| James Henry Powe
Jim Powe, respected railway photographer and author of Trains and Railways of Australia , died suddenly on the 20th of January.
Jim was a well-regarded cameraman, having worked at Channel 10 and the ABC on programmes including This Day Tonight, Weekend Magazine and the precursor to Countdown, GTK. In later years, Jim was a popular figure on the staff of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, but he will be best remembered for his extensive railway film and sound archive.
Jim was born in Arncliffe, NSW, in August 1934: his father Norman was a Gallipoli veteran; his mother Doreen a member of Sydney's Chinese community. Their first child, Norma, had been born there six years earlier. Norman, restless and troubled by his war-time experiences, had worked at a variety of jobs across New South Wales and Victoria.
A few formative years in Melbourne saw the beginning of Jim's fascination with trams and trains, but the family returned to Parramatta at the start of the Second World War. After the war, the backyard of the family home in Thomas Street was partly devoted to an extensive 'O Gauge' model railway layout that featured tunnelled 'hills' large enough for children to move around inside.
After completing his education at Arthur Phillip High School, Jim worked briefly for Atlantic Union Oil before undertaking National Service with the Royal NSW Lancers (Armoured) Regiment – the unit his younger son Sean would later join as an Army Reservist.
Throughout his adult life, Jim spent much of his spare time travelling and photographing tramways and railways around the world. His photographs and movies are considered amongst some of the most valuable insights into railway life from the 1940s right up until his passing. His early years of travel were made possible with the rail pass he received as a NSW railway apprentice. In an age where on-the-job training was a genuine commitment, he qualified as an electrician responsible for railway signal boxes.
Jim married Janice Sharpe in 1960 at All Saints Anglican church in Parramatta, and the couple raised two sons in the house they built together in Telopea (on the Carlingford railway line).
For many years Jim was a fixture at model railway meets, selling vinyl sound recordings and 8 mm films of railways and trains. The films were often recorded while 'train-chasing', with his wife Jan at the wheel of the car. One of his videos, 3801 – A Legend in Steam, received platinum status and is the biggest selling railway video ever sold in Australia. He produced other best sellers in the genre, including Moss Vale Train and In Steam.
On the strength of his amateur film-work, Jim was recruited in 1965 as a cameraman with Sydney's fledgling Channel Ten. From working as a news cameraman, he became part of the team for Bill Peach's 'Telescope', the first current affairs program of its type on commercial television. The programme became too controversial for Ten's management and was scrapped; the ABC were quick to grab the team for 'This Day Tonight', but Jim had already been recruited by Reg Grundy at the beginning of 1968 to start up a small film unit for TV shows such as 'Everybody's Talking' and Don Lane's 'In Town Tonight'.
A few years later, Jim left the Grundy Organisation to join his old colleagues at the ABC, eventually moving from news and current affairs into documentaries. The programmes he filmed for involved increasing amounts of international travel, including to Greece, North America and the Pacific Islands. His footage from the 1974 Royal Tour of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) included the first ever taken of the 'land divers', whose leaps of faith were the precursor of modern 'bungee jumping'.
In the mid 1970s, he quit the ABC to pursue ambitious dreams of independent documentary making. Many non-railway subjects attracted his attention, especially flying boats such as those on the Lord Howe Island service, but no substantial sales were ever achieved; the ensuing financial problems, and the onset of the bipolar disorder that would trouble him for the rest of his life, led to the end of his marriage in 1979.
Although Jim had started a new career in fire extinguisher sales and service around NSW, there were still opportunities to get behind the camera. By 1984, he had sold the franchise and was in New Zealand making a promotional film for Guthreys Travel, where he met Linda Sarre; originally from Jersey, Linda was to become Jim's constant companion for the rest of his life.
At the end of the 1980s, Jim took up a post at the state-of-the-art premises of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) adjacent to Macquarie University in North Ryde, where he provided the students with instruction and support in cinematography and sound-recording techniques.
After retiring from the AFTRS, Jim continued to issue video recordings based on his films, and to actively support the restoration and operation of many heritage railways and tramways around Australia. In later life he was a dedicated campaigner to upgrade and extend the nation's railways, and shift freight off the road and back onto the rails. He saw the issue of increasing rail freight as paramount to saving lives on our roads, and was outspoken against Government neglect of rail infrastructure.
His book Trains and Railways of Australia was first released in October 2008. It is a best seller, already in its second printing. Unlike his films, his book lends space to some personal insights into how and why he dedicated his life to recording railway heritage. He was most proud of a chapter entitled 'From Railways to Tramways' as it showed how disused railways could be integrated and help revitalise communities with a modern and efficient transport system.
Interviewed on radio recently by former Deputy PM Tim Fischer, Jim noted that he still had "thousands of feet of 16 mm film" he wanted to convert to DVD. The sound recordings from the 1960s had also begun to enjoy a new existence in the form of MP3 tracks created by his son Brad to be embedded in the microprocessors of model trains, providing authentic engine sounds for fellow enthusiasts.
Jim's death, while en route – via public transport – to the Australian Railway Historical Society at Central Station, was sudden and unexpected. He passed away only a few blocks from his childhood home, doing something he loved.
His funeral notice included the line "Jim's on the 10 o'clock from Regent Street", the long-discontinued rail service from Central's Mortuary Station to Rookwood Cemetery – a reference that he would have appreciated greatly.
Jim is survived by Linda, his sons Brad and Sean from his first marriage, three grand-children (Halcyon, Gwyndolen and Alaric), and his sister Norma Headley. Jan died in 1992.
– Brad Powe, with input from Ian Dodd, Tony Buckley and Annabelle Dickson