Home Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! NBN – it's like a 150-year-old train wreck

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Australia has already lived through a communications mix-and-match disaster.  We're doing it all over again.

In the early 1850s, there was a great deal of independence amongst the Australian colonies (they weren't yet states), with very little over-arching control from London (at the time, the fastest communication method between London and Australia was a ship on the ocean!).

Political leaders in London were wont to permit this independence purely for expediency.

In 1853, the New South Wales colonial government determined that railway lines would use a gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches – this is generally known as "standard gauge". Anything narrower (there are plenty of them!) is generally referred to as narrow gauge and anything wider is called broad gauge.

Shortly thereafter, Victoria opted for a broad gauge of 5 feet 3 inches.  

Despite many suggestions of inter-colony rivalry, the primary reason why Victoria and New South Wales use a different gauge is simply that the decisions were made at much the same time and independently of one another. By the time the mistake was realised, both had already ordered engines and rolling stock.  The situation in other states was similarly fragmented.

Most interstate lines are now standard gauge, but that wasn't always the case.  Between 1961 and 1995, every passenger train travelling between Sydney and Melbourne would stop at Wodonga (on the VIC / NSW border) to have the bogies swapped. This required evicting the passengers, bodily lifting the carriages and swapping the wheels under them, piling everyone back on and resuming the journey.

For those interested in the history of Australian railway gauges, there's plenty of reading available.

And now after 140 years of pain, we have reached an equally crazy solution to what ought to have been an easy problem.

The NBN started life as a common gauge railway that would connect every part of the country. Better, one capable of carrying near-infinite amounts of traffic without ever wearing out. Then the petty rivalries started.

"Someone" didn't like the fully integrated model – it was too expensive; it was a "Rolls Royce" solution; "my political donors didn't like it" (choose as many as you believe might apply).

Instead, this same "someone" pretended it would be cheaper and better to mix and match the existing mixed-gauge track even though they were old and in urgent need of either an upgrade or replacement.

In T.S Eliot's The Waste Land a positive view of the hero's journey is proposed: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." However, readers might wish to re-appraise these words in the light of the old saw, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." – George Santayana.

Which brings to mind the old Hollies song from 1967 – King Midas in Reverse.  Hint: whereas for the mythical King Midas, everything he touched turned to gold, for "King Midas in Reverse," everything he touched turned to s**t.

I'm not the guy to run with, cause I'll pull you off the line.
I'll break you and destroy you, give time.

He's King Midas with a curse.  He's King Midas in Reverse.
He's King Midas with a curse.  He's King Midas in Reverse.

Presumably 'Someone' is King Midas in Reverse.


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David Heath

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David Heath has over 25 years experience in the IT industry, specializing particularly in customer support, security and computer networking. Heath has worked previously as head of IT for The Television Shopping Network, as the network and desktop manager for Armstrong Jones (a major funds management organization) and has consulted into various Australian federal government agencies (including the Department of Immigration and the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence). He has also served on various state, national and international committees for Novell Users International; he was also the organising chairman for the 1994 Novell Users' Conference in Brisbane. Heath is currently employed as an Instructional Designer, building technical training courses for industrial process control systems.






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