The trams revolt


Melbourne tramsRecently I've resumed my interrupted relationship with Melbourne's trams. We go back a long way, the trams and me. As a schoolboy, clutching my book-heavy Gladstone bag — a preferably battered Gladstone with your initials on it in fading gold being de rigueur in those days — I would climb aboard the number 64 and roll through suburb after suburb to school.

Sometimes I would have to sprint to the departing tram and leap on to the running board. You couldn't get locked out because automatic closing doors were still some years in the future.

When other boys jumped on to a moving tram it looked easy, even graceful. When you tried it yourself for the first time, however, the tram's apparently snail-like progress was transmuted into an alarmingly fast take-off, and a kind of G force pinned you to the running board and made the next step — actually climbing up into the tram — a lead-weighted, gravity-defying coup. In this brief skirmish with momentum and various immutable laws of physics, the Gladstone bag was no help at all.

The trams of my youth were green, with a splash here and there of yellow, and had a crew of two — a driver and a conductor. Drivers underwent a rigorous course of training which encompassed not only the rules of the road but other subtleties — like how to miss every green light while appearing not to be dawdling. In the old days, missing the lights involved inexplicable periods of utter motionlessness or a series of teeth-jarring starts and stops. But the advent of the sliding doors radically changed the driver's range of options.

The skilled driver will shut the doors just as someone dives for the entrance, then chivalrously reopen them, then close them and ring the bell — Melbourne tram drivers are very heavy on the bell — then give the tram a balance-testing forward jerk causing older passengers to brace themselves in their seats and strap-hangers to sway and reach like a trapeze artist mistiming a leap, then reopen and shut the doors and — bingo! red light.

It is the lot of trams everywhere to be welcomed, argued about, derided and threatened with extinction and removal. Melbourne trams have been dogged survivors and shapers of destiny.

In 1990, with the Victorian government of John Cain teetering amid serial financial disasters, trams played a bizarrely central role. Tram drivers, protesting against a government plan to introduce a new Met ticket system saving $24 million a year but costing the jobs of more than a thousand conductors and train station staff, drove their trams, 250 of them, into the Melbourne CBD and parked them there for 33 days.

To my possibly fevered and overly dramatic imagination, and allowing for the fact that I was viewing it from then almost tramless Adelaide, the report of this action made it sound as if the trams themselves had rebelled, so that my version, in an unfinished short story called 'The Last Days of the Cain Government', went like this:

The trams trundled in from the suburban depots — driverless, empty and all lights blazing — one quiet warm night in the weeks following the football finals. Like a uniformed and undirected army, they clanked and rumbled the length of various long and be-railed arteries until, converging on inner city intersections, they deferred to each other with a chilling and ponderous mechanical protocol. Eventually they queued end to end in the heart of the city, choking it solid with an implacable wall of yellow and green.

The trams seemed to squat somehow lower on their shiny rails — and all their lights went out. For more than a month the trams paralysed the city and everyone could see that the Cain Government had entered its last days.

Melbourne's 21st century trams — like their famous European counterparts in, among other places, Prague, Zurich and Berlin — are colourful, comfortable, mostly much loved survivors into a new age. In the world's big cities, trams are svelte and streamlined like a French bullet-train. Still pretty slow but quiet — apart from the bell, which is now electronic, but just as popular with local drivers as the ding-dong of days gone by.

They're so quiet in Melbourne that advertisements at many stops invite travellers to imagine what it would be like to be run down by 30 rhinoceroses — that's what a Melbourne tram weighs. So watch out and listen!

In European trams, each stop is announced in a mellifluous, recorded feminine voice. In Melbourne, a heavily accented voice might deliver 'live' at the end of a journey the unrehearsed information that 'You will be terminated now', or, more memorably, 'The end now is come for everyone', or, a never-to-be-forgotten one-off: 'The system dissolves here'.

If your city has trams, it has a slice of romance and a doggedly persisting history which buses and underground rail systems can't match. Even in their most modern incarnations, trams may be grindingly inflexible and rather cumbrous. Like the mills of God, however, they grind slow, but they grind sure. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Melbourne, trams



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Existing comments

Brian, I recall that during the 33 day protest,one wag suggested chopping the tops off the trams, filling them with soil from Mt.Dandenong, and turning them into beautiful planter boxes. Victoria, "The Garden State".
Gray Lindsay | 17 August 2012

Modern trams comfortable??? Quiet??? Loved??? Not in my suburb. Clearly you haven't been riding the awkard, narrow, slam on the accelerator and throw all the passengers around Siemens trams with their incessant bells and creaks and squeaks and roars! Horrible things. Much prefer the W class: far quieter, much more comfortable and greatly loved.
Alison | 17 August 2012

Thanks Brian. I have long seen the trams as a special part of the spiritual life of Melburnians. There we can hear each others quiet reflections as the houses and shops trundle by, or withdraw into forms of retreat, watching the world and finding our inner bearings again. We were very lucky after the War, when cities all over Europe pulled up their tram tracks, to keep our trams. Such that today no one, least of all some ephemeral politician, would dream of removing our trams to fulfil some bureaucratic nightmare agenda. I have just been to Prague, a city that went against the trend in Europe and today has one of the best surviving tram and metro systems anywhere, efficient and friendly. We can boast a tram system going back to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha but Prague can boast one going back to the Habsburgs. Now the Europeans have rediscovered trams. Several scenes in ‘Ulysses’, for example, are set on trams, but in 1948 Dublin took them all out. Now they are coming back, albeit for a start on the swishy south side of the Liffey. It is amazing there is not more literature about Melbourne trams, considering the amount of bountiful life and endless thought that goes on inside them.
PHILIP HARVEY | 17 August 2012

This was one of the bullying tactics used by the Tramways Union, which after denying services to the public for that period, then proceeded to cause further humbug through slow work sabotage of the new ticket machines, leading to further cost blow-outs.
Kevin Langley | 17 August 2012

The farce of the blockage of Elizabeth Street by unions could only have happened under a Labor Government and served to show that the unions were better at undermining the party they putatively supported than the other side. As a show of strength and solidarity all it proved was that the unions were more interested in exerting their diminishing power than actually transporting the populace. The actions were pathetic really, but the arguments at the time have lasted. Conductors were removed, but now the companies have to spend all of that money on ticket inspectors and system spruikers instead, people who have created real unhappiness for commuters, unlike the cheerful connies. But it’s not the politicians or the unions who are at fault. It is the transport bureaucrats in departments who cause all the problems, the latest being the myki fiasco. The job of the hapless politicians is to sell the latest daft transport scheme to the public, taking either blame or credit in due course, while the daft scheme itself is put to the politicians by the true faceless men and women of Australian politics, the planners. The unions are simply in reaction mode. The planners drive around in government cars and haven’t been on a tram since they were in short pants.
LADY WITH A PRAM | 17 August 2012

Hello. "Tupper". Enjoyed the memory of the #64 = Eldridge & Griffin. Pity the #69 and "favourite connie" - Tonguer" couldn't extend the story !!!
Sainters ??? next year. Kevin (Molly) Moloney.
Kevin Moloney | 22 August 2012


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