Glen Shorrock and The Little River Band recorded a tribute to Paris “the City of Love” and sang about “gotta get back to the Seine city”.
If they were singing about Melbourne, Australia, they would change the lyrics to “gotta get back to the tram city”.
Trams are synonymous with Melbourne, Australia. They have exported the “old rattlers” to places like Seattle and even gave Tasmanian-born Danish Princess Mary one as a wedding present.
Some Sydneysiders -- while indulging in that tiresome, internecine rivalry that says, by tradition, they must knock “dreary Melbourne” or “Bleak City” -- still regret those “progressive days” when Sydney got rid of trams.
They replaced them with black smoke-belching buses that help contribute to some of the worst traffic snarls in any major city in the world. To rub it inMelbourne trams run on environmentally-friendly electricity that is even a bigger plus in these days of rampantly high diesel and petrol prices.
I am not one of the hundreds of thousands of people who ride trams daily, on city and suburban tracks. But their popularity was underscored during the Commonwealth Games when such public transport was free. The trams were packed to the gunwhales. Taxi drivers are still complaining about how much money they lost at a time which was meant to be a bonanza for them.
It is true that for fledgling riders trams can be daunting. Especially when buying and validating tickets. Just trying to work out which zone you are in and which zones you will cross is enough to scare you. Especially when a sign outside the doors says: “Only coins accepted”.
Maybe it is the complexity of the ticketing and pricing structures that is used by fare evaders as an excuse. And boy, there are plenty of those. One estimate is as high as 70% of travellers who deliberately don’t pay. Or try not to. There is always a dash for the validating machine when ticket inspectors climb on board. There is no excuse for fare cheats (and school kids have turned it into a sport) but the powers that be were partly to blame when, as a cost-cutting exercise, the abolished tram conductors. The ‘connies” who diligently patrolled the aisles with their leather pouches calling “ tickets please”. The bean counters saved some money from wages they no longer had to pay but lost millions in revenue when fare evading became an epidemic.
Then they had to hire an army of inspectors anyway.
To be fair, the system is tourist-friendly. Recently, my two sisters and a
my brother, all middle-aged, visited Melbourne from New Zealand for my wedding reception. I was useless on explaining the intricacies of the trams. They learned quickly. They were impressed by the number of Information Officers and guides who could point them in the right direction and they soon learned how to buy a cheap ticket that let them ride on various trams and buses (even trains) on a one-fare, all-day pass.
They ribbed me for not using the system. Suspected I had never been on a tram. After they left I did. I’ll admit it wasn’t any tram. It was the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant for a four-course dinner with wine and liqueurs served in plush surroundings as we meandered for three hours around city and suburbs.
Organised public transport started in Melbourne nearly 150 years ago in 1869. But the Melbourne Omnibus Company was wound up three years later. Then came the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company which took the first cable tram from the city to nearby suburban Richmond.
Cable trams ran for more than fifty years until they were scrapped in 1940. In 1955 they started the first electric tramway system that is still in existence today.
I have only one beef and it involves traffic flow. Blinkered city planners put the tram tracks right down the centre of main roads. For safety reasons, and passenger convenience, cars must not pass a stationary tram. And that drastically slows traffic, especially during peak hours on places like Toorak Road.
Imagine if they had run the tram rails, even double lines, snug against the kerb on one side of the road? Passengers could safely disembark and step directly on to the kerb. True, it would deprive motorists of parking on one side of the road but they could pass a stopped tram – on the outside, not the inside – with confidence.
Too late now but cable trams and then electric trams have been part ofMelbourne’s heritage for more than 100 years. And will continue to be an integral part of public transport.
Just set one simple standard price for a ticket (as Jeff Kennett flirted with as Premier) and bring back the Connies to thwart the fare evaders. Makes sense and would make a lot of people happy.