Long hot summer: part-time student connies

Geoff Brown is a life long tramway enthusiast and new member of Friends of Hawthorn Tram Depot. Here he recounts his experience as a part-time conductor working on Melbourne’s trams.

Staffing Melbourne’s trams has always required regular recruitment as drivers and conductors find jobs in other industries and move on. Management adopted a variety of strategies through the decades to address this need. During the 1960s and 70s the M&MTB filled some of these vacancies by employing university students during their long summer holidays. I was one of these students, and worked as a conductor at Brunswick Depot for three months each year from late 1969 to 1976.


I first heard about this opportunity for holiday employment from a family friend – a university student who was a couple of years my senior. I had been interested in trams as a child from my grandfather’s stories of the cable trams near his home and of his father who drove horse trams in Hawthorn. My interest developed as I rode route 55 (West Coburg) to secondary school for several years.

During my matriculation exams, I lined up outside the M&MTB building at 616 Little Collins Street with about fifty other hopefuls. I recall a brief interview, receiving a set of books on conductor and driver duties, and instructions to report to the Hawthorn Depot Uniform Branch and the Fitzroy Conductor Training School the following week before beginning work at Brunswick Depot.

Us uni students were a diverse bunch. Some of us were born in Melbourne; others were from Singapore and Malaysia. My two younger brothers also joined me for a couple of years. We were studying law, accountancy, teaching, engineering, medicine and other disciplines.

M&MTB recruitment poster circa 1973. Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe. M&MTB recruitment poster circa 1973 showing PCC 1041. This advertising poster was deployed in almost every tram during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Photograph courtesy Mal Rowe.

Learning the job

After collecting a navy blue jacket and trousers with red stripe, a cap with number and badge, two blue shirts and a tie at Hawthorn, I spent two days at the Fitzroy Conductors’ School, located at the corner of Gertrude and Nicholson Streets. There I learnt about the correct wearing of my uniform, calculating fares, punching tickets, applying the emergency handbrake and other important duties. I also remember learning about my place in the tramways’ hierarchy – which was at the bottom as a trainee conductor. Deference was to be shown to our trainers, depot master, starters, inspectors and especially DIs (District Inspectors) who could turn up at any time. All this reflected the quasi-military style of the M&MTB under the long-term management of Major General Risson.

Then followed two weeks of on-the-job training at Brunswick Depot. I had the distinction of being trained by conductress Joyce Barry, a few years before she succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling to become the first female tram driver. Those who knew and remember Joyce would understand that I learnt to do my job in a thorough manner, while at all times ensuring the elderly had a seat, the doorways were not blocked, passengers paid the correct fare and the driver received a prompt two bells on the communication cord when it was safe to depart every stop. The conductor was to keep an eye on everything.

For the first couple of days, I collected fares and issued tickets only to passengers in the front saloon and continually recorded the serial number of tickets on my record sheet. The trainer took care of the remaining passengers and the communication cord. Gradually I took on fare collection from all passengers and all other duties as the trainer stood at the rear of the tram in case I needed assistance.

Conductors provided customer service but their primary role was revenue collection. In my first year, fares ranged between 5 cents and 35 cents per trip. The busy days before Christmas could yield over $100 mainly in coins and my conductor’s bag was a heavy weight over my shoulder. Counting, recording and depositing all these coins and notes in the required manner also took some learning.

Because of the throughput of large sums of cash, each depot’s revenue office was as safe as a bank with barred windows, secured doors and visits from armoured cash vans. On the conductors’ side of the office were long narrow chest-height benches with stacks of grey coin trays. It was in my interest to be fast and accurate before handing my cash and deposit slip to a revenue clerk. When my deposits were less than the value of tickets I had issued, the difference was deducted from my wages. When the deposits were in excess, the extra was passed on to the staff social fund. So a common practice among conductors was to pay for your cup of tea out of your takings so you were always in deficit.

An M&MTB student tram conductor in action in 1963. Photograph courtesy National Archives of Australia An M&MTB student tram conductor in action in 1963. Tee Kok-Tee was a third-year dental student from Malaysia, studying at the University of Melbourne, when photographed during the long Christmas vacation.
Photograph courtesy National Archives of Australia.

Daily routine

In my first weeks after training I was rostered to work in the CBD as a spare conductor assisting in the collection of fares from the many short trip passengers. I would board a city-bound tram at Victoria Market and ride it to Flinders Street terminus and back, collecting all fares in the front saloon and centre section while the rostered conductor serviced the rear saloon and operated the communication cord. It could be exhausting work, although the experienced conductors taught novices like myself about coffee breaks at the Vic Market and the minimum number of trams you needed to work so as not to arouse the attention of inspectors. Before the construction of the city loop railway and introduction of multi-modal tickets, extra conductors in the CBD no doubt increased revenue collection.

Throughout the years, I often worked six days a week as Brunswick Depot was regularly understaffed and I was a willing worker. This could mean twelve days straight – perhaps a week of early starts, then a week of late starts or a week of split shifts. After one or two days off, the cycle began again. The sixth day each week was overtime at double pay or better, but I felt I lived at the depot.

