It was with a huge sense of sadness that I learnt of Tim Fischer’s death at the age of 73 on Wednesday 21st August 2019. He had been suffering for some time from a rare form of leukemia; I had been aware of his therapy treatment, but each time I feared for his survival, he bounced back, full of vigour and enthusiasm. Literally, he seemed irrepressible. Sadly, this time it was not to be.
Tim was born in 1946 in New South Wales. After university, he returned to the family farm at Borro Creek near Wagga in New South Wales. Later he served in the Australian Army in Vietnam and on his return went into politics as a member of the Country Party, now the National Party, and after becoming a member of the Federal Parliament in 1984, served for three years from 1996-1999, as Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government. He was also an ardent railway enthusiast.
I first met Tim changing terminals in Sydney Airport. Progress was very slow because he was literally besieged by many of his compatriots eager to shake him by the hand. We were both on our way to a conference on heritage railways which he was chairing. We became firm friends.
Tim attended the WATTRAIN conference in 2006 in Argentina and the subsequent triennial congresses until 2015; he was a very active supporter. He also attended two FEDECRAIL conferences and in 2009, while serving as Australia’s First Ambassador to the Holy See at the Vatican, set up a special steam train out of the Pope’s private railway station (built and given to one of his predecessors by Mussolini in 1932) in aid of the Catholic charity, CARITAS. Tim achieved this by displaying a typical flamboyant gesture when he presented his proposal to the College of Cardinals and was accused of trying to convert the Vatican Garden into a theme park. Being well prepared, Tim pulled out a photograph of the much-loved Pope John XXIII putting food parcels on a train at the Vatican bound for flood victims in Southern Italy. “So did His Holiness also try to convert the Garden into a theme park”. He won the argument, and so asked FEDECRAIL to help promote and organise the train and we had a truly memorable day.
Tim wrote several railway books, which had a fairly international feel about them, as he was knowledgeable about the development of railways round the world. He also knew many of those involved in heritage railways, steam operations and museums. Trains Unlimited in the 21st Century gives an overview of railways, both modern and heritage, on a global scale. Indeed, its foreword was written by another of WATTRAIN’s Patrons, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, President of the UK’s Heritage Railway Association and a former trustee of the National Railway Museum in York, when he paid tribute to Tim’s achievements especially on the railway front. The York museum is listed in the book’s Top Ten “Greatest Railway Museums in the World” as are the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, led for over 20 years by Courtney Wilson, also a Patron of WATTRAIN, La Cité du Train in Mulhouse and the Italian National Railway Museum in Naples.
Tim displayed a happy knack of coining memorable phrases such as “Low Speed 1” to describe the reinstated level crossing in Sheringham connecting the North Norfolk Railway to UK’s national network when he made a presentation to a largely French audience at La Cité du Train to loud applause.
Tim Fischer stood head and shoulders above his peers both figuratively and physically. He was a man of principle, committed to his deep held beliefs, but who gained the respect and affection of all those who came into contact with him, including his opponents. When he announced his impending retirement from national politics, the leader of the Labour opposition at the time described him as “one of the very genuinely loved people in this place” (the Australian Parliament). A real statesman, unlike so many of today’s politicians, whose like we are unlikely to see again. His departure from this mortal coil marks a very real and heartfelt loss.
President Emeritus, WATTRAIN and FEDECRAIL