Saturday, June 14, 2008

Diary of a travelling trainer - day one: Sydney, Tamworth, Grafton

Four days, four workshops, the last two in New England. It's been a while since I have done this type of frenetic delivery. So for something different, I thought that I might record in diary form the last two days since this was back on my home turf.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Sydney 4am. Up early to pack and do a final check on the material that I would need while I was away. Work books, work sheets, attendance forms, evaluation forms etc. Printed off travel maps of all the locations I would need. Worked out the best way of packing all the stuff so that it would fit within luggage restrictions.

I get a bit obsessive about all this. There is not much you can do if you find that you have failed to pack a key piece of material, while travel time lines can be very tight. And it is remarkably easy to forget something in final packing.

Sydney 7.10 am. Dee drove me to the airport. Because the airport is only 6k away, it can be very difficult to get taxis to take you there, worse coming back since drivers may queue for extended periods and then hate getting a small fare.

I hate to think how many times I have been to this airport. At one stage operating out of Armidale I was averaging five domestic flights a week. Because Sydney was the hub for the southern routes as well as a destination in its own right, I spent hours there each week passing through or waiting for a connection.

This time I was flying out of terminal two. This is the old Ansett terminal. Over the years the ever-changing competitive relations between the regional and trunk carriers led to constant switches between this and the Qantas terminal as the destination point for regional flights.

Sydney 8.05am. The Qantas Link Dash-8 flight to Tamworth boarded on time. Just as well. I was to find out a little later that the plane had been up to an hour late on earlier flights that week.

I have very fond memories of the Dash-8, less so of Qantas Link because that company's story is a microcosm of the history of both New England and the broader Australian aviation industry.

Qantas Link began life in 1949 as a one-plane air taxi company in Tamworth. Over time, this developed into a small Tamworth based regional carrier called East Coast Airlines servicing various New England ports from Newcastle north, linking them to Brisbane.

East Coast was one of three main New England based carriers. Another small carrier, the Port Macquarie based Oxley Airlines, linked coastal ports to Sydney and Brisbane. Founded in 1947, the Tamworth based East-West Airlines was the third and major carrier, linking New England ports to Sydney.

By national standards all these carriers were small, but they did provide air travel within New England and between New England ports and Brisbane and Sydney. All this was to vanish in the turmoil of change that gripped Australian aviation from the 1980s as de-regulation took effect.

East-West was the first to go.

The previously un-listed public company was acquired by private investors who in turn who sold the company at the end of 1983 to Skywest Airlines. Under the new owners, East-West continued an aggressive attack on the Commonwealth Government's two airline policy that restricted carriage between main ports to the two major carriers. Then in July 1987, in a pattern that was to become very familiar, Skywest sold East-West to Ansett.

One condition of approval for the takeover was a requirement that East-West Airlines divest itself of certain routes. East Coast gained the Armidale route and changed its name first to Eastern and then Eastern Australia.

Eastern purchased the De Haviland Canada Dash-8 as their main stream aircraft, with drinks at Armidale airport to show the first plane off. Over the years I must have flown on the Dash-8 hundreds of times.

In 1988, Australian Airlines purchased 26 per cent of Eastern, acquiring full ownership in 1991. Then in 1994, Australian and Qantas were merged. In time, Qantas merged all its regional carriers into Qantas Link. Today, the former New England based airline exists in name only.

To complete the story, in 1994 the Newcastle based Impulse Airlines acquired Oxley Airlines and set up regional services across New England in competition with Eastern Australia. Again, as had happened when Eastern expanded, they put on functions in key ports including Armidale. Again, as had happened with East West, Impulse went into competition with Qantas and Ansett on key routes. Then in 2001, after heavy losses, Impulse was sold to Qantas.

Three airlines, three very similar stories. Measured by ports served, variety in routes and frequency, air travel in New England has gone backwards over the last twenty years.

This is unlikely to change. Among other things, regulatory and compliance requirements, including most recently those associated with anti-terrorism, have made it more expensive to operate airports and airlines. The effect is that previously marginal routes are now unprofitable, profitable routes marginal. All this makes it harder to get around.

