Written in 2015 by Graeme Pattison for an article in the Australian Institute of Traffic Planning and Management Newsletter (AITPM)
16 August 1931 – 14 May 2022
Allan William Short is probably best remembered in AITPM for his committee work and in particular 10 years serving as the National Treasurer before becoming a life member. But he is better remembered in NSW for his career covering many years in traffic control signals. He passed away on 14 May 2022.
His career highlights some of the technical and workplace changes that have taken place over the last five decades such as career training and job security.
Allan selected Radio Engineering as his chosen profession but this was not available as a university degree course at the time. Instead he undertook a Diploma of Radio Engineering starting at Sydney Tech in 1948 at age 16. He received five years of on the job training at the AWA Ashfield factory, it being the largest radio and electronics manufacturing company in Australia. This training rotated Allan through design, production, testing, the tool room and machinery shop sections. AWA and its broad training were highly respected in the industry so Allan knew he would be welcomed by other employers. His 15 years at AWA saw him designing radio equipment, electronic components especially switches, speakers, record stylus pick-ups and even a hair dryer. These were the grand days of manufacturing electrical equipment in Australia. Allan was not directly involved in the Unitac traffic signal controllers designed and manufactured by AWA but did assist the signals team with components. By the late 1960s AWA was encountering troubles as Japanese radio and electronics imports hit Australian production. Employees realised that jobs may be at risk due to these global changes.
Allan liked equipment to work just right and had begun to report traffic signal timing and other faults to the responsible agency, the NSW Department of Motor Transport (DMT). At lunch one day in 1969 at AWA, a workmate passed a job add to Allan. It was for a District Engineer position in DMT, responsible for traffic signal operation and maintenance as well as signs and lines. Allan decided to give it a go but wisely went and met with one of the existing District Engineers to determine exactly what the job entailed. He was told that it was a good job except for the unpleasant paperwork.
Allan was offered the District Engineer job, as a result of his second and last ever external job application. He was not given proper advice on where to start on day one and unfortunately went to the Burwood depot instead of the Rosebery Head Office. A short time later he found himself in an Engineers meeting at Head Office. This was followed by a site visit to a new and very complex linked set of traffic signals at Greens Square in Sydney. This site remained a signal technical challenge for years to come. The site visit was in heavy rain (without an umbrella) and continued until quite late. Allan also found out that his on-the-job signals training and handover from his predecessor was cancelled as his predecessor had resigned the day before. He was also given two jobs: District Engineer South and District Engineer East but quickly changed to South and West with two offices in two suburbs (Parramatta and Burwood). When Allan asked what the working hours were his supervisor (the late Frank Hawes) did not seem to really know before suggesting they may be sometime between 6am and 7pm depending on traffic. Allan then knew he was in at the deep end. In AWA Allan did not have the authority to purchase a single resistor so he was somewhat shocked to be directed to approve a purchase of over $1000 of equipment on his first day, without understanding just what the equipment was. But there were some consolations. On the afternoon of the first day there was a knock on his home front door where a man then handed a set of car keys to Allan's wife and said "your husband's car is in the driveway" before leaving. Allan loved roaming the highways and suburbs in his big departmental car for the next 17 years, looking for any signals and traffic facilities problems in his patch that covered from Burwood in Sydney's inner west, to Camden, Hornsby and the Blue Mountains. At one stage he was even responsible as far west as Broken Hill. He made constant use of the in-car two way radio that connected via the DMT radio room to all traffic offices and other vehicles. This was in the days prior to mobile phones and gave the signals Engineers and maintenance crews a sense of camaraderie as ever vehicle would hear what every other vehicle was saying on air. Allan was proud of his radio call sign "Car 99" and everyone knew who he was.
A hard part of the job was dealing with public complaints and ministerial correspondence. Signals Engineers often have to deal with people whose family members have been injured or killed in traffic accidents. Some people are very heated over traffic delays and traffic changes such as No Right Turn signs. Unlike many, Allan was prepared to talk at length to these people and frequently calmed them down with compassionate and logical discussion. Sydney had a problem for some years with a member of the public who turned off traffic signals he was not happy with. He was a late night worker and hard to track down but eventually Allan was able to speak to him and change his ways even though earlier legal threats had been unsuccessful. Allan found that his signals work taught him the art of politics and to be diplomatic
Allan was known to persevere in solving difficult signals problems and worked closely with the maintenance Technicians. One challenging fault he remembers is signals on Victoria Rd that would change to the side street when there were no vehicles on the detectors. After much observation it was found that trucks on Victoria Road were causing vibration on a signal mast arm that in turn actuated the detector cables and sensor unit mounted on the arm. Another was a signals timing fault that occurred sometimes in mid afternoon at Epping. It was tracked down to overheating in the signal controller when the sun was at a particular angle. Allan supervised the installation of the first three signal installations in Broken Hill. The metal controller housings there overheated in the strong sun and were initially cooled by placing wet bags over the top. He campaigned to move traffic signal posts away from the kerbside. NSW practice had been just one foot back but when this was increased to one metre the post accident rate decreased substantially.