Many days were just a hard slog. The heat of the non-airconditioned W class trams during summer, the heavy passenger loadings in morning and afternoon peaks and a heavy bag of coins could be taxing. On days of split shifts with four hours off over lunch I frequently retired to an empty tram parked in the depot shed and dozed on the long saloon seats of an old W class. Despite these hardships I returned each summer holidays because the job paid well and had numerous attractions.

On early starts I was often up at 4am, signing on before 5am, collecting my box of tickets, timetable and bundy clock key from the revenue clerk, and making my way to the rear of the depot to meet my driver as he prepared our allocated W class for service.

On the first trip to the city, there were regular passengers who had their regular seats – cleaners, hospital staff, and those finishing night shift. The next trip transported workers to the clothing and footwear factories in Coburg and Brunswick; the third trip carried office staff and sales assistants. By 9.30am I was back in the depot having “lunch”. Seeing Melbourne slowly come to life is memorable.

On late starts, I would begin work in the heat of the summer afternoon conveying office workers and students to their homes between 4pm and 6pm. The remainder of the shift was quieter with the occasional drunk later in the week. The last trams left the city around midnight and returned to the depot by 1am along relatively quiet, traffic-free streets.

One of the enduring memories I have of these warm summer night shifts on route 19 (North Coburg) is the ride along the grand boulevard that is Royal Parade, Carlton. This two kilometre stretch of wide road had few traffic lights or night passengers in my time, so the driver could wind up the W class to 60 or 70 kmh and glide through the avenue of trees with the sound of cicadas and the cool air blowing through the open doorways and windows. This experience is no longer possible in the trams used today.

Thrills and spills

While most days were routine, some events were not. One day during my training I thought it polite to discreetly inform my trainer that her petticoat was hanging a few centimetres below her brown skirt. Joyce Barry was a woman of solid build, perhaps older than my mother. Her reply was matter of fact, “Well, pull my skirt down to cover it”. My young face showed my embarrassment.

Some time in my first weeks, I forgot an important duty that conductors performed at each terminus. I did not pull the front trolley pole from the overhead and secure it to the roof of the tram, and my driver did not notice this omission. At the due time, we departed East Coburg terminus for South Melbourne Beach but within a short distance the unsecured pole had bent into a U shape through repeatedly striking span wires. Fortunately, no overhead was brought down but in the following hours I learnt first hand of the disruptions I had caused. I never made this mistake again.

After midnight the rostered depot staff could not sign off until the last tram was run in and the revenue paid in. When I worked the last tram or was the evening shift standby conductor I followed what was common practice at Brunswick Depot. The route 19 rostered conductor was replaced by the standby conductor without bag and tickets as it passed the depot around 12.15am. The rostered conductor then counted his money and deposited it with the revenue clerk, while the standby conductor rode the tram to the terminus and back. No doubt there were many other shortcuts I did not learn.

Many depots had a short trip service during off-peak hours to connect routes where frequency had been reduced. At Brunswick Depot the one kilometre shuttle along Moreland Road was called “the Tango”. Conductors would sell very few tickets on this shift and their main duty was the securing of the trolley pole at the end of each trip. It was on this stretch of track where many conductors, including me, took control of the W class while the rostered driver gave instruction.

Driving seemed attractive so after a couple of summers, I applied for driver training. I was confident because a student was already a driver at another depot and my good service record had drawn support from Brunswick staff. As I would be classed as both a driver and a conductor (a “marmalade” in tramway slang), I would add flexibility to the roster. However, my application was rejected by the old tramway’s medical examiner on minor medical grounds.

I received the news with some disappointment as I thought I was able bodied. (In future years this same minor medical condition was no obstacle to me driving buses and undertaking recreational flying.) So there was no option but to focus on the positive. Apart from the occasional difficult passenger, a conductor’s day could be spent conversing with locals and tourists; in the driver’s cabin my full attention would have been on motor vehicles, their distracted drivers and traffic lights. I would enjoy dealing with the public face-to-face from then on.

Depot life

The large upstairs staff room at Brunswick Depot was the place to rub shoulders with a diverse range of Australians, new and old. We were all union men and women, including the uni students. No ticket, no start! Clarrie O’Shea and the union were still fighting Major General Risson and the M&MTB on a number of issues. I attended my first union meetings at Brunswick and participated in a couple of strikes in the early 1970s. I felt part of the rank and file’s fight for better conditions.

Among the card games, meals and occasional arguments during breaks, I was often asked, “What are you studying at uni? Why do you want to do that?” Some were satisfied with a brief answer while others continued the conversation for weeks and I learnt of the many occupations they had worked and what they wanted for their kids.

After several years, I finished my university studies and moved into the full-time workforce. During my time as a conductor, the M&MTB entered the modern world with tangerine coloured Z class trams, seated conductors with brown and yellow uniforms. However I was ready to move on and like so many others working on the trams was a stepping-stone to other employment. Working as a conductor fulfilled a childhood ambition and broadened my outlook. My wage had paid my expenses for the rest of each year and I had seen and enjoyed how the world worked outside the rarified air of a university campus.