In the blood: driving trams in the 1980s and 90s

Carolyn Cleak is a well-known identity in the Victorian tramway preservation scene. She is on the Boards of the Melbourne Tram Museum and Ballarat Tramway Museum, and she worked on the Melbourne trams for just over eighteen years. This is a small part of her story.

Five generations of my family have been in public transport. Great-granddad on Mum’s side was a bricklayer with the Victorian Railways (VR). Among other things, he worked on building the Flinders Street viaduct and the chimneys at Newport Workshops. ‘Pop’ – Mum’s father – worked at Preston Workshops for thirty-one years as a boilermaker, and for eight years before that at the cable tram workshops in North Fitzroy. My father was a Way & Works Foreman and worked for thirty years with VR, but he died in 1966 aged only forty-seven. My brother was a mechanical engineer with VR for thirty-six years. My youngest son worked as a contract tram conductor for 18 months with the Public Transport Corporation (PTC). My partner, Graeme, has also worked for over forty years in public transport.

And me? I was a conductress/driver on the Melbourne trams for just over eighteen years, from the days of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB), through the years of the PTC and into the era of privatisation with Yarra Trams.

I have always have had a passion for old trams and trains, especially those dating from the first half of the 20th century. There is something about them which makes me marvel at the craftsmanship in these vehicles.

It really must be in the blood!!!

In 1971 I became a foundation member of the Ballarat Tramway Preservation Society. I wanted to be part of the preservation movement that kept Ballarat Trams in Ballarat. I was their first female tram driver in 1978 and retired after 29 years as a driver there, although I am still active in their committee as Treasurer.

I joined the M&MTB in August 1980 with the firm intention of becoming a tram driver. I had to work for about six months as a conductress (I was always a conductress, not a connie!) before starting driver training. I did my driving training at the training school at Hawthorn Depot and in March 1981 became a conductress/driver working out of Malvern Depot, doing both conducting and driving duties depending on the roster. For some reason, I don’t know why, we were known as marmalades until we moved up the roster to driving full-time.

Carolyn with Y1 no 612 at Malvern Depot, 20 August 1983. Photograph courtesy Carolyn Cleak.Carolyn with Y1 class tramcar no 612 at Malvern Depot, 20 August 1983.
Photograph courtesy Carolyn Cleak.

Driving by myself for the first few times, after having a trainer driver alongside me for three weeks, was rather daunting. Getting up early to do the first tram out of the depot was definitely not for everyone either. I struggled to get up most mornings when the alarm went off, but one couldn’t be late for work; not when driving a tram for a living. Upon arriving at the depot in the dark, there were usually only about eight people around, and I would walk into the Starters’ Office to sign on. The Depot Starter, who was in charge of operations for the shift at the depot, was always there. One usually said a gruff ‘good morning’ as everyone else was in the same boat of getting up too early. It really didn’t sit well with the body, as it usually wanted to be still in sleep mode!

After signing my name next to the table [1] I was doing, I checked the run out board, to see what run number and tram I had, and which depot road my tram was on. After collecting my run numbers from the Starter I would invariably go into the messroom and make myself a cup of tea. Once made, I would take my cuppa across to the depot road where my tram was and start to prepare it for service on the road.

When I walked down the depot road I had to cast my eyes over the tram to see if anything was amiss. The front pole had to be down and the back pole up on the overhead. Climbing into the tram via either the front cabin or drop centre, I would check to see if everything was okay inside. One of the first things you did was turn the switches on – the lights, compressor and line breaker switches – and the compressor would kick over with the familiar ‘dugga-dugga’ sound. Bells, sandboxes, sliding doors, lifeguards, mirrors, lights and seats were all checked. Once the compressor was pumped up, I had to do what they called ‘fanning the brake’ [2] to make the compressor start up again. If all was in order, I rang the gong (bell) and cut the first notch to move the tram out onto the depot fan to test the brakes, and then finish off my cuppa.

When it was time to run out of the depot, I drove the tram to the front of the Depot Starter’s office and waited for my conductor to get on the tram. ‘Good mornings’ were said again, then if I didn’t have to change the points in front of the Starter’s Office – as Malvern has two directions the tram could run out, north or south – I drove the tram into Glenferrie Road.

If I was doing an ‘early’ all this happened around 5:20am. There wasn’t much traffic about on the first trip to the city. There were usually a few passengers, and if you did the same run over a period of time, you got to know all the regulars. The tram usually got into town by about 6:00am.

