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Fraser, James (1861–1936)

by Martha Rutledge and J. D. Walker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

James Fraser is a minor entry in this article

Keith Aird Fraser (1893-1952), railway engineer and commissioner, was born on 9 January 1893 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, eldest of four sons of native-born parents James Fraser (1861-1936), railway engineer, and his wife Maria Elizabeth, née Firth. James was born on 20 August 1861 at Braidwood. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, he joined the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways in 1881 and rose to be engineer-in-chief for existing lines (1903-14), assistant-commissioner for railways (1914-16), chief railway commissioner (1917-29) and transport commissioner (1931-32). He was largely responsible for beginning the electrification of Sydney's suburban network and for the first stages of the city railway. James Fraser died at Pymble on 28 July 1936.

Keith attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School, joined the N.S.W.G.R. as a cadet draftsman in February 1911 and was a junior surveyor on the Waterfall-Otford deviation in 1914. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 December 1915 and was commissioned on 16 March 1916. Briefly based in Egypt and England, he served on the Western Front with the 4th Divisional Engineers from October. Lieutenant Fraser returned to Australia in 1919 as education officer in a troop-ship; his appointment terminated on 29 July.

At St Peter's Anglican Church, Neutral Bay, on 9 March 1920 he married Muriel Hopkins; they were to have one son. As resident engineer on the city railway (1922-32) under the exacting J. J. C. Bradfield, Fraser supervised the construction of Sydney's underground railway lines and the building of Museum, St James, Wynyard and Town Hall stations. He was transferred to South Sydney (1932) and Sydenham (1934); promoted supervising engineer in 1936, he oversaw the building of the new Hawkesbury River railway bridge in 1939.

On 4 April 1940 Fraser was appointed lieutenant colonel in the A.I.F. He commanded the Australian Railway Construction and Maintenance Group, and embarked for England in May. For some six months the unit was stationed in Woolmer Forest, Hampshire, and built a number of large storage sidings, passing loops and other traffic facilities. The A.R.C.M.G. reached the Middle East in March 1941. Assisted by a South African unit, in September the group began surveying a new military railway from Haifa, Palestine, through Beirut to Tripoli, Syria. The Australians had the task of building a 95-mile (153 km) section, beginning five miles (8 km) south of Beirut and ending at Tripoli. Fraser's 'expert knowledge, initiative, resource and drive' overcame the inherent difficulties of making deep cuttings through hard rock, and constructing high embankments and numerous bridges. At first only hand-tools were available, and mechanical equipment arrived slowly. Helped by the 61st South African Tunnelling Company, African labour battalions and civilian workers, they completed the line by December 1942, six months ahead of schedule. 'Fraser was almost solely responsible for the survey, layout and supervision' of a major piece of construction, described as 'among the more remarkable engineering feats of the war'. An 'officer of outstanding merit' whose quiet confidence impressed members of his own and other units, he was mentioned in dispatches and appointed O.B.E. in 1943. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers in Sydney on 10 July.

In 1945 Fraser was nominated as 'director of civil engineering of railway standardisation', but New South Wales failed to ratify the agreement with the Commonwealth government. As deputy chief civil engineer (from 1946), he paid an extended visit (1946-47) to Britain and Europe to study railway practices. In 1950 he was promoted chief civil engineer for the State's railways. On 5 February 1952 he was appointed commissioner. The railways were starved of money and feeling the competition of road transport and the airlines. He had very definite ideas, freely expressed, as to the direction in which he wished to take the State's railway system, and he felt confident that it would be profitable by 1956, provided the government allocated funds to replenish rolling stock, to complete the Eastern Suburbs railway and for the electrification of lines to Wallerawang, Newcastle, Port Kembla and Goulburn. The day would come, he said, when 'a man could sit down to dinner on a long-distance train in New South Wales and enjoy a glass of beer with his meal'. He did not live long enough to implement his reforms. Survived by his wife, he died of cerebrovascular disease on 23 August 1952 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • J. Gunn, Along Parallel Lines (Melb, 1989)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Nov 1950, 2, 4 Feb, 10 July, 24, 25 Aug 1952
  • railway staff personal history cards 11/16610 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and J. D. Walker, 'Fraser, James (1861–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fraser-james-10700/text18113, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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