Friday, 3 April 2015

THE TRAVAILS OF TRAM TRAVEL


THE TRAVAILS OF TRAM TRAVEL

 

Commuting by tram to the city in Melbourne can be an interesting experience.

   My wife and I live in an apartment in St Kilda Road, which is a southern extension of Swanston Street, of one of the CBD’s busy streets. St Kilda Road is my favourite boulevard in Melbourne. As you head south from the city, you see the impressive, grey, granite edifice, the Shrine of Remembrance, perched on a rise directly in front of you in the distance. As you get close to the Shrine, after passing Queen Victoria Gardens and Kings Domain on the left and the Arts Centre and the National Gallery on the right, the road sweeps to the right, encircling the Shrine on one side before resuming its southerly journey past Melbourne Grammar School, modern office buildings and apartments, Wesley College and onwards to St Kilda.

   St Kilda Road is a broad tree-lined boulevard with six lanes of traffic with tramlines in the centre of the road. Two traffic lanes heading south are separated by a tree-lined nature strip from a third lane. Another three lanes of traffic, with another nature strip in between, head in the other direction. On each side of the road are bicycle lanes and generous, shady footpaths. Even though it’s a very busy thoroughfare, its spaciousness, its plethora of trees and inviting parklands somehow create an illusion of tranquillity.

   Now, where was I? Oh yes - trams.

   About nine tram routes eventually find their way to St Kilda Road with their destination the city and beyond. So, anyone fortunate enough to live nearby wanting to commute to the city, usually does not have to wait too long for a tram to come along.

   Melbourne’s trams range from a motley lot of ancient, green trams to drab, grey, newer, old models to sleek, state-of-the-art shiny things slathered with advertisements. They can be rather grubby, and idiotic vandals soon scratch the glass windows and deface the interior walls of the newer trams. Nor are trams very comfortable to ride in. If you don’t get a seat, hang on for grim life, for tram drivers seem to enjoy hitting the brakes unexpectedly, or lurching to a shuddering halt at tram stops.  

   No, Melbourne’s trams were never designed for comfort, nor speed for that matter. The older ones, in summer, are mobile saunas with totally inadequate air-conditioning. Also heaven help the out-of-towners who try to find their way around by tram. First they’ve got to figure out how to pay for their fare. I won’t even try to explain how that’s done!

   How they manage to find the right stop to get off at is also beyond my comprehension. Most trams have a recorded voice that announces each stop before you arrived. Somehow the announcements get out of sync and invariably passengers are informed that the next stop was the one they had just left. So, many tram drivers no longer use recorded stop announcements and most of them take it upon themselves to make the appropriate announcement. This is fine provided you can figure out what on earth they are saying.

   You see, many tram drivers come from ethnic backgrounds where English isn’t their first language. For example, I sometimes catch trams that head west on Collins Street in the city. The first stop is Elizabeth Street which comes across as something like “Heyisabetsteet” The next stop is Queen Street, or “Keesteet”. And then William Street. Try “Eeyimsteet” for size.  

   Despite their idiosyncrasies, trams seem to get the job done, add a bit of colour to Melbourne’s landscape and successfully move thousands of people in and out of the city each day..

   With nine tram routes converging onto St Kilda Road and trams allegedly running every ten minutes apart on each route, you would think the odds against having the same tram driver more than a couple of times would be quite high. Funnily enough I’ve encountered one particular driver at least a half a dozen times over the past 18 months. And it’s a pleasure to travel with him.

   This fellow speaks impeccable English with a slight North American accent. My guess is that he is an expatriate Filipino, but I may be wrong. Anyway, he commands passengers’ attention through his entertaining commentary.

   To give you a taste, imagine that the tram is crossing the Yarra River on Princes Bridge heading into the city. Then over the p.a. you hear the soft, dulcet tones of this well-spoken driver announce, “For those of you intending to alight at Flinders Street Station and Federation Square, “ he purrs, “the next stop is yours! And if you choose to leave us at this time – you take care, have a safe journey and a wonderful day.”

Ah, tram travel. Sometimes it can be a joy!