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Monday, August 22, 2011

Bmag August 23rd 2011 - CEO of Qld Rail

Like many boys, I grew up wanting to be a train driver. More than that, I wanted to run the railways! I know this because I have a scrapbook my mum kept throughout my school years. In 1981, the year we left England, I list my ambitions as engine driver and Chairman of British Rail. The following year, our first in Brisbane, it says Commissioner for Railways for Queensland! Some 30 years on, I have finally achieved my dream, thanks to Queensland Rail CEO Paul Scurrah inviting me to spend a morning with him.

We start at Toowong station. As we go down to the platform, Paul makes a point of holding the hand-rail. Safety is the number one priority, he says, and the CEO must lead by example. I hold every handrail I see for the rest of the day! The 8.35am train is so full that Paul Scurrah and I are pressed against the doors. A passenger relishes the opportunity to tell the CEO that it’s like this every day. He seems impressed that Paul is seeing and experiencing it himself.

We alight at Bowen Hills and attend a meeting about the morning peak. There were 11 delays out of 135 services, considered a good start to the day. It’s suggested the method of recording delays needs a rethink. If trains are 15 minutes apart and 15 minutes late, a passenger might not realise they are on a late service. Journey delays, rather than train delays, might be more accurate.

At Mayne, huge artwork stickers – each the size of a carriage – are being applied to the side of a Tilt Train. And you think covering school books is a challenge! If it helps, they too struggle with bubbles and creases!

Soon Paul Scurrah and I are in the CEO’s 15th floor Ann Street office being briefed on the Sunlander-14 project. By 2014, the Cairns Tilt Train will have business seats (airlinestyle flat-beds) and first class cabins (with double beds and en-suites). The corridor windows in these first class cabins will switch from clear to frosted with the touch of a button. Assurances are still being sought that in the event of a power failure, windows will not revert to clear and expose couples “trying to join the metre-high club”. I’m starting to get a sense of the sheer size of Paul Scurrah’s job and the range of issues a CEO has to be across.

Next, a briefing about new measures to prevent level crossing injuries. There’s been a 10 per cent increase in pedestrian nearmisses. New pedestrian gates will be rolled out at key stations, starting with Geebung. Innovative ways of preventing vehicle incidents will be trialled, including runwaystyle lighting in the road and “pinball-machine flippers” instead of traditional boom gates which are “designed to stop horses not cars”.

Channel Nine has been given an exclusive story about anti-rock-throwing fences being installed on the Gold Coast. Paul Scurrah and his media advisers discuss the message they want to get across, that there hasn’t been a death yet but the next rock thrown could be the one. We head to Central Station for the interview.

At Central, I meet two of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. Sitting in a small room, side by side, with a microphone each and several CCTV screens in front of them, they make all the platform announcements for Central, Roma Street and Fortitude Valley stations! I notice several massive ceiling fans above the platforms. They’re brand new and ready for summer. Paul Scurrah jokes he hopes the hotel above doesn’t take off when they’re turned on.

We catch a train to Roma Street, where I’m shown security footage being analysed and compiled for the police and courts. A former forensics officer, now with Queensland Rail, describes how tough it is watching fatalities over and over from several camera angles. When a recording has sound, it’s worse. He says you have to tell yourself the death has already occurred and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Finally, over lunch, I meet the man behind @QueenslandRail on Twitter. No wonder Nathan Scholz is invited to address conferences on how companies can embrace social media. No-one does Twitter better. He is responsive, informative and personal. Indeed, that night, whilst I’m flicking through photos and showing my 11-year-old son Jack my Queensland Rail name-tag, it’s a tweet from @QueenslandRail that provides the perfect end to my day: “Spencer Howson, it was our pleasure to help you fulfill your childhood dream”.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ekka, Big Pineapple and helping tourists - Bmag August 9th 2011

Calls to move Ekka

August in Brisbane means one thing – the Royal Queensland Show or Ekka. But every year there are calls to move the Ekka to October. The arguments go something like this... At the moment, the show circuit ends in September (Noosa and Gold Coast). Instead, the circuit should build towards a big finalĂ© in Brisbane. Secondly, there are no public holidays in the months leading up to Christmas. NSW, South Australia and the ACT have Labour Day in October. Victoria has Melbourne Cup Day. Western Australia celebrates the Queen’s Birthday in November. In Queensland, we have nothing. The third and most obvious reason for moving the Ekka is that Brisbane’s peak flu season (the middle weeks of August, according to the Australian Medical Association) coincides with our annual exposure to the Ekka masses.

But really, can you imagine the Ekka in October? By then, says Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Tony Auden, the westerlies have gone and been replaced by “northeast storm days and southeast shower days”. In other words, we would miss out on all these beautiful fine sunny days. Sure, it wouldn’t be so bitterly cold sitting in the stands at night, but to borrow from the movie The Castle, you would change the whole “vibe” of the Ekka. The first Brisbane Exhibition opened on 22 August 1876. This year’s runs from the 11 to 20 August. Should it be moved to October? What do you think? Email me at the address at right.

Can the Big P be saved?

Late last month, a television newsreader caught my attention with the headline: “An Australian tourist icon has been named a terrorist threat”. Here’s how much of a parochial Queenslander I am: I automatically thought she was talking about the Big Pineapple! She wasn’t. She was talking about the Sydney Opera House but what does it say about me that, of all our beloved Australian icons and attractions, my brain would go straight to the Big Pineapple? That may be because my late stepfather Ed Devenport was the architect who designed it back in 1971. But more than that, it’s because going up the pineapple, riding the nut-mobile and enjoying one of those famous ice-cream sundaes, are among my first and favourite memories of Queensland in the late ’70s.

Kerry Brown, author of soon-to-be-released history of the Big Pineapple Our Sweetest Icon, also remembers the Big Pineapple in its heyday: “Every child would go home and plant a pineapple,” she writes. Sadly, as disappointed tourists discover for themselves every day, the Big Pineapple – which should be celebrating its 40th birthday on 15 August – went into receivership in 2009 and has been closed since October last year.

In Kerry Brown’s words, it’s in “a dreadful, tragic, deplorable state of disrepair”. So you can imagine Kerry’s joy, and mine, when it was recently announced that the property will soon have new owners. I’m told the as-yetunnamed investors also have fond childhood memories of the Big Pineapple. They want to reinvent agri-tourism for the 21st century. What a sweet 40th birthday present! But can they make it work?

Help for tourists

Last issue, I asked you what we can all do to make things smoother and more enjoyable for tourists visiting Brisbane. Wendy Davison, reading bmag whilst holidaying in Brisbane, emailed: “As bus travellers, we were unsure when to expect our stop. There was no map inside the bus, as is usual in other cities. It would be very easy to have signs indicating the next stop.”

Ron Nankervis wrote: “When I arrive back into Brisbane, I am amazed that tourists whose first language is not English struggle to fill out the Immigration Entry Card. If only this card was printed in various languages.”

Patty Beecham told me she and her husband were caught in soaking rain in Hong Kong and had tried for 45 minutes to hail a taxi “when someone came up to us and spoke English, asking us where we wanted to go. Thank goodness!” She says she’ll never drive past another tourist in Brisbane again without offering to help them.