Thursdays on the railway with friends

From Metro Trains to Puffing Billy, we chat to volunteer Paul Houston and find out how his retirement is travelling.

Retirement doesn’t mean you have to stop working. For Paul Houston, it meant taking on a volunteer role as a Conductor at Puffing Billy which led him to become a coveted Station Master.

Paul joined the Puffing Billy crew 8 years ago as part of his retirement plan, while working as a Station Master with Metro Trains. In a clear sign of how much he enjoyed his job, Paul’s passion for trains has continued into his retirement.

‘Being a Station Master in a previous life did put me in good stead for my role at Puffing Billy, however, there are also lots of differences that I am looking forward to learning more about,’ Paul says.

The Station Master role is given to people who can ensure the safety and maintenance of a train station and help passengers board and disembark the train safely. Passengers will recognise Paul as the smiling person waving them off on their journey. He notes that the train ride at Puffing Billy is different to a trip on a Metro train.

Paul Houston, station master, dressed in blue uniform ringing a large gold bell‘Passengers can lean back and enjoy the relaxed pace, which is quite different to a commuter experience that’s focused on getting from one spot to the other,’ says Paul.

Always having a transport interest, Paul says he was a ‘late bloomer to the railway’ at 55 years old, only entering the industry after a career in telecommunications.

‘I’ve always been interested in old things, so to be around heritage railways is a natural fit for me.’

A heritage railway with history

Paul’s history with Puffing Billy dates back to the 60s when his parents took him to see the steam train for the first time and he says it’s nothing like it is today.

‘In the 60s, the train used to only run on weekends, now we run the train every day of the year except for Christmas Day, as Santa has a permanent booking then,’ Paul jokes.

’Back then, the blinds were made of canvas with no windows, which have been replaced with weatherproof vinyl blinds with windows today.’

The history is rich and at times surprising for Puffing Billy. Its first 2 trains were made in the United States while the other 15 were built in Newport, in Melbourne’s west – the opposite side of the city from where Puffing Billy runs.

The historic steam train ran regularly in the Victorian mountain region and was built to originally transport goods and passengers throughout the area. The railway now travels 24kms through the forests and fern gullies of the picturesque Dandenong Ranges to Emerald Lake Park and Gembrook.

A world of benefits for volunteers

Along with his eagerness to learn and grow in his role at the railway, Paul finds volunteering rewarding and enjoys meeting people from all over the world.

‘Volunteering has helped me lean into this new phase of my life and now I look forward to my Thursdays on the railway with friends,’ says Paul.

He says volunteers will learn something new every day while meeting amazing people. Keeping passengers entertained before they board is a whole new skill set that you can learn over time too.

‘If you like telling stories, you’ll be able to manage big crowds,’ he says.

‘Oh, and you need to learn how to speak heritage - Puffing Billy is a heritage railway and uses imperial measurements,’ he adds.

‘This is an iconic Victorian treasure and I love being a part of keeping it alive for future generations to enjoy.’

10 years on, retirement is panning out just as Paul planned.

‘I’m really enjoying how social volunteering is and the new friendships I’ve made,’ Paul says.

‘And there’s nothing more satisfying than teaching other volunteers the skills you learn from being part of the Puffing Billy crew.’

Learn more about volunteering at Puffing Billy.