March 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Tim Fischer on the Ghan

By Ann Arnold

From Adelaide to Alice Springs with a train devotee

Bec brings drinks to the four-seater lunch table in the Queen Adelaide dining room, swaying with the train as she puts them down. She’s newish.

Grazie mille! Thank you,” says Tim Fischer, Australia’s former ambassador to the Holy See. He glances at her Ghan name tag. “Rebecca, do you come from Adelaide?’

She does.

“Where are the best discos? Down in Glenelg or …”

Bec laughs, blushes a little. “Oh, I’m not the one to ask that sort of thing.”

War, politics, history and railways might be Tim Fischer’s specialties, but he gives most topics a shot. Moments earlier, as the Ghan pulled out of Adelaide, he had a small audience of musicians, a publicist and a photographer, and he canvassed The Beatles’ 1964 visit to Adelaide and the recent searching of Justin Bieber’s private plane.

“He’s a polymath,” says James Reyne, the Ghan’s other VIP guest for the tenth anniversary journey – the “Ghanniversary” – of its extended route through Alice Springs to Darwin. Earlier, a PA announcement had informed the international passengers: “On board is James Reyne, one of Australia’s very special-l-l [very long pause] artists!” Reyne, busy tapping on his phone and not quite in the spirit of things yet, had rolled his eyes and muttered, “Christ!”

Now, enjoying pre-lunch drinks with the genial former deputy prime minister and leader of the National Party, the ex-Australian Crawl frontman is feeling a little, well, reckless.

“So are you going to be New South Wales governor?” he asks Fischer. Reports to that effect have appeared in the previous week.

“No comment!” Fischer replies, happily. Reyne tells Fischer that his godfather had been governor of NSW. Air Marshal Jim Rowland, a military friend of his father. “Ah, Sir James,” nods Fischer.

Timothy Andrew Fischer, AC, would be in his element as NSW governor. “I study timetables for pleasure before breakfast,” he declares at one point. (He bemoans the demise of printed airline timetables; he used to send Emirates ones home to his now adult son, Harrison, who is autistic.)

This former transport officer in the Vietnam War (1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) values symbolic decoration. He is writing a book about Sir John Monash and is lobbying to have the World War One general posthumously promoted to the rank of field marshal.

“He is by far Australia’s greatest general ever. He, with Currie of Canada and Smuts of South Africa, showed our allies how to win the Western Front, and how to win the war.

“But he was discriminated against. Monash was Jewish, he was not Sandhurst or Duntroon. He was still building bridges in Australia in 1914. By 1918 he was showing British generals with 30 years of military activity how best to do things. Some were very jealous of him, others were anti-Semitic.”

As the train passes through the dry South Australian farmlands, Fischer takes a call from the federal Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg. The member for Kooyong is writing the foreword for Fischer’s book on Monash. There’s discussion about shoring up the support of the treasurer, Joe Hockey, and Jeff Kennett, the former Victorian premier. Both have expressed interest in Monash’s promotion, as have the Labor MPs Michael Danby and Mark Dreyfus. “Sit next to [Hockey] in a division,” Fischer advises.

You learn a lot on trains, he reckons. “People get the chance to unwind and have some decent conversation.” He also relates to people through their trains. With Great Southern Rail’s South African–born photographer, he could have talked African trains for hours. To James Reyne, who hails from Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula: “You’ve got a cute little branch line, to Stony Point, and from there you catch a ferry to Phillip Island.” For a larger group, he recalls, in geographical order, the mail trains that used to depart Sydney’s Central Station on a Friday night. “The North-west Mail … Coonamble Mail … the Cooma Mail …”

He “had a huge electorate [Farrer], from Broken Hill to Canberra, and I really did have to know the western schedule”, he says, seemingly pleased to have a reason.

Fischer and his wife, Judy, have been campaigners for autism awareness and support. In an interview last year with Melbourne’s Kairos Catholic Journal, Judy Fischer said Tim “clearly has some very autistic characteristics” but those “autism strengths are what made him successful because of his ability to focus on particular interests and to work at a ridiculous pace”.

One of those intense interests has been railway gauges. Australia’s quirk, its historical transport blunder, was that it had 22 different gauges, or rail spacings. The varying widths of the tracks meant constant train changes, for both people and freight. Over time, the number of different gauges has been reduced to six. (And yes, Tim Fischer can tell you exactly what they were, and are, in possibly every Australian location. And many international ones as well.)

The Australian inconsistency has stymied travel, and transport efficiency. Fischer loves to quote Mark Twain, who in 1895 was hauled out of his train bunk at Albury for a 5 am change of train. “Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth,” Twain wrote grumpily of the break of gauge.

Fischer also quotes Lord Kitchener, who visited Australia in 1910 to review the railways from a strategic perspective. Our system “would be more favourable to an enemy invading Australia than to the defence of the country”, Kitchener reported.

Might the break of gauge also have hindered a stronger culture of train travel in Australia? “Hmm, yeah, I think that’s probably fair,” Fischer says. He enthuses that this Ghan journey, still the world’s newest transcontinental, should be on every Australian’s bucket list, albeit at $862 for a reclining seat or $3390 for the best cabin.

He’s also touting a rail freight revival. The “supermarket train” that charges up the line on Friday nights, carrying double-stacked containers to Darwin, is “doing the job of 150 B-doubles”. Fischer is optimistic about the evolution of “intermodal hubs”, where trucks meet trains to share the haulage load. There are now hubs outside Adelaide and Perth and at Parkes in NSW.

Fischer is a republican, a staunch Catholic, an advocate of strict gun control. And he is a showman, in grazier’s clothing. At a small outback concert in Pimba, South Australia, James Reyne and guitarist Brett Kingman perform for the passengers and locals. Fischer is the host. Climbing aboard the flatbed truck that is the stage, he trumpets, “It’s not Hot August Night, it’s a hot Pimba night!”

“In the time it took our train to get from Adelaide to Pimba,” he tells the assorted figures silhouetted against the vast horizon, “a train departed London St Pancras, went to Brussels and, with connections, would have run on to Cologne, Germany, been cleaned, turned around, and back to St Pancras.”

Arrivederci!” He waves, and leaves the stage.

Ann Arnold

Ann Arnold is a journalist with ABC Radio National.

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