Off Topic and on the record as South Australian identities talk about whatever they want… except their day job. RiAus Director Dr Paul Willis is passionate about trains of the steam variety; just don’t ask if he is a trainspotter.
“Everyone needs an addiction, don’t they?” Willis begins.
“I’ve had two in life – two things from childhood that I never grew out of. One was dinosaurs and fossils. I made a career out of that. The other was trains. I remember as a small boy getting up in the middle of the night to watch the little steam train run across the back of the garden in England. That was the London Underground and at night they’d turn the electricity off, so they had a little steam train that would run the services and works trains around. It’s gone on from there in all sorts of directions. I’ve always had a model railway of various scales and different interests. That’s evolved into a very specialised form of model railway called P4, which is a long, complicated and very boring story. But essentially it’s a scale of 4mm to one foot, and I model the Great Western Railway [Britain] as it was in June 1929 on the 23rd of June at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We like to get things right when we do P4.”
Willis says his tongue was slightly in cheek when describing the to-the-hour accuracy of his model railway.
“It’s not really June the 23rd at 3pm, it is specific to 1929 and I’m modeling the mid-to-late summer of 1929. That was a really interesting time in the evolution of the Great Western Railway in that they had a lot of old locomotives, well passed their use-by date, modified and improved to extend their life way beyond when they should have and there were locomotives running around that were 80 years old in 1929. They were running beside the new crop of steam locomotives. By choosing that particular period, I’ve got a really huge breadth of models I can pursue to bring that era to life.”
Willis inherited a steam locomotive from his father last year.
“Several years ago he built a live steam locomotive; five-inch gauge, you’re talking about a locomotive that’s about a foot-and-ahalf long, weighs in at something like 40kg. You have to put coal in it, boil the water and run it as you would a real steam locomotive. I inherited that from him last year, and joined up with the guys up at Millswood, SASMEE – South Australian Society of Model & Experimental Engineers – so I’m learning to drive real steam engines and, let me tell you, that’s a sheer joy. It’s romance. It’s a beautiful thing.
“Steam is the closest mankind has come to creating a living organism. It’s a wonderful organic power that you have to understand and work with in order to make it work at all. So, my interest in trains is quite diverse. I’m a member of quite a number of preserved railways across the country. The Zig Zag Railway in NSW, Puffing Billy in Melbourne and I’m looking at getting involved with the guys at Pichi Richi. It’s important to me. This is a bit of heritage, our history in railways, particularly steam railways; they built this nation. They built England, the United Sates, South America, everywhere you go, most of the 19th and 20th century, those nations were built on steam railways. We’re rapidly losing all of those; there are fewer and fewer people left who can remember when steam was dominant and the only form of power on our railways. I think it’s incumbent on enthusiasts to keep that heritage alive so that the next generation can get some appreciation of how important these things were to building the world as it is today.”
Then there is Willis’s 1924 Queensland railway carriage, parked up at St Kilda’s Tramway Museum, which he is restoring into a holiday home.
“I’m completely rebuilding it so that it will have a bathroom, toilet and kitchen, it will have a dining area and lounge. Instead of buying a kit and anchoring it in the ground, I’ve got a railway carriage. It will probably work out cheaper. In fact, I know it will be less than half the price of buying a kit for a holiday home and going down the conventional route. Plus, there’s the fun and privilege of having a heritage railway carriage to maintain and look after.”
Do people close to Willis think he takes his passion too far?
“I think some people would be horrified to know how much I’m prepared to spend to get an original light fitting for it [the carriage]. Look, they don’t come up on eBay that often and when they do come up you’ve got to grab them, that’s my sole rationale for going to any length I can to ensure these things are acquired by me for a good purpose. Yes, I suppose often I go much further than anybody else would tolerate or any sane person would tolerate, but that’s the point of a hobby. That’s the point of an addiction, it’s something you can delve so deeply into, so you can escape from everything else that’s happening in your life.”
Given Willis has a diverse train passion, was he ever a trainspotter?
“I never had an anorak. I never had a thermos full of cocoa and sat at the end of platforms to take train numbers, that’s going too far, that’s just stupidity,” he laughs.
“I’ve always gone out of my way to see beautifully restored steam locomotives but no, not a trainspotter.”
RiAus is an Adelaide-based national science communication hub
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