Originally published in
Life After Malcolm
Atlantis Found in Preston
There is still one major public asset that is yet to be
privatised. On the corner of St George’s Road and Miller Street is the
birthplace of Melbourne’s iconic W class tram fleet. The Preston tram workshop
has been building and maintaining the city’s tram fleet since the 1920s. Today
it is like an Atlantis in a world submerged by economic rationalism. What is
Entering the workshop today is like stepping back into the
1950s. Walls display the ornate MMTB symbol and signs quote imperial measures.
Workers in beanies take a break to warm their hands over a pot-bellied stove.
If called on, they could start building the W class trams again using all the
original equipment, including a bench for silk-screening destination rolls and
the original 1920s crane for lifting heritage vehicles. Sixteen acres of tram
On paper, the appeal of Preston may seem limited to
‘gunzels’ (tram enthusiasts). However, the long history of trams as Melbourne’s
‘urban theatre’ is reflected all around the site. The film that did most to
celebrate this fanciful side of trams, Nadia Tass and David Parker’s Malcolm, had many of its scenes filmed
in the workshop.
There is a festive air about the place. The Tudor-style
‘Melbourne Room’ still features the gaily decorated stage that hosted 3DB’s Lunchtime Funtime with Bill Collins. The splendid series of ‘art trams’ and
Moomba’s recent sensation Trams on Parade
were all decorated in the paint shop.
The man ordained by Nadia Tass as a ‘real Malcolm’, Norm
Cross, still works here. As well as a walking encyclopaedia of trams, Norm
embodies the comic spirit of the workshop. One of his roles as a fitter was to
service the tram bells. He recalls one of his impromptu concerts. ‘I was
playing a tune one day and the boss put his head out of the window and said,
“That’s a lovely tune Norm, do you know how to play Tom Dooley?” I said “I
can’t do it”, and he said “Well I’m sick of that bloody tune so shut up.”’ It
is the kind of place where men can occasionally be boys.
And trams can be people. Special treatment is given to ‘old
1041’, the 1973 proto-Z Class built totally in the workshop. 1041 broke down
tragically on its official debut and remains the workshop’s Miss Haversham.
Norm gives 1041 a pat and a chorus of happy birthday.
Other veterans are still around. The superintendent is a
waxen-haired Brian Carter, a regal kind of bloke who tries to hide his
cheekiness with little success. One of Brian’s proudest achievements was to
introduce artists into the workshop. He has a story for each of them. Cliff
Pugh he recalls as ‘a hard man when he first came in, but then something
happened and he was a good as gold’. Brian accompanies ‘something happens’ with
a wiggle of thumb and forefinger to suggest that a trip the pub may have
How did it escape the asset-stripping 1990s? Preston has
been in the ‘too hard’ basket for a long time. As a unique asset in the
transport system, it could not be sold off to either of the new private
operators without granting one an unfair advantage over the other. Under
competitive tendering, part of the workshop was given over to private
maintenance business, but without experience in the field they did not last
long (their legacy is the flawed braking system that has now put the W-class
fleet out of action). Nevertheless, full privatisation seemed inexorable.
While last year’s surprise change in government has granted
the workshop a reprieve, its future is far from assured. What was once a
workforce of nearly 700 is now down to less than 40. They have to compete for
maintenance work against the depots owned in-house by Swanston and Yarra. In
the big picture, they are a dinosaur of economic irrationalism. But in the
small picture, they look pretty good.
Preston is still the best equipped workshop for handling
heritage trams. It has an assortment of cranes, transverses and practice tracks
for moving trams around. From a historical perspective, it retains the
templates and jigs for cutting body parts— the DNA of the city’s tram fleet.
The workshop is almost certain to be registered with the
National Trust. Expert on their industrial heritage committee, Gary Vines,
ranks it with Flinders Street and #2 Goods Shed at Docklands in significance.
He describes it as the ‘heart of the tram system’.
However, the full value of Preston workshop goes beyond
bricks and jigs. Transport consultants Booz Allen & Hamilton highlight the
‘intellectual capital’ possessed by ‘the trade skills of the Preston workforce’.
Gary Vines agrees, ‘It’s really quite important to keep not just a building,
but to retain the feeling about the place, like the skills and attitude.’
Part of that attitude is a commitment to the craft of tram
maintenance. Ben Commandeur, a plucky cabinet-maker, is typical of the pride
about the place. He reels off an endless list of skills that are maintained at
Preston. Each has their own mysteries, like the boat-building techniques used
to re-roof a W class tram.
Tram activist Roberto D’Andrea sees the Preston workshop as
an opportunity to ‘instil pride’ and ‘promote our culture of place’. He laments
‘We’ve had a dearth of good tram stories lately’ but hopes that the workshop
might gain support from a state Labor government that is yet to find its legacy.
If this were still the 1990s, then we would be serenading
these gallant old-timers off into history. In Full Monty, Sheffield’s ex-steel workers had to sell themselves on
the open market. The nineties taught us to forget welding and learn telemarketing.
But the new century has started with an auspicious ‘market correction’.
London’s new Lord Mayor has come to power on a promise to protect the Tube from
privatisation. Even Sheffield has
brought back human conductors to save its tram system. And they’ll be soon back
in Melbourne, too.
With a little 21st century hope in their hearts,
workers have put together a proposal for a tram museum. Currently before
government is a plan to turn the unused buildings into displays from major tram
collections currently awaiting a home. One of the main museum assets, of
course, is the workers. As a living tram museum, visitors would witness
industrial crafts in action.
With enough support, the Preston Tram workshop could provide
Melbourne with a tourist attraction to rival the Philip Island penguin parade.
Visitors would see W Class trams emerging from the dusk, a Leunig tram floating
through the air, a Mirka Moira trundling along the practice track. It would be
a Jurassic Park of the mechanical age. Poets would be commissioned to compose
works for destination scrolls. You could even see men working. And visitors
would leave Preston, pleased at the thought they had made pilgrimage to the
place where Melbourne’s suburbs were born.
Will the new century remember the quaint workshop that
economic rationalism forgot?