Proper traffic signals operation for phasing and time-setting was close to Allan's heart. He was known to bend or break rules to get the best operation possible. This caused a number of debates and complaints but Allan was happy that his innovations and changes often became the official practice some time after he introduced them. He found however that when he adjusted coordinated signals that Arthur Sims, the SCATS innovator, was not pleased and directed Allan to submit any changes for his approval before implementation.
Project management was very different in the 1970s and 1980s. Without mobile phones and faxes, advance planning of detail was essential and decisions had to be made on the spot in the field without reference to other (absent) people. The turn-around time for memos needing a signed approval was measured in weeks so field personnel were expected to make their own plans and their own decisions quickly and responsibly. This world fitted Allan very well.
The traffic functions of DMT, Allan and all his workmates were absorbed into the Department of Main Roads (DMR) in 1976. The traffic section of DMT had been just 300 people with a lean management structure and good networking throughout. The Chief Engineer had even designed a signal controller unit in his younger days so he knew what went on at all levels. In contrast the DMR had more than 10,000 people and Allan found himself in a much bigger regulated structure and under managers who did not have a knowledge of signals engineering. He remembers for the first few years DMR officers addressing each other as "Sir" in contrast to the first names that had been used in DMT. At one stage he was reported for "giving too much attention to detail". In its wisdom the DMR decided to place Allan in a new job in the Control Centre where he would review signal designs for Arthur Sims. Allan did not entirely relish this new office job and missed his former roaming freedom and involvement with real on-site signal operations. About 1986 he was transferred again to the signals standards and quality assurance section in Head Office. Another transfer sent him to Thornleigh RTA Office. In 1991 Allan was just about to put in his retirement notice when he was told to hold off for a few days as a voluntary redundancy offer was coming. With this fortunate timing Allan set off on his birthday to join the retired traffic engineering ranks.
Allan was part of the organising committee for an early AITPM national conference in Sydney that had selected the new Darling Harbour centre as the venue. When the building works were late a hurried change was made to a city hotel. He enjoyed working with Fred Gennaoui and others on committees and the networking it opened up. His elevation to life member came as a complete surprise.
He lists his achievements as reducing traffic accidents, saving many lives and introducing painted median islands in areas where the standards dictated there was insufficient room for concrete islands. One of these first painted island sites was on the Pacific Highway near Gosford where an overtaking lane conflicted with a curve, a hill and a visibility problem. He was proud of his involvement in developing portable traffic signals and flashing arrow signs in the 1980's as this was an innovative development at the time. Allan also contributed to the change from signal advance (passage) detection to stop line (presence) detection.
His advice to young professionals working up in our industry is if you like an idea, go with it. Break the rules if need be to achieve good outcomes. But he has concerns that management has become less practical, there are more restrictions than previously on trying new ideas, and that people used work together better as teams in earlier years.
Reflections from colleagues
I worked for Allan in 1974 to 1976, when he was the District Engineer (West) for DMT, based at George Street Parramatta, above the DMT Registry Office. I was the Assistant District Engineer and it was my first job outside DMT Head Office. I learnt so much from Allan about ‘practical’ traffic engineering. He was very hands on – I remember one day he ‘borrowed’ the new EPV (‘cherry picker’) truck and took me along as the apprentice while he checked out an overhead mast arm signal on Woodville Road near Yennora. Can you imagine that happening today? – no PPE, no traffic control, just 2 blokes in a truck with the hazard flashers on in the middle lane, then jumping in the bucket to see how it operated.
One of my other memories is his unorthodox, but practically sensible, approach to traffic engineering treatments. There were very few turn bays on multi lane roads like Parramatta Road in those days. Many intersections had permanent or peak period No Right Turn restrictions. Allan suggested there should be a rule that stated the driver could turn right but only if there was a gap in the opposing traffic such that the right turner would not impede following vehicles.
I also acknowledge and respect Allan’s many years of service to AITPM in various roles. It was he who encouraged me to join the AITT (as it then was), and he drove me to my first meeting.
Allan was one of those passionate people that lived to make practical improvements every minute of the day. I am sure he considered corporate politics a waste of precious time.
He never made it to the executive management level and would not have been happy there.
His skill and commitment were to spent time on the ground, looking at not only what was a problem but what might become a problem. There is little time for that in a modern world that thinks it is cost cutting, but does not calculate the value of prevention rather than cure.
If I remember correctly, Allan was the one who put the pushbuttons for the pedestrian lights on a tall pole near the Rosehill Racecourse for jockeys to push the button while still on a horse, which was not only convenient but also safer.
He served as national treasurer of the Australian Institute of Traffic Planning and Management. His dining room table at home was always covered in paperwork and he constantly monitored the official radio communication channel to pick up on what was happening.
I remember that if I ranted on about something he would usually say “very good” while always looking for some real issue to tackle.
Several colleagues visited him in the last years, fitting acts of respect to a person who had public service at his core.