I was briefly a Tram Conductor – a chat

I submitted this piece to a compilation on tram tales in 2010 and I never heard back as to whether it was included, I was supposed to get a pdf of the completed work and I didn’t. I am publishing it here.

I was a tram conductor in the mid 90s. There is a world of difference between sitting on a tram as a passenger and working on one.  I have read descriptions of being in a war as being a lot of doing nothing and being bored, followed by short sharp periods of action. The same thing could have been said of being a tram conductor – the only real action was if you had a peak hour tram or you were nearing a train station at a peak time.

The rest of it, people came on and showed you tickets or you sold them one (paper tickets that you clipped) you either talked to the driver, read surreptitiously, or attempted conversations with passengers.

Each shift was worked out a month in advance – you’d get your times to come in and you had to be there on that tram either when it left the depot, or you walked up to a junction to swap with the driver and connie and you’d take over their tram. If you had a good driver it was all right, drivers were a strange bunch and only a few never spoke. You could go mad working all day with out a speaking driver.

Shifts were usually three runs to terminus’s to the city, often the final run was a ‘swap over’ so not a full one. I liked the final legs of the routes, they were empty and you could watch the houses go by.

Split shifts were difficult. You’d start some time around six or seven, and do a full run out to the terminus and then into the city, picking up the peak hour crowds. If you got behind another on a way to the city tram, that tram would get all the passengers. The drivers would get to st Kilda road and get ready to turn and see another tram from a different route about to catch up…and both drivers would try and wait out the other one because no one wanted the first, busy tram. Usually one of them would break first (whoever was running the least late) and there would be good-natured abuse back at the depot from the loser.

On a split shift, you’d either have two runs and a few hours of break, or a run, break, then two runs. It pushed the working day to over 12 hours which was dreadful if you didn’t live close to the depot or wanted to do stuff in the evenings. The drivers still do split shifts. I have no idea how you’d cope with it as a life choice.

I wore the gumby green, with a green tie in a Windsor knot and a wonderfully warm khaki jacket, and I carried a leather bag in compartments. You’d sign in then collect your tickets from a secure area, they signed them out and you had to count them and check the numbers on the ticket were the same as on your running sheet. At the end of the day you had to write down the new ticket number, work out how much you’d sold, and make sure your money balanced. Any money out came out of  your pocket. I subsidised lot of tickets cause I cannot work out change for anything.

All super analog. I have lived to see it utterly change but everything was about paper in those days.

You kept a $20 float. On a first tram, if someone gave you a $20 note, there was no way to change it. One of the connies spoke of a guy she had 3 days running who waved a $50 at her cause he knew she would never change it. On the fourth day she had gone and got just under $50 in small change 5 and 10 cents) from the bank; when he came by that day she took the note, handed him the huge bag of change, and his ticket.

He laughed and admitted defeat – and he never did that again. To her at any rate.

There was enough time at the terminus’s to go to the toilet and get a coffee. It was milk bar coffee – cappuccino made with coffee powder, but those were the days when I didn’t mind what my coffee tasted like. One particularly bad morning I’d been hanging out for my coffee. We got to hawthorn east, I went and got it, and it was sitting on the counter of the connie’s seat. I wanted it but had to serve someone. When the tram took off, it juddered and my coffee leapt to the ground and exploded and went everywhere. Not only did I not get my coffee but the smell mocked me for the entire trip up to Melbourne uni and back to the depot.

I think of all the experiences on the trams, that is one of the most pathetic and it’s the one I recall with the most pain.


I was briefly a Tram Conductor – a chat

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