John Ready was born in 1942 and grew up in Queensland. He studied civil engineering and was involved in some major projects including the Fairbairn Dam, the Darwin River Dam and in both stages of the construction of the Ghan Railway. This is his story:
“I went to Brisbane State High School and I was an average to good student most of my way through school. I suppose I was a reasonably good kid, didn’t get in much trouble or anything and once we’d really got out of arithmetic, into real mathematics in Junior year, 10 or 11 I certainly showed a great aptitude for that and it was then my marks started to really go through the roof and I was really inspired to think about engineering by one of our teachers, Mr Macdonald who pulled me aside and said to me. “Ah, young Ready,” he said “if you keep improving the way you are, you might even be able to do engineering.” And what a good way to fire a kid up. So I got fired up about doing well and worked very hard. I enjoyed mathematics, I still do. And I had a feel for it and that of course flows on to a lot of the sciences too, so and I finished up with a pretty good pass for Senior, as in both Sciences and both Maths and in those days, that was prior to free university education.
“There were a lot of scholarships around for the best and brightest and I was lucky enough to win what was known as a State Fellowship in civil engineering with the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission, the IWS as it was known. In fact most of the people who went through engineering did go through on scholarships. There were about 40 in my final year, and of that 40, probably 25 to 30 would have been on scholarships. So it was a way that most of us got through. They actually they paid a small living allowance, can you believe, £4 a week, the princely sum of £4 a week. And we thought that was pretty good. I lived at home and so that was okay. It was a bonded scholarship, so that you had to work. The normal thing was the period of your education plus one. So I did a four year engineering degree, so I had to work for five years. That was the bond period. Some people bought their way out of it and others finished up in arguments and so on, but it suited me. I went out and worked in the Irrigation Commission. I adapted very quickly to the outdoor life. I loved that part of it. I should probably say back during my school days, I’d been a very keen boy scout. I’d been very keen on the scouts. In fact I became a Queen’s scout, which was special, there are not a lot of those around the place. I’ve always been a self-reliant sort of person and the scouts was terrific for that too – self-reliant, look after yourself. And I guess that’s where my love of the wilder places and I’ve really made a career out of doing remote area work. I guess it really stems from those years in the scouts and I just love that part of it.
“I graduated, passed all the subjects. I didn’t have any great trouble but I didn’t get an Honours degree. With 20/20 hindsight I really didn’t work as hard as I could have at university. I played rugby all the way through and enjoyed a pretty good social life. When I look back I must have been reasonably well balanced, because I could get through university and yet played rugby and drank beer and chased women and did all the things that you do as a young fellow, as you should do as a young fellow. So I graduated in the four years in 1963.
“After I graduated, my first job was at Coolmunda Dam at Inglewood. Just to get in context, there’s three railway sidings about 20 kms outside Inglewood on the Warwick side. Inglewood’s halfway between Warwick and Goondiwindi and these three stations are Oman-ama, Coolmunda and Cobba-da-Mana Lord knows where these names came from, but one thing I do remember is that, remember this, back in those days there wasn’t the telephone communication we have now and there were quite a few party lines. Do you know what a party line is? You have one telephone and when I went to work at the dam, I can still remember very clearly that our telephone number was Cobba-da-Mana 4, and my mother thought that that was just dreadful that her son had done this engineering degree was now living out in this place where he was on a party line. “So I worked there for 18 months or so. You know I really took to engineering like a duck to water. It was never hard for me. I’ve always been pretty good with people, I can talk easily to people and socially I never had a problem. Intellectually I could always handle the work and concentrate when I had to. I didn’t find it difficult and I enjoyed it, so it was a pretty good thing, yeh.
“So at that stage, somewhere in the 60s there were a lot of dams being built all around Australia. I mean we seem to have gone off them now. In fact as a nation we’ve got some serious questions to ask ourselves of what we want to do about these things. The problem is that Australia is a very very flat country and we don’t have a lot of good dam sites and we can’t rule out sites just on the fact that they’re not good dam sites, because they’re the only ones we’ve got. I’m digressing I know but we really are as a nation, need to ask ourselves what we’re going to do about water.
