He’s worked on steam locomotives, run along the Great Wall of China and kept the engine room of Dubbo Base Hospital running for almost 30 years, but now Graham Phipps has decided it’s time to move out of the driver’s seat and retire.
After a career spanning “51 years, three months and 12 days”, Graham finished his final shift at the hospital on Wednesday, March 28, doing a few repairs before leaving it for the next generation.
But it was trains that had Graham’s interest from his early days. He got work with the state railways as soon as he finished school. With his father and uncle as train drivers, it almost seemed liked he was destined for the job.
“I always wanted to be a train driver,” Graham told Dubbo Photo News. “I was pretty lucky to be able to do a career that I wanted to do.”
He started off in Dubbo when he was 16, working on different locomotives before getting the role of fire lighter. His job was to light the fire in the locomotives as it would take a few hours for the boiler to warm up before the train’s journey.
It wasn’t long before he got the promotion he wanted.
“When I was 19 I got a fireman’s appointment at Port Waratah in Newcastle,” Graham said. “We’d go up to Maitland and Branxton collieries.”
The fireman worked alongside the train driver and was responsible for tending the fire and keeping the engine running. It was hard work with long hours and night shifts, but Graham took it in his stride and became proficient at his job.
“A lot of times you’d get a locomotive that was a real good steamer, then on the next one you had to work hard,” he said. “Boilers are a black art. They are all different; they’ve got personalities. You operate them, but no one ever knows what their little quirks are. You just get used to them.”
In 1972, all that changed when the railways shifted to diesel engines. While the role of fireman became “easier, but not as exciting”, Graham was heading towards the goal he’d always wanted: driver. He drove trains around Western NSW, from Trangie, to Cobar, to Nyngan, Wyalong, Wellington and more. He was the first train on the Nyngan line after the dreadful floods of 1990, and he transported stranded residents back and forth over the Macquarie River after the Wellington Bridge collapse of 1989.
A highlight came in 1988 when the famed Flying Scotsman came to Dubbo as part of the national bicentenary celebrations. Graham acted as fireman over a long weekend, taking passengers for trips on the world’s most famous steam locomotive, clocking speeds of up to 80 miles per hour (almost 130km/h). He was also driver of the 3801 the same year, heading out to Orange for a round trip, pulling a full load of Dubbo residents along for the historic journey.
“I reckon I was privileged that I lived in that era – the tail end of steam. Even though some of them were very recalcitrant,” Graham reflects.
In 1990, he saw the writing on the wall with the privatisation of the railways and decided it was time for a change. With two young daughters, Renee and Karen, and wife Judy at home, he decided that it was time to give up the night shifts and constant travel. He got a job at Dubbo Base Hospital looking after their boilers. It was a position he stayed with until his final shift last month.
Unlike the trains, they were still using coal boilers for the linen service, the kitchen and sterilisation. He witnessed the change to gas-fired computerised boilers, and then another change to smaller energy-efficient versions, which he affectionately named after his daughters.
During his time at the hospital he became involved with Dubbo Athletics Club, a family activity where they were “all there together having fun, huffing and puffing around the track”. He participated in half marathons, City 2 Surf events and even ran for 10 kilometres along the Great Wall of China during an organised trip as part of the Beijing Marathon.
“It was the hardest thing I ever did and the most satisfying. The steps aren’t even, and are high, not like normal steps,” he said.
Now that his time is his own, Graham has intentions to dedicate more time to the local harness racing scene, a pastime he took up after meeting wife Judy, his bride of 40 years. Having established the successful Gilgandra Cup last December, there are plans for an additional fourth race at this year’s meet.
The grandfather of four has also got some travel on the to-do list, hopefully a trip to Spain and up around Kakadu and the Kimberley, as well as some train tourism to Maitland Steamfest and the like.
“There are probably a few things around the house to be done as well, so I’ve been told.
“I’m just going to take a breath and see what happens.”
After half a century gainfully employed, Graham has some advice for those still working.
“Always do things to the best of your ability, it doesn’t matter how good or bad you think the job is. And take advice from older people, they’ve been there and done that.”