THE TRAVAILS OF TRAM TRAVEL
Being a commuter by tram in Melbourne each working day 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 were we? 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 doesn’t have to wait too long for a tram to come along.
Melbourne’s trams range from a motley lot of drab, grey, 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. Only yesterday I caught a tram in Bourke Street heading east towards the Bourke Street Mall when, for no apparent reason, the driver braked suddenly causing a domino effect with the standing passengers, resulting in one lady finding herself on the floor flat on her back. Fortunately uninjured, but badly shaken. The driver opened his door and said casually, “Everyone all right?” I replied, “No. A lady has had a fall.” Obviously shocked and embarrassed, she said shakily, “I’m OK.” But clearly wasn’t. He shrugged his shoulders and retreated back into his compartment and off we lurched continuing our journey.
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. For a while, most trams had a recorded voice that announced each stop before you arrived. Progressively the announcements got out of sync and invariably passengers were informed that the next stop was the one they’d just left. So, the use of recorded stop announcements by tram drivers gradually faded away and most of them took it upon themselves to make the appropriate announcement. This was fine provided you could figure out what on earth they were saying.
You see, many tram drivers come from ethnic backgrounds where English isn’t their first language. For example, I change trams at the corner of Swanston Street and Collins Street in the city and catch another one that heads west on Collins Street before I get off at the third stop. The first stop is Elizabeth Street which comes across as something like “heyisabetsteet” The next stop is Queen Street, or “keesteet”. Finally I get off at William Street. Try “eeyimsteet” for size.
Be that said, trams seem to get the job done and add a bit of colour to Melbourne’s landscape.
Now, with nine tram routes converging onto St Kilda Road and trams allegedly running every 10 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’s an expatriate Filipino, but I may be wrong. Anyway, this fellow 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 - take care, have a safe journey and a wonderful day.”
Ah, tram travel. Sometimes it can be a joy!