“So there were lots of dams being built. I worked at Coolmunda Dam at Inglewood then I worked at Leslie Dam at Warwick for a little while. Then I went into head office for about a year, where I worked in the design office. It’s normally considered good practice for young engineers if they want to stay in the construction side of things to get some good practice back in the design office, just so that you understand the procedures and the way the design is undertaken. So, I spent about 12 months in Brisbane, working in designs branch. “While I was in Brisbane at that stage I met Sandra. She was a nurse from Townsville who was at the Mater Mothers doing her triple certificate as they used to call it then, it was really her midwifery. She’d trained in Townsville and had come to Brisbane to get her third certificate. We met at a party and started going out and then after that time in Brisbane, I was transferred to Fairbairn Dam where it was pretty exciting. I was the first young engineer on site. So I had to start building the village which is the first thing you’ve got to do, build the village, get the access roads in, started clearing and whilst all that’s going on, there’s a lot of investigation work is still being done. With all engineering structures, the investigations are never really finished. There’s always something to investigate. I found I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the material side, in fact it’s become really a speciality of mine is the use of engineering materials, the soils and rocks and so on. I’m not a geotechnical engineer but I’ve got a strong background in that area of engineering practice. “I was junior engineer there and as the more senior people came, I remained the junior engineer. But it was terrific, enjoyed it immensely. It was while we were up there in 1969, so that’s getting towards five and bit years out of university that Sandra and I married in April ’69. We married in Brisbane, and we went to live at Fairbairn Dam, where I occupied one of the three staff houses that had been built. It was beautiful. The three houses have all gone now. The most beautiful site which looked west over the Fairbairn gorge where the dam was being constructed. We were paying the princely sum of $3.00 or something rent for this government house. It was pretty good. So that was April ’69 and it was in October 1970, I was coming up towards six years out and I was getting itchy feet. I wanted to go contracting, to leave the government and work at the “pointy end” as I call it, that is right at the workface actually building things and doing that as a contractor and that’s where I wanted to be and that’s where I stayed ever since. That’s just what I like doing. People say to me “What do you like doing, John?” I say “I like building big things”. That’s really what I enjoy. “So we were only in Emerald for 18 months or so. I’d seen an advertisement from a company called Macmahon Construction advertising for a project manager at Darwin River Dam. I was a 28 year old, wet behind the ears, government engineer. I wasn’t going to get the project manager’s job, but I applied. I thought well they’ll probably need somebody to be an offsider or the offsider’s offsider. So I applied and I was interviewed and in the end, I think I was the last man standing, but they couldn’t get anybody to go up there and build this dam for them. So at 28 years of age I was the project manager on a job which today would be worth probably 70 or 80 million dollars – big job. So Sandra and I packed up our goods and chattels in Emerald. We’d kept her old car which was an old Volkswagen, PIP were its initials, its number plate. So we rattled off in PIP across the Barclay tableland and drove up to Darwin and settled in at Darwin River Dam, which was about 70 kms south of Darwin, living in a “donga”. It’s a prefabricated house and it’s quite a comfortable house. The house was made of two dongas put together, fully air-conditioned, nice lounge room, kitchen. It was perfectly adequate. So we lived there for two years. We enjoyed that, made a lot of friends there and by the time that job was drawing to a close, and I’d done it successfully, Macmahon Construction decided to offer me the job of the Northern Territory Manager for Macmahons. I was only 30 years of age and I’d become quite close to Brian Macmahon, who really was my strongest mentor as a young man. He started Macmahon Construction himself and he was from Adelaide, absolute gentleman and he taught me many many things, about life and engineering and estimating and lots and lots of things. “The Darwin River Dam was completed in 1972, then we went to Alice Springs with me as Northern Territory Manager. We actually stayed in Alice Springs for