy' strategy

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS A modest proposal for Australia's regional security

CANBERRA OBSERVED Odds are that Labor won't Albo Bill aside

TECHNOLOGY Wonder carbon material on cusp of commercialisation

ENVIRONMENT Electric vehicles still only for elitist planet savers

ENERGY SECURITY Steam rail backup could get us out of hot water

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT NEG papers over crisis behind energy price hikes

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Beijing goes 'boo', Qantas gets in a flap

EUTHANASIA Death with dignity, or putting Death to death?


MUSIC Aural wallpaper: The background hiss to our lives

CINEMA Ant-Man and the Wasp: Downsized superheroes

BOOK REVIEW Timely essays on religious freedom

BOOK REVIEW Fraudulent father of psychoanalysis



No question about it: the Don is in charge

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Steam rail backup could get us out of hot water

by NW Contributor

News Weekly, July 28, 2018

Australia should produce prototype second-generation steam locomotives for interstate and regional services should there be a fuel oil crisis in the Middle East or South China Sea.

Senator Jim Molan’s revelations (The Australian, April 16, 2018) on the perilous state of Australia’s fuel reserves are troubling. In short, Australia boasts the world’s lowest supplies of crude oil, petrol, aviation fuel and diesel of all members of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Our reserves would last just 21 days, if imports ceased. This situation is untenable for the economic and strategic security of the nation. Oil generates 38 per cent of all energy consumption in Australia.

The Porta-Wardale technological improvements as seen in the Red Devil
dramatically increased the efficiency of South Africa's rail service.

The IEA standard mandates a minimum of 90 days’ net import reserves of all fuels. This sounds impressive, but the Australian Government does not physically have those liquid reserve stocks, and there is no requirement for industry to hold 90 days’ worth of product.

Yet, in the world of mumbo-jumbo double-speak, the Australian Gov­ernment can purchase a “ticket” and increase fuel stocks to 90 days without actually having that fuel in the country. The Liquid Fuel Emergency Amendment Bill 2017 describes “tickets” as “arrangements under which the seller agrees to hold (or reserve) an amount of oil on behalf of the buyer, in return for an agreed fee. The buyer of the ticket (or reservation) effectively owns the option to take delivery of physical stocks in times of crisis.”

In 2017 Federal Parliament authorised the Government to purchase a tiny 400 kilotonnes worth of tickets for 2018–19 and 2019–20. Australia by “warehousing” invisible fuels with a “ticket” somewhere overseas will one day, like Old Mother Hubbard, discover that the cupboard is bare. New Zealand also “Mother Hubbard’s” its 90-day IEA fuel holding obligations with “tickets”.

This sleight of hand prompts a question, “Does Australia actually have even the 21 days’ fuel reserves in country? To store 90 days of fuel products in country, Australia would need to construct new tank farms capable of holding 20 million barrels, and that is not going to happen.

“Tickets” are an illusion of fuel security as the invisible product can be held off shore in Europe, in Asia or, as likely, in Noddyland. Undisclosed is that, in a crisis, the France-based IEA must approve the release of “ticket” fuel; and, in a real emergency, such as a naval blockade or a hot regional conflict, the supplier may renege or be unable to get shipping insurance to move product to Australia.

Following Senator Molan’s revelation, the Government stirred and is undertaking an inquiry into the nation’s liquid fuel reserves.

Exacerbating the potential crisis is that, as Australia’s crude oil production from aging fields has declined, so has our refining capacity diminished because of closures at Clyde (2013), Kurnell (2014) and Bulwer Island (2015). Australian fuels are now processed in Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

Some 90 per cent of all Australia’s crude oil imports originate from the unstable Middle East. That instability in the oil producing regions threatens not only the price of crude (remember 1973–74), but the extended 4,000-kilometre sea route via the historically contested South China Sea to Japan and South Korea increases the vulnerability along the over stretched supply chain. This means that a litre of diesel sourced from the Middle East, as crude oil, then refined in Japan or South Korea travels about 19,000 kilometres before arriving in Botany Bay.

A host of disruptions can occur along the vulnerable sea lanes, including naval interdictions, shipping insurance prohibitions and blockades of the two strategic volatile bottlenecks at the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz.

An emerging threat to Australia’s liquid fuel security is China’s rapid military expansion into the South China Sea and its aggressive muscling tactics to eventually eject the United States and Australian navies from the first island chain. Some 60 per cent of Australia’s imported diesel fuels and 50 per cent of aviation fuel passes through the South China Sea for refining.

The volume of liquid fuel importations during 2015–16 increased by 18 per cent to 33 billion litres (excluding LPG). Any dispute within the South China Sea or blockades of vessels transporting crude oil to refineries could generate massive delays in deliveries of refined products to Australia.

