What would you like to do on an overseas holiday? Many of us dream of lying on a beach, cruising down a river or gasbagging in a cafe – but how about shovelling coal in to a steam train’s red-hot furnace all day?
That’s what Welsh tourist Will Smith is doing for much of his Australian holiday, as a volunteer fireman on Victoria’s historic Puffing Billy Railway.
In his element: Volunteer Will Smith on the first day of his 2023 Puffing Billy furnace shift on Monday.Credit:Paul Jeffers
As a train enthusiast, chugging through the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne in a vintage locomotive pulling 10 carriages is paradise for the 33-year-old.
“You get the full sauna experience,” he said.
But Smith drinks plenty of water and regularly leans out into the breeze, helping the driver with lookout duties.
Fun times: Will Smith enjoys the scenery from the Puffing Billy locomotive.Credit:Paul Jeffers
“I can cancel my gym membership for the first six months of the year,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, you’re ready for a cold shower and maybe a cold beer.”
It’s the fourth time Smith has volunteered in summer on Puffing Billy.
A full-time worker on the Vale of Rheidol Railway in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth, he also volunteers for the Talyllyn Railway, a vintage line formerly serving slate and lead mines in the hills above the western Wales coastal town of Tywyn.
Talyllyn Railway has two main claims to fame: in 1951, it became the first rail line in the world to be preserved and run by volunteers, and the following year, Wilbert Awdry – creator of Thomas the Tank Engine – volunteered there as a steam train guard.
Puffing Billy was the world’s second preserved railway after the Talyllyn, and has been run by volunteers since 1955.
Will Smith on Talyllyn Railway Loco No 2 Dolgoch, built in 1866.
Smith, who arrived in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve, will volunteer at Puffing Billy for 15 days of his month-long Australian holiday, working up to 12 hours a day.
“A few of my friends think I’m mad for going all this way and doing this,” he said. “But it’s something I enjoy, and it’s good to give something back to the railway, and to keep the relationship alive between the two railways.
“Some people would love to sit by a pool and do bugger all for a few days, but that’s not me.”
It’s a tad warmer here in January than in frosty Aberystwyth. And as Puffing Billy wends its way through forest from Belgrave to Gembrook, he sees fauna such as rosellas, echidnas and deer.
The Number 3 steam train at Talyllyn Railway in Wales.Credit:Facebook
Puffing Billy Railway chief executive Peter Abbott said volunteers such as Smith helped keep one of our biggest tourist attractions operating in summer, its busiest time.
A partnership between Talyllyn and Puffing Billy means dozens of volunteers have done exchange shifts at the railways over the years.
Puffing Billy now has about 350 volunteers, up from fewer than 300 it had during COVID-19, but still lower than the 500 it had five to 10 years ago.
Before COVID-19, six Puffing Billy trips ran each day. That dropped to two a day after it returned from COVID-19, and it is now back to three to four a day. This was due to a lack of volunteers and staff, Abbott said.
Visitor numbers to Puffing Billy are on track to hit 200,000 at the end of this financial year, still well down on the pre-pandemic highs of 500,000 a year.
More volunteers are needed for roles from platform staff to ticket sellers and drivers.
For more information go to puffingbilly.com.au/volunteer/
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