In conversation with Don and Dash
Dash Pandya started volunteering as an Engine Cleaner in 2009 and is now qualified as a Guard, Signalman, Track Patroller and Fire Patroller. Don Macwhirter joined Puffing Billy Railway in 2008, qualifying as a safe worker the following year; his primary role is trolley driving, but he also patrols for fires in the summer months and volunteers as a Signalman at Menzies Creek. The pair met in the Menzies Creek signal box, where Dash was completing his safe worker training.
Don invited Dash to join him on track patrol and a tradition was born. Ever since, they’ve been out on track together every Friday starting at 6.30am – rain, hail, or shine!
Due to travel restrictions, we have not been able to catch up face to face. But we had a habit of calling each other every Thursday to discuss the Track Patrol the next day. We still maintained that routine during lockdown to call each other on Thursday to say “Hello”.
Track patrolling is a role that depends on teamwork. What’s it like volunteering together?
Don: Back in 2010, track patrollers usually went out solo. When we met in 2011, Dash spoke to me about coming out with me and except for holidays and work commitments we have being doing it ever since. I believe we were the first to go out as a team – now of course it is always a two-person job.
Dash: It is very easy to work with someone who shares and enjoys the duties. As we have been on track patrol for the last 10 years, we compliment each other. When we arrive at Belgrave, it is understood that I will prepare the safe working and Don will get the trolley ready. We share who will drive the trolley from Belgrave and we change the driving seat at each stop. When it comes to a fallen branch or trees, we know who will do what to get the obstacle off the track.
Don: Without meeting at Puffing Billy Railway there would be no way we would have met in normal life. Some might call us the odd couple given our different backgrounds. We have just developed an understanding about what we are doing and have fun doing it.
Driving a trolley is a different perspective from the cab of a locomotive (and considerably quieter). What’s your favourite part of the journey?
Don: The best view of the track is from front on, only then do you appreciate the gradients and the curves. My favourite section is Wright Forest, between Lakeside and Cockatoo. It’s great being out on the track in all sorts of weather, just us and the wildlife.
Dash: The overall ride on the tracks is very enjoyable. I like being in nature and seeing the wildlife out and about in early morning hours. Spring and Autumn are the best time in the forest to see the changing colours of the trees. We also meet regular morning walkers and give them a wave and a friendly smile. There are dogs at a few trackside properties who like to protect their homes by barking at us. At the site of the old Landslide, there are always some wallabies waiting at the tracks for the trolley to pass. On occasion, we see deer passing by the tracks. During the afternoon Fire Patrol, we have come across echidnas sunbathing near the tracks.
What inspired you to volunteer at Puffing Billy Railway?
Dash: As a child, I was always attracted to steam trains, and worked on a project with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway steam engine workshop during my uni days. When I migrated to Australia, I was looking for a similar experience and found Puffing Billy. I started as an Engine Cleaner with the goal of working on the footplate, but I ended up enjoying the duties of safe working and Track Patrol every Friday. When working as a Guard, I enjoy the interaction with Engine Drivers and have good relations with all of them. When I see the smile on the faces of the visitors, I feel very happy that I have contributed in my own way to make their day better.
Don: My earliest memory is from the early 60s when as a teenager a group of us walked the entire length of the Railway from Belgrave to Gembrook over a couple of weekends. I think the Railway was only going to Menzies Creek then. I thought about volunteering for the next 30 years – but family, work and sporting interests always seemed to get in the way! I signed up as a volunteer in 2008, a year before Dash.
Our volunteers come from all walks of life and their role at the Railway is often quite different from their everyday profession or hobbies. What do you do outside of your volunteering?
Dash: I am a graduate engineer in Mechanical and Electrical engineering with a keen interest in trains. In my current job, I usually travel overseas a few times a year. I always make sure that during each overseas trip, I take a train ride in interesting places.
Don: I was involved in retail bottle shops for 40 years working and managing some small business like the Victorian Wine Centre to very large ones like Dan Murphy’s. As for hobbies – of course it is model trains. I model “N” scale American, mainly Union Pacific, and I’m a member of the Waverley Model Railway Club.
Tell us about your favourite experience at Puffing Billy Railway or a special day for you?
Dash: I am an active member in our community and when some celebrities visit from India, I normally try to bring them to Puffing Billy. Visitors included famous Indian movie actor Tiku Talsania and celebrity singer Ashit Desai. They all enjoyed the ride on the train. One Friday, on my return to Belgrave from track patrol, I found there was a big media presence. Soon, I saw Kevin Rudd, then PM, arrive to take a ride on the train. But it was a cold and windy day, so he cut his train ride short!
My favourite experiences are just travelling along the track looking out for the wallabies, echidnas, deer, foxes, wombats and the hundreds of rabbits that frequent the line. Every day has something just a little bit different than the previous ones.
What have you learned since volunteering with Puffing Billy Railway?
Don: Well, I can now use a chainsaw which has proven very useful on many occasions to clear away fallen trees!
Dash: Safe working skill was a major learning at Puffing Billy. This was followed by a Trolley Driving course, chainsaw skills and understanding more about narrow gauge trains. Although I have studied the operation of steam engines at uni, completing the Boiler ticket was great revision!
What advice would you give to someone who was considering becoming a volunteer?
Dash: When I speak to my friends and relatives, they all admire my volunteering at Puffing Billy. I always tell them that it is a great place to enjoy volunteering with very friendly persons around you. There are many new skills to learn and keep your brain active.
Don: The Railway has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, closure, reopening, tourists in numbers that were unimaginable just 20 years ago, and now a pandemic. If you are thinking about volunteering, now is the time, as you will meet a wide and diverse range of people who all have an interest in seeing the railway survive and prosper in the future. You can do as much as you like in all sorts of areas, and you will receive excellent training along the way to help you achieve whatever you want.
Interested in Becoming a track patroller like Don and Dash?
Volunteering as an Engine Cleaner is the entry point for diverse volunteer roles on the footplate or behind the scenes at Puffing Billy Railway. Once you are familiar with the ins and outs of preparing the stream locomotives, the next step would be to complete a safe worker course. This essential qualification is a precursor to all roles working in the rail corridor, including Track Patroller, Train Guard, Signalman, and much more. Prior qualifications are not essential to start your volunteer journey with us. All training is provided along the way.