Connies A Nostalgic Symbol Of Lost Community Spirit

The proposal aired in last week’s Sunday Age to reinstate conductors to Melbourne’s trams was greeted with unsurprising enthusiasm. But the nostalgia for connies probably has little to do with the mechanics of tram ticketing and more to do with a general unease about 21st-century relationships.

Admittedly, the reported $12 million a year that it would cost to reintroduce tram conductors sounds a hell of a lot cheaper than the $850 million Victorians have already had to pay for the myki automated ticketing system. For public transport users, myki is at the moment no more than a figment of the imagination. And as the price of implementing myki keeps going up, it just ends up sounding more and more fanciful, like space elevators or underwater cities.

Bear in mind that once myki has its bugs ironed out, its high-tech cards available for purchase, a colourful and energetic promotional campaign blaring out of every Victorian television and it is finally – finally – switched on, myki will still cost a hefty $55 million a year to operate. With a bill like that on the way, is it really any surprise that people are getting nostalgic for the humble old connie?

After all, this nostalgia could also be sound economics. Conductors are as good a way as any to collect transport fees. Every possible ticketing system – Metcard, myki or conductors – should be evaluated on its merits and compared with alternatives. As the State Government pushes blindly ahead with myki despite its enormous cost and a three-year delay, there seems little indication that anybody has done that.

But it probably isn’t the cost of conductors, or the ballooning cost of myki that makes so many people miss the connies. As blog comments, reader contributions and subsequent opinion pieces have made clear, what people are most nostalgic for is human contact on the tram.

This is a feeling that would be easy to mock, but I won’t. Being frustrated by firms automating and depersonalising services isn’t Luddism – it is not the same as going on a machine-breaking rampage or fearing a robot rebellion.

Instead, the apparently widespread desire to return to the days of the connies seems to come more from a feeling that individuals are being left adrift in an ocean of overly complicated superannuation options, phone plans and credit-card loyalty schemes. Unfriendly businesses are common. On many customer service hotlines, the only way callers can escape the automated system and speak to a live human being is by becoming aggressive and abusive. If anything is damaging our collective psyche, it is probably unresponsive telephone hotlines.

Of course, we should not overestimate how much people are secretly yearning for human interaction. Many, if not most, people would prefer to do internet banking at home rather than traipsing off to their branch to deal with a disgruntled teller. And it’s far easier to pay bills online than read out your credit card number to a call-centre employee over the phone.

Similarly, not everybody likes the thought of having to track down a conductor on a crowded tram before their morning coffee has kicked in. It’s not entirely obvious, as Catherine Deveney contended in The Age on Wednesday, that reinstating the connies would be like finding your favourite watch that went missing 20 years ago, or discovering a long-lost dog on your doorstep.

Think back to the heyday of government-owned public transport – not all conductors were rays of sunshine motivated by nothing more than a love of commuters. Sometimes they had bad days. Not every conductor loved every minute of their job. And some of them were – to put it mildly – miserable gits. A small minority, certainly. But it might be worth recalling that not every commuter-conductor relationship spun off into a lifelong friendship.

Sure, the ideal conductor helps parents with prams, directs tourists to interesting landmarks, and knows regular travellers by name.

But there isn’t really any reason why fellow passengers can’t lift prams or aid lost tourists. There are dozens of people on the average tram.

Rather than hoping that conductors will somehow rebuild Melbourne’s community spirit, why not look at what’s holding that spirit back? We will probably discover it is much more than dissatisfaction with ticketing machines.