Full head of steam for a fabulous era

Tim Fischer shares lifetime love of trains in new book on steam age

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NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET: During his travels in Australia US writer Mark Twain was one of many annoyed at being roused out of bed to change trains at the NSW-Victorian border, noting that it took a "paralysis of intellect"  by legislators for such an idea to come about.

NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET: During his travels in Australia US writer Mark Twain was one of many annoyed at being roused out of bed to change trains at the NSW-Victorian border, noting that it took a "paralysis of intellect" by legislators for such an idea to come about.

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The former MP has produced a cracker of a story with deep knowledge and a light touch.

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FOR more than seven decades, trains have been a line of continuity in Tim Fischer’s life.

Born in the NSW Riverina, the former farmer, army officer, parliamentarian and more delivered grain to trackside silos, travelled to boarding school by train, organised troop transports and advocated for rail in parliament.

Nowadays he writes about trains, most recently in Steam: Locomotives that Galvanised the Nation, a beautifully written, superbly researched, richly illustrated narrative of the days when steam power ruled.

While Fischer has an enthusiast’s love of facts, figures and minutia, he revels in the big themes, especially rail as a driver of economic and social progress.

Not that this is not a dull, leaden narrative. Ebullient  in print as he is in an interview, Fischer lightly and deftly tells of triumphs, failures and follies, engineering feats, lost opportunities, high-minded politics and parish-pump populism. And then some...

Through it all he weaves the stories of people including engineers John Monash, John Whitton and  CY O’Connor; moderniser Harold Clapp; Spirit of Progress fireman Bernie Green; author Mark Twan; and singer Nella Melba. Light moments and funny incidents pop in for visits.    

Overall, the author’s tone is positive. While he looks back fondly on the days of steam, he is refreshingly free of nostalgia. A man of the present, he looks at what our remaining steam trains can contribute today – principally to the tourism sector. His conclusion is that with proper stewardship, a modern outlook and good marketing, “steam locomotion in Australia is here to stay”. Three cheers for that.

Mr Fischer, 72, confirmed this week that is having chemotherapy in a Melbourne hospital for acute leukaemia.

Mr Fischer is being treated at Melbourne's Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

"I can confirm I have been diagnosed with acute leukaemia and completing a 28-day cycle of treatment in the Peter Mac Hospital," he told AAP.

"I am feeling okay but face further rounds of chemotherapy treatment."

 Steam: Locomotives that Galvanised the Nation (NLA), $39.99

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