Joe Dietz has loved trains ever since riding the railways of Europe on family holidays as a child.
As a young man now living in Cairns, he has turned his boyhood passion into a unique career on and off the tracks.
His day job is driving locos during the far north Queensland sugarcane crushing season, which stretches from May to November.
Mr Dietz, aka Lego Joe, says winding his way through the neighborhoods and farmlands on the cane train tracks of far north Queensland is a dream job.
“I’ve just always had a thing for trains,” he says.
“I’ve always wanted to work on the railways.”
Mr Dietz’s family moved to the region when he was in high school.
“I was just lucky that, after graduating, I ended up getting a gig on the cane locos,” he says.
“You get the best of the city life, but you also have the countryside too and making connections with the farmers and the community in those areas is something unique.
“I’m living the best of two worlds.”
Mr Dietz is also living in two worlds when it comes to train driving — the real world and the online world.
During the other half of the year, he drives miniature Lego trains on intricate tracks around his family home, and millions upon millions of people watch him do it.
Seven years ago, I started the YouTube channel TrainGuy 659.
His unique work-life balance has allowed him to build a massive audience and become a professional YouTuber.
“When I first started, I wasn’t getting paid or anything from YouTube, so every season, I go back [to the cane trains],” Mr Dietz says.
“The YouTube audience grows every year because I have that time off, so I’m just lucky to work six months on, six months off.
“The YouTube thing pays the bills but isn’t something I can live off independently… but there is more potential.”
Massive miniature feats of engineering
Mr Dietz became an internet sensation when he began producing his annual Christmas Lego train videos, all of which have attracted audiences in the tens of millions.
These involve constructing about 120 meters of Lego train track around his parents’ home, across obstacles including the backyard swimming pool, and even through the neighbours’ yard.
Mr Dietz says it is a painstaking process that can be up to a month of work.
“It’s like building an actual railroad but in miniature,” he says.
“It takes three to four weeks to set up. It takes about a week or two to film, and it’s packed up within three days.
“There’s a lot of trial and error, and you do a lot of testing too. There’s a lot of time that goes into it.”
Mr Dietz says there is no shortage of derailments during the shoots, which have resulted in some highly entertaining blooper reels, usually featuring cameo appearances from the family pets.
“We’ve got a blue heeler, and you know what cattle dogs are like… they go after the train… [in one video] she’s nipping at it, she’s knocking it over,” he says.
“They actually end up doing better than the main video — everyone loves bloopers.
“There’s one time the train accidentally fell in a pool, which was like, ‘Oh no!'”
He says the odd, stray Lego piece also poses hazards for his supportive but long-suffering family.
“The amount of sore toes around the house during Christmas and New Year’s, it’s not funny,” Mr Dietz says.
The secret building blocks of internet stardom
Mr Dietz’s YouTube channel has amassed 660,000 subscribers, while his combined views are in the tens of millions.
He’s often asked what the secret is to becoming internet famous. His answer to it is relatively simple.
“Find something that’s unique that hasn’t been done before,” he says.
“And if you’re doing something that’s already out there, find what makes you stand out to make it different to the others.”
In addition to his annual Christmas specials, Mr Dietz began producing a series of Lego train road trip videos.
“I started doing these tunnels with some PVC pipe, the Lego train goes through this, and it’d transition to a different scene,” he says.
“I did this one around Australia, and that really took off.”
The initial concept film in 2019 was well-received, attracting 10 million views, but his grand plans were ultimately derailed by COVID-19.
Now that national and international borders have re-opened, Mr Dietz says he’s planning to get his Lego train road trip dream back on track with plans to take his train set through Europe during the crushing is over next season.