Well worth noting is that in 2017 China built a dual naval/ military and commercial seaport at Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa at the entrance to the Red Sea. China is also building naval facilities along the Indian Ocean rim, in Pakistan and Burma, and in 2017 signed a deal to establish a dockyard facility, plus a 6,070-hectare “industrial zone” at the deep-sea port of Hambantota, in Sri Lanka.

All this increases the Chinese potential to interdict Middle East-sourced oil. The harsh historical lesson seemingly ignored in Canberra is that when a rising power (China) attempts to displace or usurp an existing power (the United States) the result is a Thucydides trap – that is to say, a potential for conflict – with consequent disruption to Australia’s vital fuel imports.

Steam option for a crisis

In light of the geopolitical situation, Australia not only needs a sound and versatile Navy to defend its vast and exposed sea lanes, but it also must ensure that its own railway network has the flexibility and capacity to function should an oil crisis threaten to bring the nation’s transport system to a halt. Australia’s Achilles heel is that all interstate and inland rural rail routes are diesel-fuel dependent. Electrification of rail routes beyond the capital cities exists only in NSW, from Newcastle to Kiama and to Lithgow; in Queensland, from Gold Coast to Rockhampton, and some routes from coalfields to port.

Australian railways were totally unprepared for World War II, despite the fact that at the 1937 Imperial Conference, Australia had early warning that war was imminent. In 1940 the Australian government authorised the refurbishment of 15 stored locomotives for troop movements. It was a gross under estimation of rail.

Following the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Commonwealth Land Transport Board hurriedly developed a flawed locomotive design and failed to produce or test a prototype before manufacturing 57 locomotives in 3’ 6” gauge (1,067 millimetres) for service in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. When put in service, these engines sparked industrial disputes over safety, poor visibility, derailments, one death, a 1946 royal commission, and the defeat of a state (Western Australia) Labor government at the 1947 election.

The forgotten lesson of the Australian Standard Garratt locomotive venture is “be well prepared before any crisis”.

The last steam locomotives obtained by the various Australian state railways arrived in the 1950s. During the 1960s, steam withdrawals and scrapping was well under way; and by the mid-1970s, dieselisation was completed. However, the technologies and science around steam locomotives has progressed since the 1950s.

In 1980–81, British mechanical engineer David Wardale, a disciple of Argentinean railway engineer L.D. Porta (1922–2003), rebuilt a South African Railways (SAR) in-service steam locomotive. The resultant (red painted) engine, called the Red Devil, rewrote the history of steam locomotive power and efficiency.

The Porta-Wardale suite of technological improvements to the Red Devil dramatically raised its thermal efficiencies and hence its horsepower by 40 per cent, delivered up to 30 per cent savings in fuel consumption, reduced water consumption by 30 per cent, increased engine availability, improved combustion and lengthened running distances.

Nevertheless, there were limitations in refurbishing an in-service locomotive. In his book, The Red Devil and Other Tales from the Age of Steam (2017), Wardale suggested a Garratt-style engine as a superior second generation multi-purpose steam locomotive because it has better adhesion, is capable of generating greater power and superior tractive effort at low and high speeds.

An Australian engine with Porta-Wardale advanced steam technologies would keep freight, food stuffs and passengers moving during an oil crisis, while the diesel-fuelled fleets sat idle.

In its detailed submission to the Defence White Paper in 2000, the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) discussed railways as a key component of defence preparedness and endurance during a conflict. The SSAA said Australia should plan to have modern steam locomotives ready for an emergency. Eighteen years later the urgency is only greater.

It is incumbent upon the Federal Government to act on this issue, not just with plans, but with the construction of several second-generation prototypes of the Porta-Wardale technology. Wardale’s UK team has drawings, and has made feasibility studies for a new concept super-steam locomotive suitable for operation on standard gauge, but no prototype has been constructed.

While not advocating the construction of a vast fleet of steam locomotives, this article suggests building and perfecting a Wardale prototype as a precaution against the increasing likelihood of a future oil crisis.

History has many examples of a hostile power interdicting sea lanes and blockading seaports, thereby denying populations essential foods, clothing, fuels, materiel, munitions and minerals. The impact of any hostile interdiction, disaster, delay or restriction that disrupted the nation’s flawed reliance on “just in time” fuel deliveries or pie-in-the -sky oil “tickets” would be catastrophic and create unimaginable chaos for city and regional populations.

Australian governments’ utopian attitude that “it will never happen to us” is flawed. Senator Molan sounded an early warning; now is the time for rail action, not when a fuel crisis occurs. An investment to secure viable alternative-fuel rail transportation is as important as is the investment in naval, air and military power.

The cost of developing and producing an effective small number of Porta-Wardale steam locomotive prototypes is a worthwhile long-term insurance policy, far more practical than a handful of IOU oil “tickets”.

Tony O’Brien holds a Masters of Arts (History). He was in South Africa at the time the Red Devil locomotive entered service and saw it in Pretoria.

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