God Save the Ws: Preventing cultural vandalism in Melbourne.

Glad to hear someone cares.

Melbourne car 932 of 1947, seen in 2005 and now in storage. The future of vehicles such as this is being hotly contested as the network looks toward their ultimate retirement with the arrival of new low-floor trams. Photo by flickr user Los Cardinalos, via Creative Commons license. Click image for photostream.

Efforts by preservation-minded souls to prevent the wholesale banishment of Melbourne’s historic W-class trams may be bearing some fruit. As reported on Sunday by The Age newspaper, Victorian Transport Minister Martin Pakula “has promised to meet heritage campaigner Bill McHarg to talk over the future” of the system’s remaining W-class cars.

As noted in recent posts, Melbourne has announced it will purchase a contingent of new low-floor vehicles — including 50 Bombardier cars and, as an interim measure, five French trams that have been rented since 2008 — plans that ultimately would allow the retirement of the last W-class cars. 

As The Age notes, Victoria’s state government “plans to remove all W-class trams from the network, except for the privately operated restaurant trams and about a dozen maroon trams running the limited City Circle [downtown] circuit.”

The yellow French trams, dubbed “Bumblebees,” have been a sucess in Melbourne and their purchase seems reasonable on its face. However, the government has framed the purchase as necessary because the number of cars available won’t be sufficient to continue meeting service demands prior to the Bombardier vehicles’ arrival starting in 2012. To this, I (and I expect others) point out the futility of buying new cars as a stopgap measure while hundreds of vintage trams are mouldering in storage.

In a larger sense, I was of course disappointed to learn that the Bombardier trams would effectively become the final nail in the old trams’ coffin. In this I acknowledge the personal dichotomy in my views which is also reflected in the very nature of this blog. I am and for most of my life have been a tramway enthusiast — essentially a hobbyist with a taste for the historical, the vintage, the archaic. At the same time, I also believe in the utility of light rail transit as one of many tools for creating and maintaining liveable urban spaces. That goal is not mutually exclusive of preserving historic vehicles, though there can be a danger in conflating the two.

An extensive tramway network such as Melbourne’s exists for the expeditious transport of the general public. It is not a museum piece but a large and costly element of urban infrastructure maintained at taxpayers’ expense. It exists to complement other growth and development goals, including minimizing auto dependence in a congested metropolis. As such, it should be maintained to the highest standards of service and efficiency — and that has, rightly, meant the evolution of its fleet to better meet the needs of modern commuters, including the disabled and less able. The idea that cars mostly built in the 1940s and ’50s (indeed, some from the ’30s) could continue indefinitely as the backbone of a major metropolitan tramway is a ridiculous bit of fantasy.

Alternatively, wholesale elimination of such cars from operation in Melbourne seems more than just narrow-minded: It would amount to no less than an act of cultural vandalism.

In a handful of cities worldwide, transit vehicles of a certain type and vintage have risen to the level of cultural icons worthy of preservation and continued daily, public operation. San Francisco has its cable cars, survivors of a network that enjoyed its glory years before the 1906 earthquake and fire. London has its tiny remaining contingent of Routemaster double decker buses, serving two busy, tourist-friendly routes in the central area. Blackpool has its motley collection of vintage tramcars, many dating from the 1930s and recalling the storied past of  British seaside resorts.  New Orleans has its St. Charles streetcars from the 1920s, the same vehicles which inspired Tennesee Williams, albeit on a long-dead route. While they’re more well known within Australia than without, Melbourne’s W-class trams are firmly in that league.

The cars have shown up in works of Australian art; in turn, for many years they also served as rolling canvasses for original artwork. A winged replica made a dramatic landing as part of ceremonies for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. In literature, they rattled on until humanity’s bitter end in Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic 1957 novel “On the Beach,” also appearing briefly in the 1959 film version starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner (most memorably in the poignant final montage, set to a haunting arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda”). And they were immortalized in the 1986 film “Malcolm,” in which a socially-backward tram enthusiast (and damn any of you who say that’s an oxymoron!) parlays his mechanical genius into — ahem — more lucrative pursuits with the help of an ex-con boarder.

As Mr. McHarg told The Age: “Occasionally, people who do not ‘get’ Melbourne call out for the fabrication of a Melbourne icon to compete with Sydney’s Opera House or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge … Melbourne is more subtle, more nuanced [and it] already has its icons — Flinders Street Station, the Arts Centre spire … and, yes, the W-class tram.”

As the once-large fleet has thinned over the past 30 years (remember that what we’re loosely calling the W-class actually comprised a host of sub-classes built between 1923 and 1956) many of its castoffs have gone on to new lives. Doing yeoman duty at tramway museums and heritage operations around the world, they have gained notoriety and popularity not just as symbols of Melbourne but as sturdy, reliable specimens in their own right. The Age pointed out in an Oct. 17 companion piece about their far-flung travels, how the cars are “prized overseas but a vanishing species here.”

