Today, Yarra Trams employs over 2100 staff in the operation of Melbourne’s tramway network. But what would happen if a war broke out, and one in four of them suddenly enlisted in the armed forces?
Staff shortages would have a significant effect on tram services. Less trams would make getting around Melbourne more difficult; car traffic would no doubt increase, and city streets would likely be more congested.
Melbourne faced this situation between 1914 and 1918, when at least 538 tramway employees enlisted for active service – encouraged by their employers at the various tramway companies and trusts. These organisations even instituted policies to guarantee volunteers employment on their return from active service; in addition, time spent in uniform was credited to employees’ seniority, together with promotions in grade.
Naturally, this encouragement led to a shortage of staff, placing considerable pressure on tramway operations. To address the shortfall, in 1915 the Prahran & Malvern Tramway Trust (PMTT) seriously considered employing women as conductors. The design of contemporary tramcars required conductors to swing along exterior footboards to collect fares, exposing them to the dangers of falling to the road. This was considered far too dangerous for women, so the PMTT modified one of its trams (No. 36) by cutting an aisle through the seating, enabling conductors to collect fares much more safely from within the car’s interior.
Despite this experiment, and British tramways employing women as both drivers and conductors throughout the war, the PMTT did not proceed any further with this scheme. There were sufficient men ineligible for military service due to age or physical condition to cover. Outside of the PMTT, no other Melbourne tramway considered hiring women as conductors or drivers during the First World War. It would be another twenty-five years before women were able to work in frontline tramway roles, again as a consequence of wartime labour shortages.