All aboard with the Puffing Billy crew

Recognising Victoria’s dedicated Puffing Billy volunteers, we chat to Sarah Taig, the first woman training to be a fitter for the iconic steam train.

Puffing Billy. It’s the iconic steam train from the 1900s taking passengers through the Hills – otherwise known as Melbourne’s picturesque Dandenong Ranges. Attracting tourists and locals of all ages, the first service departs Belgrave at 10 am. However, for passionate Puffing Billy volunteers, the day starts bright and early at 6 am.Sarah is smiling, wearing a blue work shirt and paints, wearing safety goggle and holding a wrench between her hands.

‘It can take up to 4 hours to get the train engine ready each day,’ volunteer Sarah Taig said.

Working as a tram driver for 6 years, Sarah came to Puffing Billy to find herself. With a strong curiosity about transport and an interest in driving a steam train, along with learning about the mechanics of a working locomotive, Sarah went to a Newport Workshop open day. It was a memorable day showcasing 10 operating steam locomotives on a heritage site. A Puffing Billy volunteer asked her if she ever thought about volunteering. Sarah took it as a sign from the universe and signed up the very next day, becoming one of 200 dedicated people who volunteer at Puffing Billy.

Her journey began a year ago, starting out as an engine cleaner and Wednesday night workshop member. Since then, she has taken advantage of the many different opportunities available to her.

Sarah's ultimate goal is to drive a steam train, which she describes as a role needing a lot of study almost like ‘VCE on steroids.’

She’s working her way up to this role, currently completing the railway’s safe working course and starting an apprenticeship to become a qualified fitter – the first female fitter for Puffing Billy Railway.

While maintaining her full-time apprenticeship, Sarah continues to volunteer 1 day a week as a guard, signaller and engine cleaner and is always looking for ways to expand her knowledge and skills, on top of completing her safe working course.

‘Being around staff and volunteers who are so passionate about what they do is infectious, and I have found everyone very approachable and happy to share their knowledge and experience with me,’ she said.

Puffing Billy on a high track with passengers hanging their legs out the windows‘Everyone is generous with their time and very much like when I drove a tram, I’m learning something new every day without even knowing it.'

‘It’s been such a massive opportunity to learn how a steam train works and to do it all for free is incredible.'

‘It’s been quite eye opening to learn how to weld and understand parts of a locomotive engine.’

Sarah travels from Ferntree Gully each day, a short 15-minute journey compared to the distance some other volunteers travel. One travels all the way to Belgrave from Albury, while another flies down from Queensland for 3 days at a time. There’s even an international volunteer from the UK that stays in Victoria for a month to get his train fix.

‘We’re all here on our own journey and interested in learning something a bit different,’ Sarah said.

‘To work with a 100-year-old locomotive is not something an average person gets to do, we’re one giant Puffing Billy crew.’

For those considering volunteering at Puffing Billy, Sarah says there is opportunity to move around and that the learning and positive recognition from passengers starts from the day you start as a volunteer.

‘I was standing in line at a café and one of the passengers paid for me – coal marked all over my face and overalls – it was really lovely,’ Sarah said.

Sarah is an inspiring example of how volunteering can lead to career opportunities and personal growth. Sometimes all it takes is that first step and the determination to keep going.

To learn more, visit: Volunteering at Puffing Billy.