eight wonderful years. Our eldest daughter, Kathleen, was born in May 1974 in Alice Springs and we had three kids in four years, so all born in Alice Springs. Sandra, being a nurse, had worked with many of the people there and we had people say “What! You had your children in Alice Springs!” Well we really didn’t think it was a big deal, but so many of our friends did. Yeh, we had eight years there, wonderful life. The main thrust in those years was road building, again this is the time of Gough Whitlam, ’72 to ’75 and then Malcolm Fraser’s years, but the Territory was really booming, lots of roads being built. That’s when the whole of Australia really opened up where they went from bush tracks to proper roads and so on and we were heavily involved in that. We had an enormous organisation going there in Alice Springs. My territory went from Darwin to Cooper Pedy and Mount Isa to Kununurra. It was huge, and again for a pretty young man, I had a huge empire, about 400 people working for me. It was just go go go. “It was a great time of life and it was towards the end of that, Macmahon Construction won the contract to build the earthworks for the Tarcoola to Alice Springs railway line. That was the second stage went from south of Cooper Pedy up to the Territory border and subsequent to that we won the third stage which went from the Territory border up to Alice Springs. So Macmahons did that whole railway line from south of Cooper Pedy to Alice Springs and it was very successful. It was always regarded as the job that put Macmahons on the map. It was hugely profitable, mainly because we got very unseasonal huge winter rains and when you’re building out in the desert you still have to conform to proper engineering compaction standards and getting the dirt down compacted properly and that’s normally governed by the rate at which you get the water to it. You’ve got to water it down to get it compacted. But with this unseasonal rain, the red desert sand had absorbed all this water and the top couple of metres was in beautiful condition for road building so we found every earth moving tool we could around Australia and we worked double shifts. We worked seven days a week and we absolutely killed the job for time and money and, just by exploiting the conditions that had been presented to us and it was very very successful. Then that was in 1979 and going in to ’80 and by then I was getting itchy feet. In a natural progression I’d started with the government, I’d been a contractor and the yen was in me to have a crack by myself. I wanted to be, start my own business. “But the railway project, I guess I’m glossing over it a little because I seem to have thrived on the hardship and the tyranny of distance but it worked for us. We had a wonderful life, we had a solid marriage and it was working and it wasn’t difficult. Sandra wasn’t whinging “I didn’t like this” or “didn’t like that”. It was good, she organised the kids. We thought it was pretty good. As an adventure you weren’t going to do it for the whole of your life. Some of the things I remember – the old Ghan wasn’t all that far away and our groceries would come down on the old Ghan once a week and we’d drive 50 kms over the road to the old Ghan and pick up our goods off the railway line and bring them back and we didn’t go into town all that often. A lot of the young fellows would go in on the weekend but we’d just stay down there. We used to get lots of visitors from Alice Springs who’d come down and see us. Sandra and I set up the headquarters of the job, and as the project manager, we were camped at a place called – our address was “John and Sandra Ready, Tarcoonyinna Creek, via Cooper Pedy, South Australia”.
“One memory that comes back to me is that we weren’t very far, only about 10 kms from a South Australian government aboriginal settlement called Indulkana and it had a manager, and it was very important we had good relationships with these fellows and so we got to know them. Anyway I remember this highlight, that it was, the well-known country & western singer Tex Morton was coming to town and the administrator and his wife asked Sandra and I would we like to join them for the concert. Well it was the heat of summer, it was stinking hot, it was 40, 42 degrees all day, nearly every day and this concert was on, it was, I just remember how hot it was, it was still stinking hot and we were in this corrugated iron shed with four white people and all the local aborigines, many of whom were nomads, many of whom were sort of part of the settlement but would live outside it. And I just recall being in this boiling hot shed and the rich ripe smell of humanity was all pervading, yeh. Anyway, so we enjoyed Tex Morton’s concert in Indulkana.
