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At 78, Robert — 'Bob' — is the last Donovan on the railway. His family originally from Culcairn, NSW, has been working with Australian Rail Services for generations.
Like his dad before him, Bob's speciality is driving stream engines. He calls them "living breathing machinery".
Although Bob Donovan retired three years ago he now drives The Picnic Train — a steam train focused on delivering family fun across the regions.
Bob misses his mates who called a shovel a banjo and laughs at the young men who can't keep up with his pace for shovelling the steaming coal.
He has growing concerns that the 10 tonne of coal required per shift is getting harder to come by.
"It's special steaming coal. It's a special heating coal. It's pretty hard to get now from the mines," he said.
Following in his father's footstepsFollowing in his dad's footsteps, Bob has been driving steam trains for 60 years. He started at 17 and believes he is the last man to come up through the NSW Government Railway System.
All his former colleagues have long since retired and Bob reckons it's been luck and good genes that have kept him going.
"The brain tells my body, 'Yeah, you can do it,' but then the body says, 'No, no hang on!' So, it knocks me around a little bit," Bob said.
"When I joined the railways, it was all steam then. My family was all railway. My dad, Max Donovan, was a Class 6 at Albury and when I was a teenager I used to ride around on food express trains with him," he said.
Bob's dad taught him how to fire the engines, so it was a natural fit for Bob to find himself working on the rails once he finished school and he's been there ever since.
Back in the day, you didn't need brain, you just needed brawn and Bob, knowing how to feed the fire, fit in well. It was hands on.
"When I became a trainee engineman I had a jump start on a lot of the young blokes because I knew how to fire an engine and all that stuff because my dad taught me when I was a little kid," he said.
'Young blokes take the mickey out of me'Each year Bob undertakes a medical examination Category One to ensure he is fit enough for the job of driving steam trains.
"The special railway doctor goes over me to make sure I'm alright because he's responsible if he gives me this certificate to drive in the railway corridor," he said.
He has to do stress tests, hearing tests, psych tests, and drug tests.
Working with young blokes on the job keeps his mind fit as Bob recalls how he tends to show off in front of them.
"I get a bit of a laugh when I see them try to do things and everything goes wrong," he said.
"They try to take the mickey out of me, but I end up getting the better of them — only they don't know it."
He's trying to train the young blokes to pass on his experience but there are issues.
"They use me as a bit of a mentor, trying to train the young blokes, but some of them are not very fit," he said.
"Young blokes now they always look for shortcuts and it doesn't always work like that, you know?"
He's been told by the younger ones he makes it look easy.
"Well I should. After 60 years' experience doing it … They can only go about 10 minutes. They are either overweight or just aren't fit," Bob said.
Working as a team with smoke and steamThe steam train driver has many jobs including pulling the train up, watching the signals and speed, and watching the fireman with his steam and water.
"If you don't look after your fireman he's gonna run out of steam and water and you just gotta stop," Bob said.
"The fireman has to be one fire ahead of the driver.
"There's no good putting on a fire, which means putting on coal and getting water ready, when I'm going uphill. It's too late. He's gotta have it before I go into the hill. He's gotta try and always be ahead of me. You have to work as a team," he said.
Bob's been working with Sam Roach, the fireman on The Picnic Train for 10 years, and he's not disappointed.
"He watches everything I do because he can learn a lot from me who came up from the old system," Bob said.
"He watches me and he's a good student. He's one in a million, he is."
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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