Australian history: Steam locomotives that galvanised the nation


Steam Australia

Locomotives that galvanised the nation

By Tim Fischer

Published by National Library of Australia
RRP $39.99 in paperback • ISBN 9780642279293


For international readers not familiar with the author’s name, Tim Fischer was Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister for several years in the late 1990s when John Howard was Prime Minister.

Among military history buffs he’s known for his vocal support of a failed campaign to elevate posthumously General Sir John Monash to field marshal in recognition of his service on the Western Front in World War I.

But Tim Fischer has other passions besides politics and military history – steam trains, which are now consigned to the realm of tourist rides and museums. I should mention that one of the best of the museums is the Railway Workshops Museum at Ipswich in Queensland.

I am old enough to remember steam trains, having watched them belch their way across the Sydney suburbs, something that Tim Fischer describes as a ‘lovely plume of smoke’. I remember being disappointed that the steam train had been retired from the Blue Mountains run to the west of Sydney when it came time for my school trip. I have a family connection to trains too. My grandfather worked as a boilermaker at Eveleigh Railway Workshops in Sydney, no doubt doing his bit to keep steam trains running.

The first matter to be dealt with in any examination of trains in Australia is the impact of the differing rail gauge widths between the states, something that American author Mark Twain, having to change trains at Albury on the NSW/Victorian border during a cold night described as ‘… a paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth ..’.

When Australia began to build its rail network, it was of course a collection of states not yet federated into one nation.

As Fischer writes, ‘Australia’s 22 railway gauges were a costly madness, to be sure, and defied every bit of common sense – just as Twain rightly observed.’ Five of these gauges operate over significant distances to this day. Fischer has provided a helpful legend to the various gauges, which will be of interest to railway enthusiasts as will the fact that Australia had a more diverse set of steam locomotives than any country.

It’s hard to overstate how important the development of rail lines throughout Australia was to the developing economy, particularly in the days before reliable road transport. Fischer writes about this in his ‘Gold, Coal, Wool and Wheat’ chapter. It’s interesting to read of Monash’s post-World War I career in developing brown coal deposits at Yallourn in Gippsland to generate power in Victoria, no doubt with the aid of railways.

On a personal note, I was pleased to see the coverage of the ‘Dorrigo Saga’ in the chapter on heritage steam in Australia. Dorrigo sits atop an escarpment in a high rainfall area inland from Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales central coast. There have been ambitious plans for a steam railway museum for at least four decades at the site. The collection of locomotive stock is impressive – the biggest single collection in Australia of steam locomotives – most are sitting out in the weather rusting away through lack of planning and foresight.

To preserve railway heritage is a fine ambition but to attempt to do so without a sense of perspective of what is practical and achievable is clearly ridiculous. (I visited this site years ago. In my opinion, it’s beyond the scope of volunteers with limited funds to create the vision that prompted the venture in the first place. And governments have much more important things to spend taxpayers’ money on.)

There is enough technical detail in this book to satisfy the most ardent of train buffs. The photography demands special mention. John Buckland, who died in 1989, had a passion for rail photography. He donated his enormous collection to the National Library of Australia. This collection is the source of the majority of the photographs used in this book.

Tim Fischer offers special thanks in his acknowledgements to his family too for putting up ‘with the spread of books and papers created by a big book undertaking’.

I’d like to say to Tim Fischer’s family: it was worth it. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the history of trains in Australia – but it’s far more than a nostalgic look at the past.

It encompasses the fascinating story of the development of Australia as a nation and how the rail network played a vital role in the nation’s history.

Well done, Tim.


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