Tamworth 9.30 am. The plane lands in Tamworth (photo Tamworth city centre) and taxis to the terminal past the hangars that once bore the East-West logo, then the Eastern logo and now sport Qantas colours. Despite its airline losses, Tamworth itself remains a major aviation centre because it is the place where air force pilots receive their basic training.

The flight itself had been a pleasant one.

The woman sitting beside me was an environmental officer with one of the mining companies on a day visit to a mine near Tamworth. Born in Newcastle, she had done her degree at at the Australian National University and had worked at various regional sites before taking up her head office position. So we had lots to talk about.

She talked about changing attitudes to environmental issues, including pollution and site remediation. She loves her work and said that so long as she put up a good case, the company would fund studies and action. We swapped notes about our respective experiences as project managers.

I was lucky at Tamworth airport. I found out a little later that Tamworth has major problems with its taxi system. I had booked a taxi from the plane, as had many others. My taxi was there, so I went past a whole group of waiting people. Some, I suspect, may have had to wait for half an hour.

Tamworth, for those who do not know the city, is 387k north of Sydney along the New England Highway. Estimates of Tamworth's population varies depending on the definition used, but is around 34,500. Now known as the country music capitol, Tamworth is the main service centre for a rich agricultural region.

Driving in, I asked the driver about the drought. I noticed from the air that there seemed to be plenty of water in the streams. Apparently there has been no real rainfall since the beginning of the year, so things are bad again.

Tamworth 9.50 am. Arriving at the site of the workshop, I did as I always do, check out all the logistics - toilets, tea and coffee, white boards, places to have a smoke etc. I also unloaded all the workshop material.

As always, people were a little late. It wasn't a big group, but people were meant to come from Coffs Harbour (300k, four hours), Moree (273k, 3 hours 20 minutes), Inverell (207k, 2 hours 50 minutes), Armidale (112k, 1 hour 20 minutes) and Gunnedah (76k, less than an hour).

I know that I sound like a broken record on some of the things that I write about, including New England self-government and what I see as the neglect of country Australia. But you have to drive it to understand.

Just organising a regional meeting takes planning to work out the best location. Travel time must always be factored in in a way that can be ignored in Sydney or Melbourne. Think, then, of the family in Moree that does not have a car and has to get to the base hospital in Tamworth by bus. This is one reason why Aboriginal health care, to take a current example, is so poor.

Tamworth 12.20 pm. The workshop is going well. The group is half an hour in front of the timetable I set. Time to break for lunch. Then two late attendees arrive. I send the rest of to lunch and while they are eating spend the next twenty minutes trying to catch the late arrivals up. This is something of a training challenge.

Tamworth 4 pm. The workshop finishes. I have achieved my training objectives. Even one of the two late arrivals got it. I pack up, thank my hosts and find out the location of the nearest taxi rank to get a taxi to pick up my hire car. At one level it would have made sense to get it in the morning, but that would have added a day's hire charges.

I wander down the main street looking at the shops and the people. I know Tamworth well, but it is a number of years since I have been there. The city looks prosperous. I also notice all the private school girls with their striking red coats. My only problem is that I walk past the street with the taxi rank and have to back track.

The taxi rank is deserted. I look round, wondering what to do. A lady waiting for a taxi points to the phone stand and tells me to ring. I do. I also ring Hertz to say that I will be late and arrange to pick up the car from the city office rather than the airport.

Time passes. I chat with the two others also waiting.

Tamworth is dry, they explain. The earlier rain allowed relaxation of water restrictions, so there were no restrictions during Country Music week. Now they are back on. The river badly needs a flush; it stinks. We talk about hire cars. The woman tells me that she had to get one to go to Sydney to bury her son. I do not ask why. Somehow it seems wrong.

Tamworth 4.40 pm. Still waiting for a taxi. I ask about walking. Too far, not on. I ring Hertz to say that I am still waiting.

