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TIM Fischer is known to most Australians as a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Nationals in the Howard Government.
Many know him in such lofty roles as Australia’s ambassador to the Vatican or chairman of Tourism Australia.
The locals around North East Victoria know the 72-year-old as the farmer of the 120ha Grossotto Poll Hereford farm in Mudgeogonga, where he runs 100 cattle with his wife, Judy.
But not all of us, though, are familiar with Tim Fischer, train geek.
Yes, one of Tim’s greatest joys in life is studying locomotives, underscored in his new book Steam Australia: Locomotives that galvanised the nation.
“Maybe not geek as much as an enthusiast,” he says.
“I’d say if I had to list my passions the kingdom of Bhutan would be number one, rail transport past and present would be number two, and that would be followed by World War I military history and trains of World War I.”
Tim is speaking on the phone from the recovery unit at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia in October and undergoing a 28-day cycle of treatment.
“But I’m not dead yet. I’ll be heading to Albury for R&R to launch the book,” he says with clear anticipation.
“When they write my obituary I hope one of the lead paragraphs gives credit to the Alice to Darwin rail link, which I ensured got Federal Government support.
“In government, if a window opened for good rail infrastructure, I grabbed it.”
Tim Fischer. Picture: Zoe PhillipsSteam Australia tells the history of our country’s steam train transportation, which Tim agreed to author when the National Library of Australia approached him to write a “bright and breezy narrative” to run alongside 300 photos from the John Buckland collection of photography, one of the largest collections on Australian railways in public ownership.
“Once I saw the photos, I was happy to write the book; they’re so unique.”
As he details in the opening pages of the book, Tim’s dedication to trains stretches back to boyhood.
“Growing up in the Riverina, I had occasional encounters with trains, mainly freight trains, as I helped to load sheep at Boree Creek, to collect heavy bags of superphosphate, and at harvest time to deliver grain to the big silos,” he writes. “Then it was off to Melbourne to boarding school and further education, travelling of course by train.”
In 1966 he was conscripted to the Australian Army and served as transport officer, 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, both in Australia and Vietnam.
“As an officer I could see the logistical value of rail to move a battalion. A steel wheel on a steel rail has one-seventh the friction of rubber tyre on bitumen,” he says.
“So if you have a truck and railway wagon running exactly 100kph beside each other on level ground and the two engines turn off at exactly the same time, the rail wagon will roll seven times further than rubber on bitumen.”
In Parliament he was an advocate of rail transport and would make a point of visiting key railway stations on official overseas trips.
In the late 2000s he also hosted the ABC podcast series, The Great Train Show.
While ambassador to the Holy See he even helped create the Caritas Express, a steam train from the Pope’s platform in the Vatican Gardens to Tuscany.
For a moment, Tim suddenly switches to politician mode and begins a detailed explanation of the faults of Victorian Government transport policy, contrasted against historical problems.
“Stuff up number one was the standard gauge rail triangle at Ararat Junction. Stuff up number two was removing the rail overpass from Deer Park West,” he says.
“At one stage Australia had 22 different rail gauges. We still use seven gauges today, but at least mainland capital cities use standard gauge.”
Tim — who was a special envoy to the Adelaide to Darwin railway line and travelled on the first Ghan passenger train to Darwin in 2004 — names his favourite locomotive as the intermodal double-decker freight train.
“The most lucrative freight train is the supermarket special out of Adelaide, which carries 5000 tonnes of goods to Darwin on Monday morning, the equivalent of 150 B-doubles.”
While Tim says he is not a “trainspotter in the classic British sense”, he is “committed to understanding and promoting rail transport” and the role passenger and freight trains have played in the Australian economy.
And where is the nostalgia, the romance of steam travel for Tim?
In recent years Tim says he has been lucky enough to lead rail tours around Australia, Europe, Russia and South Africa. “The romance for me was a four-course lunch in a proper dining car with silver service in Scotland, drinking Scotch whisky and drinking Scotch soup,” he says.
“Or the trip through the Italian Alps, or between Moscow and Vladivostok, where there is a 2pm siesta, 4pm playing bridge, 6pm vodka and 8pm banquet.
“Or being on the Ghan relaxing, knowing you’re not in a hurry and damn it, only being served one bread roll, because they have the most sumptuous rolls on that train.
“My swan song steam train tour will be in May next year when we head to South Australia and take in four wine regions.”
This article first appeared on www.weeklytimesnow.com.au
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