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In the days before semi automated electric trains, there was romance and hardship in working and travelling on Australian railways.
Storyteller Bill ‘Swampy” Marsh has captured some of the wonderful stories of the men and women who worked on the railways in his latest book ‘Great Australian Railway Stories’.
Bill says it was inevitable that he would write a book on rail. “My Mum was a ganger’s daughter and she is 92 this year. It has been in the family for a long time.. Even when I was a kid living in the Riverina we had a car and we did short trips, but for some strange reason if we ever did a big trip like go to Sydney we always used to jump on the train. They were great journey's still embedded in my mind, travelling through the night with the soot and the dust and the coal smoke, it was absolutely fantastic."
As well as recording others stories Bill says he has a few from his own family to share “Mum was telling me when they were kids, it was a big rush to get the right seats on the train. You always sit opposite the direction the train is going because if you open up the window and you are sitting on the other side in the direction that the train is going of course you get all the cinders, soot and dust in the window so you cop it, so there is a strategy there."
Bill says it is hard to pick a favourite story from his book but he enjoys the story of Alf Harris. Alf and his mate spent seventeen years dressed up as Santa Claus and his assistant on the tea and sugar train across the Nullarbor.
Alf has since passed away but Bill loves to recount the story of how Alf got a job on the railway “He went off to get his medical to see if he was fit enough to work on the railways and he wandered in to the medical centre in Port Augusta, the Doc asked Alf ‘want do you want’ Alf said ‘I’ve come here for a medical for the railway’ so the Doc asked him what’s that on the wall? Alf said ‘It sort of looks like a calendar from here’, so the Doc said ‘ok, touch your toes’, so he touched his toes and then the Doc got the form and he scribbled on it and said there you go, you are fit enough to join the railways.”
Another favourite of Bill’s is the yarn about the rail workers who made sure they didn’t miss out on a regular beer “The nearest pub was William Creek, which was up the track a bit” Bill says they would put money in their rail trike and measure out the exact amount of petrol that was needed. “They would load it up and get someone to get in touch with publican and say that the trike is about to arrive then they would send it off unmanned, because they didn’t trust each other, and wave it goodbye to William Creek. The publican would be waiting for it.. it would run out of petrol just outside the pub and the publican would take the order, take the money and load it up, top it back up with petrol the fellows sent and send it back down to them.”
Bill says he has recorded the stories to make sure they survive “The older you get the more you feel that the romance does go out of it. That is why I’m trying to grab all these stories because they are a part of our history. A lot of these fellows I interviewed for the stories are getting on, and I’ve got a little bit of talent for carrying a bit of a yarn so I interview them and they tell me a few stories and get out there. There are some wonderful characters so if I can grab the stories before the fellows disappear it is all the better for us.
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