Saturday, December 11, 2010


Undeniably, one of the most enduring images of Melbourne would have to be the tram. This form of vehicular transportation is an experience and microcosm which transcends culture, creed and class. Whether it is by way of stories of rickety W class trams trundling young migrants off to school or older migrants to their place of work or recreation, the conveyance of students and pensioners on innovative concertina trams that are the limousine of public transport, riding rough and ready to the western suburbs or those sleek, ultra low floor, funky streamlined marvels of the technological age gliding designer jeaned paragons of fashion perfection effortlessly down velvet tracks to the eastern suburbs, the tram is an integral part of Melbourne’s identity and of the migrant’s experience. It is in effect, the capillary of communication in the veins of this city.
Such is the effect of the tram on Greek-Australian consciousness, that it has inspired and forms an important and singular motif in Greek-Australian poetry. Second-generation George Mouratidis’ poem “Το Τράμ” evokes a nightmarish scenario of passengers, victims of their own sloth and narrowness of horizon, stuck in a tram, forever compelled to follow the same tortuous route ad infinitum, without the hope of escape and is a startling treatment of various issues of identity, tradition, the stagnation of modern culture and the alienation of people from society, in a novel but very Melburnian way. This is Greek –Australian poetry at its best. In another poem by yours truly, the incessant travelling of trams along their tracks has the effect of wearing them down until they sink deeper and deeper into the ground, till their roofs form the tracks of the trams for the next generation, who are doomed to repeat the process. This is supposed to be a paradigm of the stability, stagnation and relevance of tradition to identity. On its literary merit I reserve comment. After all I should not want to toot my own horn, or in keeping with our tram motif, clang my bell.
One of the observations that second-generation Melburnian Greeks used to make in the eighties, when holidaying in Greece for the first time, is that it lacked trams. Instead, there were these strange mulatto bus-tram crossbreeds known as trolley buses whose top half resembled a tram and the bottom half, a bus, in imitation one would think, of the anatomical structure of the ancient centaurs. The illogicality of permitting such a strange vehicle to roam the streets of Athens unchecked was not easily fathomable. Many were the Greeks who attributed Greece’s lack of development as compared with Australia at that time, not to Greece’s abandonment of the ancient and hallowed traditions of Socrates and Plato, but to the fact they had not introduced trams to the country. Nor could cryptic remarks by Athenian grandmothers, alluding obscurely to a time before time, when Athens was betracked, be fully understood.
Yet it emerges after careful investigation that Greece did indeed enjoy a tram system and this, towards the end of the nineteenth century, when in the common conception of the period, Greeks were still wearing the foustanella and riding on donkeys to the borders of the new Greek state to expel the last remnants of the invaders. It emerges that this is not entirely so. For Greek warriors could rely on the humble tram to get them at least, through the centre of Athens.
The tram first made its appearance in Greece at the beginning of 1880. More specifically, on 21 September 1880, a contract was signed between the Greek government and the Belgian company Laminoirs, Forges Fonderies de Jemmapes, Victor Demerbe et Co for the creation of a Greek Tramway Company, which would enjoy a monopoly of the entire prospective network until 1931. The company began to lay tracks throughout the centre of Athens and Pireaus and by 1882, the network was complete. The new Greek tram network comprised of twenty-seater carriages that were open in summer and closed sixteen seater carriages for winter. These carriages were pulled by three horses. For the purposes of the trams, eight hundred horses were imported from Asia Minor. The small Anatolian horse, nervy but lithe was, considered ideal for the hilly streets of Athens as well as the frequent stops. The first tram network connected the centre of Athens with the inner city suburbs of Patissia, Ambelokipoi and Kolokynthou, while there was also a separate line linking Omonoia Square with Zappeion and Kerameikos. Later, in 1902, this network was extended to cover Hippocratous, Mitropoleos and Acharnon streets.
The advent of the steam engine caused a revolution in the tram network. There was enough power to pull five to seven carriages, increasing the number of seats available to thirty. The steam driven trams were a source of much amusement to Athenians. They were known as the «κωλοσούρτης» or ‘arse-dragger’ as they were tortuously slow up-hill and owing to the lowness of their carriage, they seemed to be slithering on the ground. It was not an unaccustomed sight in turn of the century Athens to see passengers alighting a tram and having to push it up-hill. It was the almost-farcical steam trams that inspired Athenian wits to write the well known song:
«Ταράμ ταράμ ταράμ,
σταμάτησε το τράμ,
και μπήκε η χοντρή
κι έσπασε η μηχανή.»