There are various types of shifts worked during the day. We knew these as as ‘earlies’, ‘brokens’, ‘middles’ and ‘lates’. ‘Brokens’ were when the tram only ran in peak hours, when we ran the most frequent services. ‘Brokens’ and ‘lates’ were the best shifts I did at Malvern. As I lived in Armadale close to the depot, if I had a ‘broken’ I could go home for a few hours and do whatever I liked, before coming back on duty for the second half of the shift. At one stage I did three solid months of ‘brokens’ on Camberwell (route 72). It was great getting up the same time every day and going to work, just like regular office hours!!

I didn’t do many ‘middles’, but I did love doing the ‘lates’, at least up to around 1988 when it started to become less safe for a tram driver, especially for a woman. On night shift after evening peak was over it was a lot quieter. Doing the last tram from the terminus and running in was good. One could really open the tram up and go like the absolute clappers.

Malvern Depot had route 69 from Kew-Cotham Road to St. Kilda Beach. When I was a conductress on this route I always punched the tickets wrong with the in and out [3]. It was a terrible route to do, because of all the private schools on Glenferrie Road. There was always a lot of traffic and not enough running time, and the little horrors of schoolkids made a tremendous racket and left their bags all over the tram. We used to know route 69 as ‘Out the Front’. We were even paid one minute to walk from the depot building to the road!!

One night when I was doing a late on this route I was driving a W5 and there were problems with the ratchet spring in the controller. I couldn’t get the first notch in the controller all the time, so couldn’t get any power to the motors. Instead of taking 19 minutes from the terminus at St Kilda Beach to the depot I took over 25 minutes! By the time I got to the depot, they were thinking of sending out a search party to see if I was stranded or not.

I found out later on that the District Inspector, when told it was me driving the late tram, said, “Don’t worry about Carolyn. She’ll be fine.”

The next day, I asked the shed foreman about the tram and was told that the ratchet spring had had it. The only problem was that the men could drive the tram okay because they forced it through, but I couldn’t as I was too gentle with the controller! This added to the proof that women were gentler (and better!) drivers than men.

Doing route 69 on a Saturday during the day was also different from other days of the week. Down Balaclava Road there is a Jewish community that walks everywhere on their Sabbath day. Hence there weren’t many people on the trams on a Saturday.

Route 69 isn’t called that any more, of course. It was combined with another route from St Kilda Beach to Melbourne University a couple of years ago, and now runs from the uni in Swanston Street, north of the City, to Kew-Cotham Road, and is now route 16.

Of all the routes done by Malvern Depot, Toorak [4] (route 8) was the worst. The sections for the tickets were different from the rest, and some snooty people thought that as they paid tax, they didn’t have to pay a tram fare. The traffic through South Yarra and Toorak was always terrible, especially the arrogant drivers in their Rolls-Royces, Mercedes-Benzes and Bentleys. We used to call Toorak ‘To Rack & Ruin’.

There was a Starter at Malvern who had a bee in his bonnet about people who lived in Toorak, so he used to make sure that only the oldest and grottiest W2 cars were allocated to those runs. That was why you never used to see a sliding door car on route 8, at least until after most of the W2 cars were withdrawn.

Camberwell (route 72) and Malvern-Burke Road (route 5) were the best routes for me. Camberwell, or as we used to call it, ‘Cambers’, was a long route to do – I really liked the scenery from Commercial Road outwards, and you only had to do two runs in a shift too, because it was so long. Malvern-Burke Road took you down Dandenong Road in reserved track; this was good because you could really wind the tram up on that section.

I used to love doing the ‘yo-yo’ on ‘lates’ on route 5 from Orrong Road out to the terminus at Malvern-Burke Road, especially when I had a W2 rather than a sliding door car. The ‘yo-yo’ was a short run on route 5 that ran after about 8pm. It connected with the route 64 going to and from town at the Orrong Road shunt in Dandenong Road and ran out to the terminus, so you didn’t have to drive into the city. There was one late run on a route 69 that finished up doing the ‘yo-yo’, which polished off the night well for me. I only got a W2 on this run when there were problems at the level crossing at Kooyong. The lifeguards [5] were too low on the sliding door cars to get over the railway line without triggering the lifeguard, so we always got a W2 on this run until the blokes in Civil Branch [6] fixed the level crossing.

Happenings on the trams

An ex-Port Melbourne [7] bus driver always got on the tram near Gardiner Railway Station. He would always go to the driver’s cab first and give you a Mintie, then get on the tram and talk to the connie with Mintie in hand.

There were women who rode the trams for something to do. They would spend about three hours on the tram to while away the day. Some would thank you for the lovely ride, but getting a compliment like this was rare.