“Whilst we were there in, I think it was ’79, we had this huge heat wave, still renowned as one of the great heat waves in Australia. We certainly went over 50 deg, but I certainly remember that there’s a little place called Cocklebiddy. It’s on the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia and this sticks in my mind, it had a reading of 54deg. It was hot, hot, hot. And all the huts, particularly the men’s huts were air-conditioned, but unusually for up there, we’d swung to this refrigerant air-conditioning whereas we’d always used normally evaporative air-conditioning up there which is just, you run the dry air over water, it cools it down. And when it got really hot, these air conditioners literally boiled and they didn’t work anymore and the men were just in these closed dongas, it was just awful. We got our water at bores, you would always put a bore down and the camp sites were always selected to be near a bore. We didn’t select the camp site and then go looking for water, you found the water first and then put your camp there. We normally put campsites maybe 50, or maybe 100 kms apart, but usually about 80, maximum of 40 kms travel, otherwise you spend all day travelling. There were probably a couple of hundred people in the camp. Probably a couple of hundred by the time you put everybody in, cause we were running night shifts as well. “A typical day for me – out of bed at 6 o’clock, have breakfast with the kids, be in the office by half past six, 7 o’clock. Then depending what was on, you’d either go out on site, or as the project manager there was more than half a dozen domestic issues to sort out. Then you’d have to do your report writing and fix problems. That’s what a project manager does.. You’ve got your supervisors and foremen on site and they know how to deal with day to day stuff but a project manager has to deal with the client, the person who’s paying the money, you have to prepare the progress claims and be responsible for them and all the reporting that’s required, all those sort of things, and fix up the domestic issues. They can be quite a big thing and, in fact you know, a lot of project managers haven’t made the grade because they can’t handle that side of it. They don’t want to handle that side of it, but you’ve just got to learn to handle it. “There were a few other families there, not a lot, cause a lot of the women wouldn’t come down there. Sandra had a little crèche running. We used to get lots of visitors used to come down and visit us. North of Cooper Pedy, there’s another opal mine. Anyway, there’s a lot of people used to come down and go opal mining there, just sort of potter around, see what you could find on the surface and so on. Just a typical bush construction job, we had our own little boozer, our little pub and the boys would just gather round there at night. Used to be lovely in the winter nights, gets quite cool there and always have a 44 gallon drum with the holes knocked in the side of it and used to put these big logs in, let it just burn away and then, the 44 gallon drum would actually glow red and yeh, sparks would fly, just lovely. But, a lot of drinking was done by some of them. I mean, blokes like would just drink like you wouldn’t believe, just every night, every night, legless, yeh. But they fronted up for work the next day. We had one bloke, he was married and the boys used to say that he was living proof that you couldn’t drink yourself to death. Every night, he would get legless, but he’d be on the job 6 o’clock. He was a service man, had to service all the equipment. Never missed a beat. Takes all types. “The night skies were wonderful, yeh. That part of central Australia really from Alice Springs down to Cooper Pedy, bit north of there, the winter skies are just fantastic. You’ve got to get out, you know, 30 kms from a major city, any cluster of light and it’s, you can almost feel you can just touch them. There are just so many stars and they are just so bright. That’s because of the dryness of the air. Just the air, we always see better in winter, you can see further in winter down here than you can summer, the same thing, as you’re looking upwards and yeh I used to love the nights like that.
“I left before that project actually finished. I resigned in Christmas ’79 so in February 1980, Sandra and I had bought a caravan and with a four wheel drive and a caravan with three kids in tow and I think we had $24,000.00 in the bank. I left a good job to go to Gladstone and start my own business, just packed up the lot. When I look back now, it was a pretty brave thing to do, away we went. We got established and I started Ready Constructions from scratch, walked into a town and started a company and they were pretty good years, but hard years and that was ‘79 to ’80 – started small, just doing small concrete jobs and anyway we built it up and built it up till I had about 100 employees and we were turning over 10 to 12 million dollars a year and, yeh, it was good, pretty stressful, pretty stressful running your own business and the problem with contracting is that it’s a direct opposite of retailing, where you have hundreds of small transactions. In contracting , you only have a small number of large transactions and if one of those is slow paying, you can have awful cash flow problems. Somebody might owe you $300,000.00 for a month’s work and they’re running late paying and, it was the cash flow problems that were the bane of my life. They used to drive me nuts, but you know, we survived through it. “We started just around Gladstone and eventually we built up and in those years there was a lot of small mining going on around Queensland, particularly gold mining and we had a business as well as in Gladstone where we’d done a lot of industrial concreting, big foundations and that sort of thing. We got our own batch plants and cement silos and that sort of thing so we could batch our own concrete and we would go out to mine sites all over Queensland and do the early civil works, all over north Queensland, wherever you like and that was very lucrative. And then in 1988, I told you I’d been at Macmahons in the Northern Territory. Macmahons came knocking at my door and in the mean time they had come into Queensland. They’d bought a company in Brisbane and they were struggling and they came up and made an offer to buy my business and put me in as Northern Territory, as Queensland manager in Brisbane. “So that was in 1988 I sold to Macmahons and we moved down to Brisbane. It was really much a family decision, as a business decision. We thought the kids would have a better opportunity in the big city. We’d been very very happy in Gladstone but anyway for better or worse we decided to move to the big smoke and so we came down here and we bought a place at Chelmer and lived there at Chelmer for a number of years. So I was the Queensland manager of Macmahon Construction.
