Amid the high-vis, hard hats and machinery at the Plane Creek Sugar Mill in Sarina, south of Mackay, two young sisters are showing they’re not afraid to get behind the controls of a sugarcane train.

It’s all in the family for Jess and Emily Garland, who both got their locomotive driver’s accreditation earlier this year, following in the footsteps of their dad, Ian, who’s been at it for 20 years.

“I started off working in retail and I came over here for something different,” said Emily, 26.

“Something different” for Emily involves driving an 18-tonne loco within the mill grounds. 

“I’m in the yard, bringing the cane into the full yard from the flat every day, so the mill can keep going.”

Younger sister Jess, 24, operates a 40-tonne locomotive, hauling bins of cane through the countryside from farms to the mill.

‘It’s pretty cruisy’

a young woman sits in the control area of a cane train
After being her dad’s driver’s assistant throughout the 2019 crushing season, Jess Garland’s now stepped up and drives a 40-tonne locomotive.(Supplied: Wilmar)

It’s repetitive, but rewarding.

“I’ll take out some empty bins from the mill and I have specific sidings I have to drop off to some of the farmers,” Jess said.

“Once I finish up at the last siding, I turn around pretty much start bringing back whatever full bins they have ready to go, back to the mill to start being crushed.”

Jess began as a driver’s assistant in 2018, and last year her driver was her dad, Ian.

“He actually taught me a lot of what I’m doing this year,” Jess said.

two young women in high vis shirts stand in front of a rail line
Train driving sisters Emily and Jess say they’re not not intimidated by the heavy vehicles they operate.(ABC Tropical North: Angel Parsons)

“I was a little bit hesitant about moving up, but once I actually finally did it and got into proper driving I got more comfortable with it.”

The sisters are not the only women in the job, but some friends are surprised to learn what they now do for a living.

“They’re like ‘I don’t know how you do that!'” Emily said.

“[But] now I know how to do it, it’s pretty cruisy — not as hard as I thought it was going to be.”

‘I’m proud of them’

Long-time locomotive driver Ian Garland was chuffed to have his daughters behind the controls.

“I’m proud of them,” he said.

“It could have turned out totally different I suppose, they could have said ‘no I don’t want a job in the mill’.”

“I’m glad that they have, and also they do enjoy what I’ve enjoyed over the years.”

Traditionally, cane trains are operated by a driver and assistant, also known as a shunter.

The shunter jumps on and off the slow-moving engine to ‘throw the points’, which involves flipping over a large lever at an intersection to switch the directions of the track.

But remote shunting units (RSU) are increasingly being rolled out across the country, allowing for driver-only trains.

Ian Garland this year made the tough decision to fly solo on an RSU.

“I stepped up onto the newer loco and handed down the busted-arse one to my daughter,” he said.

three people stand at the front of a cane train
Driving trains through cane country and having your family as your colleagues? Sounds pretty good to the Garlands.(Supplied: Wilmar)

‘Toolbox meetings at home’

Now that Jess, Emily and Ian are all drivers, they don’t work as closely together.

But dinner conversations usually centre around one topic.

“We have our own toolbox meetings at home, what’s going on in each others’ shift and that,” Emily said.

When quizzed on who’s the best driver, the rivalry in this family remains friendly.

“Definitely me. Nah, definitely be Dad — he’s got the more experience,” Jess said.

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