My fellow sufferers explain that Tamworth Taxis has a new computer system. It does not work. Instead of drivers going to the nearest job, they have to go to the first available no matter where it is. So drivers might go 10k to get a job, while the taxi round the corner becoming available two minutes later also has to go 10k to another job.

The woman gives up on the taxis and leaves to get the bus. My taxi arrives at 4.50. I ask about their new computer system. For the next ten minutes I receive an earful.

The system has been in place for six months. It cost the new owners a lot of money for the relatively small number of taxis in Tamworth. Drivers must take jobs no matter where they are. Once booked, they cannot accept a new job until the first one is finished. There is no guarantee that the fare will be there when they arrive, given the delays. Once in the system, it appears that bookings remain until cancelled. Drivers give up. They turn the system off and work the ranks.

By now I am a little confused, a bit like my trainees! I escape at Hertz and get my car.

Tamworth 5.30 pm. At last I am on the road on my way to Grafton. Grafton lies on the Clarence River 307k away over the ranges. First stop Armidale.

It is dark, misting and has begun to rain. The car begins to mist up. I cannot work out how to use the demister and put the windows down. Cold and tired, I try to put the windows up, but cannot work out out how in the darkness.

Time for a break. Not far out of Tamworth I pull into a service station, turn the light on and check all the car's workings. Then with some chips and a drink I drive on to Armidale. I still have not worked out the demister, but can at least raise and lower the windows.

Armidale 6.50 pm. Arriving in Armidale I decide to head down town to look at the changes in the thirteen months since I was last here.

Armidale, an educational city, and Tamworth are traditional rivals in something of the same way as Melbourne and Sydney. To Armidale people, Tamworth is crassly commercial. To Tamworth people, Armidale is effete academic. This is a bit of a parody, the differences go deeper than this, but it still captures the distinction.

While Tamworth has continued to grow slowly, cut-backs and restructuring in education have badly damaged Armidale. Despite the city's huge life style advantages, its population (a bit over 21,00 depending on definitions) has been largely stagnant for two decades. You cannot lose more than a thousand jobs in education cut backs in a city of this side without adverse effect.

Despite the cutbacks the main street looks prosperous. The new Centro shopping centre on the west side of town has opened. The city's central business district, once limited to the front of three blocks along Beardy Street, now stretches over a dozen city blocks.

I always wondered where the business was going to come from to support the new shopping centres. I still wonder. However, what Armidale has going for it is life style. For the rent we pay in Sydney for a small house, you can still rent a mansion in Armidale. And the city does have mansions.

Driving through the city I stopped and bought a bottle of Petersens' New England semillon.

On the way out of town I stopped for a smoke in front of my old school, The Armidale School or TAS (photo, TAS main building 1895).

Despite the decline in boarding, TAS remains a major boarding school. Reflecting this, the school was lit up with lights on every floor. I wished that I had a camera. It was actually a very good shot.

Somewhat reluctantly, I drove on towards Grafton.

The initial journey is along Waterfall Way, a beautiful road in its own right. This then splits to the right and east towards Dorrigo, while the Grafton Road continues straight ahead.

It was over twenty years since I had been on this road. Then parts of it were still dirt. Now it is all tar, but it remains very narrow and windy in spots.

Tired, I stopped a number of times, standing in the dark looking at the trees. My main wish was that I could have done the drive in daylight. This is truly a beautiful drive. Standing there in the dark, I mused about the bullock drays that used to take timber and wool down this road for shipment from the river port at Grafton.

I had been warned about kangaroos in Tamworth and so kept an eye out. I did see some, but the only casualties were a poor family of ducks that I ran down.

Grafton 9.30 pm. I finally arrived in Grafton. I could see how tired I had become because I found the traffic difficult to handle.

I had checked the motel's location, but I could not find it. Finally, I realised that the street I was looking for from the maps had been blocked off at one end and that I had driven past it four times. With this knowledge, I found the motel about 9.45.

Exhausted, I unloaded the car and opened the bottle of wine. I felt that I deserved a drink.

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