Dr Paul Collin has practised medicine in far-flung places, but it’s a safe bet a train was close by.
It’s little wonder that Dr Paul Collin finds trains and all-things-railway utterly fascinating. They were in his blood from a young age and his passion has morphed into a lot more than a hobby.
“I was born in Edinburgh and before I could walk I caught my first steam train to London. I didn’t know it at the time but apparently it was doing 70-80mph. We moved to Perth when my father took up a position in the Physiology Department at UWA and some years later we all went back to Edinburgh while my dad took a sabbatical.”
“We lived near a railway line and I can still remember watching the A4 Pacific’s travelling down to London. That same A4 locomotive still holds the world speed record for steam engines.”
“Train spotting is still incredibly popular in the UK, crowds of people lining the tracks and recording registration numbers. When I was there I saw the Flying Scotsman travelling down the east-coast main line. That locomotive actually came here in the early 1980s, travelled from Sydney to Perth and did a trip out to Kambalda.”
Flying with the Scotsman
“After that it went back to the UK and did the run from London to York. On its final journey to the National Railway Museum people paid hundreds of pounds for a ticket.”
Paul’s route to medicine was interesting, complete with a twist in the tracks during his training.
“I actually wanted to be an engineer at school but the career adviser told me my marks weren’t good enough. He suggested I do medicine instead! In the middle of my medical training I took a two-year break and joined the WA Government Railways as a trainee engineman before qualifying as an acting fireman, which basically involved helping the driver.”
“I did everything from the humble job of shunting locomotives in the yards to working on the Indian Pacific.”
Rattling with politicians
“In the 1970s I was based in Merredin and, at the time, they named the locomotives after politicians. The first one I was on was the Gough Whitlam and the next was the Malcolm Fraser, which was faintly amusing. Later on I took some leave and travelled across the country on the Indian Pacific as a passenger and then down to Canberra sitting in beautiful, vintage carriages complete with brass handles and varnished wooden panelling.”
“I was actually sitting in the public gallery at Parliament House when Gough Whitlam was sacked!”
The siren-call of medicine remained and there was a good financial reason to dust off the stethoscope.
“Apart from other people telling me I was wasting my life driving trains I also thought there was a good chance that the student payment might be stopped. So, after two years with the railways, I went back to university.”
“I certainly have no regrets about going back to medicine but my interest in trains has certainly made me less of a ‘one-track’ person, if you’ll pardon the pun. Being a doctor is fascinating but I’ve got a lot of other interests and one of them is the study of languages. And that’s dove-tailed quite nicely with my passion for tracking down working steam locomotives all around the world.”
Steaming over the savannah
“The time I spent in Zimbabwe was interesting, too. I was working there as a doctor and it was during the time that sanctions were in place so they started refurbishing their old steam locomotives. I’ve got fond memories of taking the train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, which was complete luxury with freshly ironed sheets and a beautiful dining car.”
“We’d go around a curve and when you looked out you could see the Garrett steam locomotive up ahead with elephants and giraffes running away from the train.”
Paul’s multi-lingual talents come in handy when he’s globe-hopping in search of exotic steam trains.
“I’ve done three trips to Kalimantan, a remote area in Indonesia, and I was the only one there who spoke English.
Beyond steam in China
“I also take tour groups through China. I speak what I’d call ‘traveller’s Chinese’, which is enough to buy tickets and work out where to get on and off the train. China actually made its last steam engine in 1999 and there’s still some operating in coal mines and industrial plants. It now has the world’s fastest train that clips along at a pretty respectable 430km/hr.”
And it’s not all overseas jaunts in the pursuit of trains for Paul. There are plenty of local opportunities, too.
“I’m an active member at the Bassendean Railway Museum and they have a very large collection of rolling stock and locomotives on permanent display. A few were purchased from private hands and there’s one that was hauling timber from Yarloop up until the early 1970s.”
One last wish for this dedicated follower of steam trains?
“I’d love to go back to Zimbabwe and stand on the footplate of a Garrett locomotive. They weigh around 200 tons, they’re hauling really heavy loads and sometimes the drivers let you get behind the wheel.”