“In 1993 I, we had an old company name, it was called Ark Contractors Pty Ltd which came from my Gladstone days. We, as well as Ready Construction we had a little side business, which was a structural steel business ARK Contractors. The shell of that company still existed so I started a consulting business, just offering project managing, management services and general advice to the industry. I’m still doing it. How long ago is that, 17 years now as a hired gun. People ring me up and say “John, what do you think?” and I reckon that’s fantastic. I love that idea that you’re old enough and wise enough that people are prepared to pay you just for what you think. So I’ve done lots of different things in that time, including various stints in and out of New Guinea. I guess it was the connection between New Guinea and going to the Adrail job in 2002, back to the Territory was that I’d done about two or three, four jobs for a company in Queensland, used to be Barclay Brothers and that became Barclay Mowlem and they’ve been sold now, old Brisbane building company. I’d done various works for them in New Guinea and they owned a company called Austrak, who were the manufacturer, largest Australian manufacturer, one of the largest manufacturers in the world of prestressed concrete sleepers which was very specialist little market. When you get in to it there’s a lot in it and we don’t sort of think about concrete sleepers as being very big things but they’re huge. They’re about 2.4 metres high and each one weighs about 220 kgs so they’re big lumps of concrete. “Austrak, a subsidiary of Barclay Molem had won this contract for the Alice to Darwin railway, the Adrail, to supply the concrete sleepers for that job, all two million of them. So the contract was to make two million concrete sleepers, very very high tech and very automated. Austrak had a whole history of being very late for start-up as a lot of process people do because what happens is that people, doesn’t matter whether it’s a chook farmer or an egg plant or making pillows. The people who make the process are terrible at building the factory to make them because they keep on wanting to change things. They can’t stop themselves and so Austrak had this whole history of late start-ups because they always project managed it themselves. This was the biggest contract that Austrak had ever taken on. It was worth about 90 million dollars so they needed to get it right. And the Managing Director of Barclay Mowlem, as it was in those days, a bloke called David Hudson, I’d done a lot of work with him over the years, and he said to them “Okay you can sign this contract for 90 million on one condition, that you get Ready up there and he’s going to project manage your start-up.”
“So my job was to go up there, starting with green fields, just nothing on the ground, with the plans to build the factories one in Katherine and one in Tennant Creek. The one in Tennant Creek was to be the biggest prestressed concrete factory ever built in the world, sleeper factory and just get it up to what they call “plate capacity”. It’s running, everything’s working and if the plate capacity was, say, 50,000 sleepers a day, it’s running at 50,000 sleepers a day and I then packed up and handed it over to the managers, the process managers who were good at those sort of things and left. It was only about 15 or 18 months, but very interesting time I had in Katherine and Tennant Creek. I spent a lot of time in Tennant Creek in my Alice Springs days, back in the ‘70s when Tennant Creek was a very strong mining town, very big mining town, Pico Mines was a famous name up there and so that was an interesting time, Katherine and Tennant Creek. Whilst I say that I worked on the Alice to Darwin railway line, I did for 18 months or so there I wasn’t, like I had been on the other railway line, out on what we call the linear work, putting the road down and building or building the rail. I was just looking after these prestressed concrete factories. But it was still part of the job.