W-class cars can be found at museums, heritage tramways and miscellaneous other sites all around Australasia, including (but not emphatically not limited to) Christchurch, N.Z., at the Tramway Museum Society of Victoria’s museum at Bylands, at the Adelaide Tram Museum in St. Kilda, South Australia, the Ballarat Tramway Museum and on the heritage tramway in Bendigo. Another account of the tramway diaspora can be found on this page maintained by the Friends of Hawthorne Tram Depot in Melbourne. One tram, W2 car 520 of 1928, reportedly became a display in Elton John’s garden at Windsor, England.

Here in the U.S., I rode 1925 car 369 in Dallas in 2002,  and would love to someday ride the Melbourne cars which have found their way to places like Memphis, Savannah, San Francisco (which in addition to its cable cars also has become a haven for historic electric streetcars from around the world) and Edmonton, to name a few North American locales. 

Alas, I’d much rather ride a Melbourne W-class car in Melbourne some day. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. McHarg and others (including the Royal Historical Society of Victoria) that may well be possible beyond 2012. As described in one of the Oct. 17 Age stories, minister Pakula “has pledged to give ‘serious consideration’ to Mr. McHarg’s suggestion to use the trams for a new tourist circuit.” Such a plan could see the cars used on a premium-fare route that would take tourists past dozens of Melbourne’s top sights. That sounds like a great idea which would keep them in active use in their native habitat around the central city while theoretically segregating the vintage vehicles from regular service routes worked by modern trams.

The idea is not new — as can be gleaned by information and previous news articles on the Melbourne Joyride site — nor are pledges by the government to lend a sympathetic ear. However, if I’m reading the tea leaves right from my vantage point across the world, Martin Pakula’s latest statement sounds promising, and not a moment too soon. 

For the sake of these unique specimens of Melbourne’s heritage, let’s hope so.

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9 Responses to God Save the Ws: Preventing cultural vandalism in Melbourne.

  1. Arty says:

    The newest of the W series cars represent Australian tram design as it was 70 odd years ago. They are simple NOT very pleasant vehicles to ride on for more than a relatively short period of time by todays standards. There are a lot of pipe dreams in the article but very little pragmatism.

    The W cars are not particularly symbols of Melbourne, its the tram system itself which symbolic, and that symbolism works whether the trams running on it are new or old.

    There are active tourist and muesum tram operations in the State of Victoria which are not far from Melbourne and on which there are many heritage Melbourne trams, including various examples of the W sub-classes, are running on a daily basis.

    Put simply, modern reliable trans that meet contemporary standards for day to day transport are what Melbourne needs more of, not more W cars in operation!

  2. Charles Brain says:

    I love the ‘W’ class, and while vintage, I actually find them more comfy than the horrible suspension of the Combino or any other low floor tram, tis just the step up that is more difficult I guess. I find many older Australians particularily negative and out of touch as with the previous comment. The ‘Melbourn’e W Class trams’ facebook page is representative of a positive contemporary society engaging in the same vein as this article! These are our Melbourne icons – tea towels, mugs, depict these famous trams, it’s obvious that they are the ‘Melbourne Tram’.

  3. Zen Led says:

    Nobody wants these trams in the country with bickering old men playing trams at museums. Keep W’s here in Melbourne forever in conjunction with modern trams! Pitty some tram enthusiasts like ‘arty’ are blind, deaf and philistine all together.
    (great passionate article)

  4. Jenny Buso says:

    Keep w classes for all of melbourne to enjoy! I like that this man is from overseas writing about our heritage – thumbs up^.

  5. Monpealgre says:

    Bring the old trams back!

  6. justin says:

    Consider the continued ‘gridlock’ of cities in general. Too many cars render faster trams redundant. As for them being too old, they have always been fixed with parts replaced, they are partly wooden after all. With continual servicing , as they once were, they can potentially last forever. They are noisy rattling old things, and that’s one of the reasons we love them. They have always been too high up for older people. That could be fixed with a lifting device. Its just lazy , couldn’t care less, thinking on behalf of the incumbent government. They are in almost every image the city uses in tourism and are a drawcard. Without them we would be a international joke. How many times have you travelled to a place with visions of a sight to see, to only find it gone or not as it once was. We need new and old trams.

  7. Margaret says:

    In this world there the people who get out and enjoy what they have. On the other hand there are people who see the world through the compurer screen. It is more often than not possible to have the best of two worlds. Keeping a heritage fleet and intertwine it with a modern tram to alow access for all is the ideal answer.
    Having spent time in Melbourne and local to us Blackpool I can see it could work.
    Blackpool is in the middle of it famous lights season. Most people are clmbering up the stairs of the heritage fleet trams to view the lights. New trams are due next year, mostly standing. We are going backwards in design, comfort and experience for the passenger.
    We need to keep the pressure up to keep our heritage fleets running where ever it is in the world.

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