I had one morning where I left the city to go to Camberwell on a route 72, and I had reached Williams Road in Malvern Road. There was a meat truck making a delivery to a butcher’s shop blocking the tramline. I sounded the gong a few times, when the truck driver rushed out from the butcher’s shop to move the truck. He forgot that the back of the truck was still open, and lo and behold a whole pig came flying out of the back of the truck as it roared off. Who said that pigs can’t fly?

To drive a tram and not have the occasional bingle was very rare. Actually, until you had your first accident, no-one really regarded you as a real tram driver. Most of my accidents were due to there being no line markings on the road, as sometimes it was hard to judge clearances. The offside running board was shaved on many an occasion, to the lasting regret of many motorists! Car tyres also came in for special treatment, as the front corner of the running board was really good at puncturing them. Though once I did manage to go an entire year without any sort of accident.

Scraping the side of a car, especially an expensive one, from one end to the other with the offside running board usually meant getting a heart-to-heart from the boss.

I left my conductor behind one day at Franklin Street in town. By the time I had crossed the road, I noticed him in the mirror running beside the tram on the road. Oops! That was hard to explain to the boss too.

Cups of coffee were the order of the day (especially early) at the Franklin Street shunt. The conductor would always get off and get two coffees while you were shunting. When one had to cope with peak traffic it was always a good pick me up!

I used to do the odd charter out of Malvern for enthusiast groups, which meant that I got to learn the road across the entire system, instead of just the Malvern routes. On these trips, the second person was always a driver, to help you figure out where you were going. It also meant that you could take turns driving, so you could go and have a chin-wag with the rail-fans on the trip.

In 1982 I had a rear-on when another Malvern driver who shall remain forever nameless ran his W2 into mine. It was pretty upsetting, as I hurt my neck through whiplash, and I was off driving for six weeks. When I got back to work, the Depot Master said, “It’s about time you got back to work.” Obviously he was implying I had been slacking off at home.

Occasionally you had to deal with emergencies with passengers too. One time when I was driving a W2 on a morning peak route 8 into town along Domain Road, there was a hammering on the driver’s door behind me, so I stopped the tram. It was the conductor, who told me that a young woman had collapsed in the front saloon. When I looked back into the saloon, she was on her feet, but was very wobbly and as white as a sheet. So I drove the tram to Domain and St Kilda Road junction, and told the inspector posted there what had happened. He told me to take her to Prince Henry’s Hospital, which was just up the road. I wound up the tram, stopped it outside Prince Henry’s and dashed in to the emergency department. It took a little while to get an orderly out the front with a wheelchair, but by the time we loaded her off the tram and into the wheelchair, there was a long line of trams queued up behind mine, it being the morning peak of course. It turned out she had just had her appendix removed, and she hadn’t quite recovered enough from the operation to go back to work.

Prince Henry’s is gone now though. An apartment building is now on its site next to Victoria Barracks. Apparently it was worth more money to have yuppies on a St Kilda Road address than a proper hospital, so if that happened now you just have to get Fleet Control to call an ambulance.

Sometimes on the trams things happened that weren’t at all pleasant. I was driving a Z3 on route 75 from the terminus when an elderly woman boarded the tram at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC) stop in Burwood. She took two steps towards the conductor, collapsed and died. I stopped the tram at the next stop, so I could call Fleet Ops. There was a stop work meeting that day at Fleet Ops, hence there was only one operator on for emergencies, so it took a while to get through to call for an ambulance.

The Area Manager had to come across town as he was the only one available on duty to attend the incident.

A nurse from one of the trams going the other way did CPR on the woman until the ambulance came. When the ambulance men arrived, they asked for the passengers to be off-loaded while they worked, so passengers were put on the tram behind.

While the paramedics worked on the woman, I was asked to hold a drip. After about half an hour the paramedics declared that the woman couldn’t be revived. She was put into the ambulance and taken to the morgue even though we were right outside a funeral parlor, as a doctor would have to certify the death.

The Area Manager asked me if I could drive the tram back to the depot, but I was very upset and shaky about the whole thing so I said “No.” My conductor drove the manager’s car back to Camberwell Depot, and the Area Manager drove the tram. When we arrived back at the depot, the Depot Manager, the Union Delegate, and the Occupational Health & Safety Officer were all waiting for me. I was asked to wait in the Manager’s Office, whilst the tram was put away in the shed.

Over the years I always wondered what it was like to have your knees knocking together. Now I knew. I was all right sitting down, but standing was when the knees got really wobbly! I had to speak to the Tramways Assessor about what had happened, so that he could figure out what they needed to do about the tram where the lady collapsed, which they had to check and clean. I was given a strong cup of tea, and after speaking for a while with the Manager, the Union Delegate, and OH&S Officer, I took the rest of the day off.