“We used to turn out thousands, probably about three or four thousand a day. They’re very very clever stuff, actually made like a big sausage. Each of the factories, is say four or five hundred metres long and the concrete is placed in, these are all pre-sorted strands and strands run through them and strands are stressed over that full length of the four hundred metres and then normally left made in bays of four, so there’s four and then these bays are continuous so you might have two metres, you might have 150 sleepers in a row by four, so that’s 600 sleepers and you stress the strand and you’ve got the steel forms, you have this machine that comes over the top and throws the concrete in. You then put covers over it and it’s steam cured and you can turn them in about 12 hours and 12 hours later they’re cured and strong enough to stand. They’re not as strong as they will get, but they’re strong enough to withstand a certain amount of pushing and prodding. Once they’re at that strength, the steel forms in the casting, have a mechanism that drops the forms down below so you’re left these four long sausages, about 150 to 180 metres long in row of four and what they do is they pull them towards one end and at that end there’s this huge diamond saw which is about two and half metres in diameter. And it’s all set up and at the end of each sleeper which is slightly indented, pulls it through and this diamond saw comes down and pssshhh and just cuts all four sleepers and they’re picked up automatically. They’re all, the quality checking that goes into this is incredible. They’re checked for everything, for tolerance, tolerance here and tolerance there, so that’s four metres and the machinery picks them up and then 10 seconds later pssshhhh, another four – very very clever stuff. Austrak were world leaders in this stuff. They can still quote this figure, they always talk about the man hours per sleeper, that’s the measure of how much labour has gone into it. They were down to 0.12 man hours per sleeper, seven minutes. Seven minutes of labour per sleeper. “It’s not fully automated. It’s a lot of automation in it, but still a lot of process. People have to drive the machines. People have to stress the strand, people have to organise things. People have to do the quality checks. There’s still a lot of people involved. It runs around the clock, seven days a week, never stops. Probably, 100 or 150 people at each place. “We employed a lot of local people. Also a lot of people who had worked with Austrak previously, somewhere around Australia, in remote areas. One of the Adrail, the Adrail project was one of the very first projects in Australia which had a mandated aboriginal labour content. You had to get 20% aboriginal hours and it was a very important part of what they were trying to do there, particularly in the Northern Territory. I mean, going back to the Territory after all those years that I’d been away was an eye opener. The lot of the aboriginal is just, just dreadful, just dreadful. I was just appalled. How bad it had gone from the 1970s where they lived with dignity. Their society had disintegrated and alcohol abuse and the way they treated each other. It was just a real eye opener to me and I must admit, I’ve become a bit of an advocate for aboriginal rights because, what we’ve done to them is just not right, you know. So anyway, I got very enthusiastic there about aboriginal employment and see how we could go and so on and we beat all our requirements, double. That was very uplifting thing to be involved in. I became quite close to a number of them. So many of them had problems that you had to be sympathetic about. It’s true that many times you have to forgive behaviour there that you wouldn’t forgive some of the white fellas. You’ve just got to try and improve things if you can. So I got a lot out of that job, very enjoyable. Back in the bush again. “I wasn’t directly involved in the continuous rail lines, but they were happening right outside our door because the train that would come back, each night. The way it works, the train comes back each night to the railhead which was one in Katherine and one in Tennant Creek and one down in Alice Springs, although the one in Alice Springs was pretty small. And that train picks up about, I think they were doing about 1½ kilometres a day. So that train would come back and it would pick up enough sleepers for 1½ k and it would pick up rail, which has been pre-welded in long lengths which run alongside that same train and then, it’s come back probably, two or three hundred kilometres in the afternoon. It’s picked up the load at midnight and at 2 o’clock it’ll turn around and head back so it’s at the rail head at seven o’clock the next morning to start work. That’s how they do it. “It was all carted up in, it comes out of the factories in wherever it might be. Most of that was rolled at Whyalla in South Australia and they had it, they made up especially long trailers, trucks, the length of rail was about double a normal trailer, so we’re probably talking about maybe 25 to30 metres. That’s the length that it arrives in and that rail is unloaded at a particular facility that’s built, just adjacent to the sleeper factory. These things have to go together and those lengths are, what they call fusion welded. They just get hold of the two hunks of, in a big machine, right and by direct current, they’re pushed together and this huge volt, amperage is passed through them which physically melts the steel and the two rails are joined together in this fusion weld. They’re welded into lengths of about, maybe 400 metres, the full length of a train. So they’re doing 1600 metres a day, would be four of those rails on each side of the train. The train goes in carrying this, the steel rails on its side and the sleepers in the middle, and then the, the machine places the sleepers and the rail all on top and puts the clips in and that’s done normally on just what’s called the formation. There’s no ballast in at that stage, none of the rocks. The rocks come in later. So they put that down and then that train departs and goes back to get its next