Unreliable and prone to breakdowns, the steam tram system continued in Athens right up until 1909, providing a service every forty minutes. In 1909 however, a steam engine exploded, causing injury to many and the steam line was discontinued.
Meanwhile, other Greek areas were experimenting with trams as well. Samos, then a principality under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Sultan was a world centre of tobacco production and its far-seeing Prince felt that trade would be augmented by way of the construction of a tram network through the major port town of Karlovassi. These were inaugurated on 25 September 1905. Two tramlines were built, one through the town centre and another along the shoreline, through the main industrial precinct towards the port. This service was designed only for industrial use, the conveyance or produce to the port. Both services were horse driven and did much to boost the local economy. So popular did the Karlovassi horse-drawn tram service prove that it continued right up until the Second World War.
In Athens however, steps were taken to electrify the tram network. The steps, which began in 1906 and were scheduled to take as long as the Athens Metro to be completed, were finalized quick-smart in the wake of the 1909 disaster. The first line to be electrified was that of Larissa Station. Athenians now enjoyed an unprecedently smooth service. The new Belgian made trams were closed, of a beige colour, with electric lighting and – in a surprising development – had comfortable upholstered seats for sixteen people. These trams made a vast impression on the Athenians. When they were first introduced, many would jump on and ride the tram to the end of the line three or four times, out of sheer delight at the new form of transport. It is rumoured that the price of the new tram ticket, being 10 lepta as compared to the old 35 lepta payable for the horse drawn service did much to make the new electric trams popular.
So popular was the tram system that between 1908 and 1910, that the Greek Tramway Company constructed further lines, extending the network to a total length of 65 kilometres, a transportation feat of the age. These lines took the number of lines in the tram system to 16 beginning in the centre of Athens and concluding in various suburbs. The port of Pireaus also had 6 lines and it is remarkable that this mini tram renaissance saw the number of passengers rise dramatically from 23,250 per day in 1910 to 63,000 per day in 1925.
The Athens tram system, considered one of the most sophisticated of its day was well thought out and provided easy access to almost all of the city. While the Greek Tramway Company had been dissolved in 1931 and a new transport company formed by the government which began to experiment with buses, this did not lessen the trams’ appeal. In 1931 and despite the novelty appeal of buses, 60,000 Athenians used buses daily while 190,000 remained loyal to the tram. This caused a major rehaul of the tram system in 1939 while 60 ultra modern, aerodynamic trams with automatic doors, leather seats and collapsible backs were purchased in 1940.
Unwittingly, these trams were to prove of historic significance. For it would be in these trams that euphoric Greek volunteers packed themselves into to conscript themselves for service to the Albanian front. Nevertheless, after the war, the level of devastation that Athens received as a result of the ‘Dekemvriana’ civil conflict which resulted in the tearing up of tracks and the disruption of all services, along with the highly suspect tearing up of tracks at Chauteia and Kypseli in 1953, sounded the death knell for the Greek tram system. The Greek government used this latter incident as a pretext for announcing that the entire tram system would be abolished given that it obstructed the free passage of motor cars, which were becoming ever more prevalent.
Of course this is a complete antithesis to modern town planning which seeks to minimize traffic in the inner city and augment the operation of public transport. In that cursory decision, the Greek government consigned the bustling but easy going city of Athens to the dustbin of historical nostalgia. Instead, for illusory considerations, they facilitated the development schizophrenic and highly dangerous traffic purgatory which forms the main characteristic of Athens today.
Owing to the pitiable state of the Greek treasury, the tram system had to be dismantled in stages. The last tolling of the tram bell took place at Agia Triada of Kerameikos at midnight, 16 October 1960. The humble tram, which had trundled Greece out of the age of Deligiannis and into the age of the Dictators, which in its 52 year life span serviced the needs of millions of people was exiled from its roads. Greece of course has now seen a comeback of the tram, notably in Athens, since 2006 though it is uncertain whether its network will spread.
Perhaps it is not coincidence that the major wave of Greek migration to tram friendy Australia took place after the abolition of the tram. It was perhaps these indignant devotees who in the puritan tradition took to the seas to establish a tramocracy in their host countries.
Farce aside, it cannot be disputed that the tram has played a significant part in the histories of both Greece and Australia. Whether a repository of nostalgic dreams, of cherished experiences or of the banality of everyday life, the humble tram, for aeons to come will trundle along its tracks, secure in the knowledge, as Cavafy puts it, that it is not the destination that counts, but rather, the journey.


First published in NKEE on 11 December 2010