This was one of life’s experiences I would rather not have had happen, but luckily this was the only time something like this happened to me.

Obviously, I did not spend my entire career at Malvern – I moved to Camberwell Depot in June 1987, as my back was troubling me, which meant I had trouble driving W class trams for an entire shift. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere at Camberwell, especially for a woman, and we made up a larger proportion of the staff there. I drove Z, A and B trams while I was there, which meant that you could sit down while you worked.

Carolyn with Greg Rodgers and T no 180, 20 April 1995. Photograph courtesy Carolyn Cleak.Carolyn with Greg Rodgers and T class tramcar no 180, 20 April 1995.
Photograph courtesy Carolyn Cleak.

I remember once, though when there was trouble with the ETU (Electrical Trades Union) pulling cars out for unscheduled maintenance right in the middle of the day, so we were desperately short of trams. The boss knew I had my two-motor ticket [8], so he told me to take V 214 (now NMETL 13) out on the road. It was allocated there to run the Summer Sunday tourist service.

We ran out of the depot on a route 70 along Riversdale Road and Swan Street to Princes Bridge. By the time we got halfway down Swan Street the tram was packed, and couldn’t pick up anyone else. There was one old dear who couldn’t get on the tram because the step was too high, so we had to leave her behind. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it would be a long wait until the next one.

As we approached the City terminus at Batman Avenue, you couldn’t actually see it for the hordes of people desperately waiting for the next tram. At the terminus, everyone got off, some said thank you for the unusual ride, and then the masses poured on. When I went down the other end of the tram, there was a young lady with her friend occupying the driver’s seat, and I had to tell her that I needed to sit there, otherwise the tram wasn't going anywhere.

What surprised me was that a lot of the passengers just opened their newspapers and started reading, as though getting on an open toastrack tram was a humdrum experience. I ran the car out to Wattle Park, and then ran back into Camberwell Depot. This was surely one of the most unusual trips I did.

There were good things and bad things about driving trams for a living. Early starts were always a pain, and copping abuse from motorists was never much fun. Some of the trams weren’t always in the best condition, especially some of the W2s that used to leak water into the driver’s cab when it was raining. It was always a little nerve-wracking watching water drip steadily onto a controller.

It impacted on your social life, as the odd hours and weekend work meant that you really only mixed with other trammies.

Driving a W down St Kilda Road or Dandenong Road was lots of fun, though, as was doing the occasional charter. You also got to meet a lot of interesting and unusual people. It was hard to get to know everyone at Malvern because it was such a big depot, but once I moved to Camberwell, you knew everyone and everyone knew you. It was a much more family atmosphere.

However, when you look at all the good and the bad, and sum it all up, I wouldn’t have swapped the opportunity to drive trams in Melbourne for the world.


[1] The table gives the timetable and routes for a driver’s shift (Ed.).

[2] ‘Fanning the brake’ is the act of moving the brake handle back and forward quickly, in order to release compressed air from the reservoir through repeated applications of the brake. This was done to ensure that the air compressor governor switch cut in once the air pressure dropped to 60 psi, and also switched off once the air pressure got to 70 psi (Ed.).

[3] ‘Flimsy’ tickets issued by the M&MTB had section numbers labelled ‘in’ and ‘out’ on the sides of the ticket. The conductor or conductress punched the current section number when issuing the ticket, on the ‘in’ side when running into the city, and the ‘out’ side when running out to the suburban terminus. When the ticket inspectors boarded the tram, they could then tell if a passenger was over-travelling his or her fare. However, route 69 was one of three cross-suburban routes and did not run into the city, accounting for Carolyn’s confusion over whether to punch ‘in’ or ‘out’ (Ed.).

[4] Toorak is one of the most expensive and exclusive residential suburbs in Melbourne (Ed.).

[5] The lifeguard is a pedestrian safety device fixed underneath the end of the tram, consisting of two parts; the gate and the tray. If a pedestrian falls in front of a moving tram, he or she is struck by the gate. This releases the tray to drop to the ground in front of the wheels. The tray then scoops the pedestrian up, preventing the pedestrian from receiving a serious or fatal injury inflicted by the wheels (Ed.).

[6] Civil Branch was the department in the M&MTB responsible for construction and maintenance of the track (Ed.).

[7] The M&MTB Port Melbourne bus depot closed in 1966 (Ed.).

[8] Having her two-motor ticket meant that Carolyn was qualified to drive older style tramcars fitted with two traction motors. W class trams have four traction motors. The reason for the separate qualification is that emergency braking procedures and fault-finding procedures differ for two-motor and four-motor tramcars (Ed.).