load. Then the ballast train comes through and it picks up the rails and puts the rocks around it and so it’s all mechanised. They’ll knock out over a kilometre a day. “The modern railway line is, what they call continuous welded. So you remember the old days, clackety clack, right. That doesn’t happen any more so the continuously welded rail gives you a much smoother ride and therefore there’s much less dynamic load going in to the bed. And the whole thing lasts a lot better because it’s much smoother. However, it does mean that the full stress of the expansion and contraction in that railway line has to be taken up by the sleeper pushing against the ballast. These sleepers, they’re at 700 mm centres at 200 wide so out of every 700 mm, about 220, just under a third is concrete so you’ve got 1500 kms, one third of it, 500 kms is continuous concrete, that’s how many sleepers there are. That’s how the design is calculated. It enables the tension, it’s, the analogy that’s often made is if you got a vice on your bench at home and you screwed up a piece of steel in it and you then heated the steel. If it wasn’t in the vice, that steel would expand wouldn’t it, but the vice holds it. That’s the same way that the concrete sleeper works. It takes up the stress of the expansion and contraction of the steel, so you have this continuous rail. So that rail is 1500 kms long, one rail, it’s all welded. That’s the modern railway line.” John went on to do various jobs including in New Guinea, which he very much enjoyed. He thrived on the challenges which included dealing with the terrain. At the time of interview he was involved in the PNG LNG project, liquefied natural gas. “You might recall the old Queensland gas pipeline which was going to come out of New Guinea. The idea was that we were going to have power stations in Queensland which would run off that gas pipeline. The danger of something serious happening within the country that you’re coming from, they call it “sovereign risk”. The sovereign risk in New Guinea is that there can be a tribal war or something like that break out and if one of the boys misbehaves badly, you can blow up the pipeline or something like that. Now if you’ve got a gas fired power station hanging off the end of it, it’s not a very nice place to be. However if you take the same gas and export it by liquefying it and putting it on a boat, then that boat sells into the Japanese and Chinese market where it’s only one boat of 30 per month that are coming in to the market, then if it doesn’t turn up, it’s not fatal, so that the same gas under that scenario can make the project viable and that’s what they’ve done. So the gas is going to be exactly the same gas that was going to come into Queensland will be put in a very big gas pipeline when it’s still gaseous down to Port Moresby where they put it through a, they call it a train, LNG train where they compress the gas, which is then liquefies at about minus 160oC and then goes to 1/600th of its volume. That’s why you can export it. That’s why you’ve seen those photos of the big ships with the white halos, that white stuff is the insulation to stop the cold getting out. And it’s quite a viable industry and now in Queensland we’ve found the same gas, what they call coal seam gas now which is going to happen out of Gladstone, which is still the same gas, similar gas. This project in New Guinea is being managed by Exxon Mobil, the largest corporation in the world and they’re going to spend a total of 15 billion dollars. The contract I’m working on, we’re up to 850 million now and we’ll go to a billion before next year. Billion dollar job, it’s huge. The biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. That project is going to double the GDP of PNG. “One of the great difficulties in New Guinea is tribalism. They cannot think past the tribe. So there’s endless fighting. It’s already started about who gets what and so on. And it’s very very difficult to, for any government up there to make it work. From what I’ve seen, they’ve gone backwards in the last few years and, but I mean there’s very stringent laws in place about how the money will come into the government coffers and out again so there won’t be another Bougainville. It’s an argument about what proportion of the money that’s left over should go to the people whose land it’s on and how much should go to the rest of the country. I mean the people whose land it’s on, should they get 100% and the rest of the country gets nothing? We wouldn’t accept that. Should it all be the same? So that nobody, the fact that you own the land that it comes off, you don’t get any more than the fellow in Port Moresby, no we say that’s not fair, but somewhere in between is the right mix. But you’ve got a lot of different opinions of what that should be. That’s the dilemma that a poor country like PNG faces is in slicing up that cake. It can’t be equal and it can’t be 100% to the locals, but somewhere in between. “There’s a very stringent requirements up there on employment. They have POs they call them, “prescribed occupations”. And no white man is allowed to carry them out so – plant operators for example, drivers of plant, they drive all, all the operators have to be PNG, PNG men and I have to say that a lot of them are very very good. Very good, skill level is not bad at all. They’re lovely people when they’re not involved in tribalism, just face to face, lovely people, great sense of humour, love a laugh, but when tribalism rears its head and, the culture has the view – look after your clan. Word they call it Wontok. Your first allegiance is to your Wontoks. So anyway, we try and do what we can. “I think I’ve had a fortunate life. I’ve had good health, I’ve had a good marriage, I’ve got good kids, I mean. And a great career, what more do you want. That’s why I keep working.”
(John Ready was interviewed in July 2010).
John Ready was born in 1942 and grew up in Queensland. He studied civil engineering and was involved in some major projects including the Fairbairn Dam, the Darwin River Dam and in both stages of the construction of the Ghan Railway. This is his story: