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Not generally well known is MOTAT’s considerable and growing oral history repository. Over the last twenty years the Walsh Memorial Library has been developing its collection of oral histories.

The library has over 400 hours of recordings archived, covering themes of aviation, transport, telecommunications, and more. Interviews with former MOTAT volunteers and staff members and others give an intimate and lively account of the museum and stories about our collections.

Members of the MOTAT Society are welcome to visit the library and listen to interviews. For this issue of Squeaky Wheel, we continue to feature excerpts transcribed from two of these histories which we hope will give you a taste of what is available.

The first, here, is from the late Eric Burns about his time employed with the Auckland Transport Board. The second - you can find it here - is an interview with the late Phyllis Harwood, an early Conductress on the Auckland Trams, by Megan Hutching of MOTAT.

The MOTAT Library is open Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm (except public holidays). Contact via phone 09 845 3690 or email

In a 2006 interview the late Eric Burns spoke with current MOTAT Volunteer and Society member David Annan about his time as a conductor and then motorman on the Auckland Trams starting out in 1946.

“An old mate of mine, Sam, he'd already joined, he was a conductor. I can't remember whether he talked me into it or what. But I joined anyway. . . .you went down to the Head Office in bottom of Albert Street there and put your application in and that sort of thing and then they told you when to come in for schooling because you had to go to a Conductor's School. And that was held at the Gaunt Street Depot. . . .I think from memory you were about a week at the Conductor's school and then you were put out with a Conductor on each run who taught you the rudiments of the sections and things like that sort of thing. And you did a different run for – I can't remember exactly how long it was but it was probably only about a fortnight altogether. Two to three weeks that you learned all the roads. . . all of them. Every single one of them. Before you went out on your own you had to do all the routes. And from memory, the conductor who taught you signed your sheet to show that you had done the routes and you couldn't go cheating.

Above: Conductor on top of tram fixing tram pole. Lower Queen Street. Photos: Graham Stewart.
Above: Conductor on top of tram fixing tram pole. Lower Queen Street. Photos: Graham Stewart.

“. . . I was assigned to the Epsom Depot, but at the time from memory it didn't matter which I was at because you did all your training at Gaunt Street depot which was down in Freeman's Bay. . . .In my case, I was in Morningside. Which was roughly an equidistance from either depot. So I was quite pleased I went to the Epsom Depot. Epsom Depot was a slightly smaller depot than the Gaunt Street Depot.”

Shifts were made up of broken and straight shifts and whilst juniors initially got the broken shifts they proved quite popular with the senior personnel who put in for the broken shift badges leaving no room for new recruits.

“I did the broken shift generally. . . an a.m. broken shift would start roundabout half-past six to seven – about half-past six or thereabouts – and you'd go out and do a couple of runs bringing the crowds into town, workers into work and that sort of thing. School kids in. And you would finish roundabout nine to half-past nine at the depot and then you'd be off until round about half-past 12 till one o'clock when you would pick up the end of the early morning straight shift. And you'd do the mid-shift – what they call the mid shifts of the car. So you might do a round trip for say Avondale/Meadowbank which would be a two-hour round trip.

“You would do that on the straight shift car while the morning shift had knocked off and you'd hand it over to the night shift at the end of a couple of hours and they would work on. You would then go back to the depot - by this time it would probably be roundabout three o'clock or half-past three or thereabouts - and you'd pick up a tram at the depot and go out and start doing the rush hours.

“Now the p.m. shift, which was again a broken shift, was quite different in that you would not start until seven o'clock or even half-past seven and you'd do the rush hour trips and then you'd be back at the depot probably about half-past nine or quarter to ten or thereabouts. It might have been ten o'clock. You'd knock off then and you would pick up a mid-shift probably round about two in the afternoon or thereabouts. Might be half-past one or two. And you would do a couple of hours on that again between the morning shift and the night shift and you would hand over to the night shift crew on the straight shift car and you would go back to the depot then and get another tram and come out and do the rush hour. But you would work on until probably about seven o'clock or thereabouts.”

Above: Inside the last tram. Photo: Graham Stewart.
Above: Inside the last tram. Photo: Graham Stewart.

Eric exchanged his Conductor's hat for that of a Motorman after approximately two years in the Conductor role. Legislation meant that you couldn't apply for the Motor School until you turned 24 and had done a minimum of two years as a Conductor. Eric attended Motor School for two weeks and then did 100 hours of unpaid hours alongside qualified motormen.

“And you did 60 hours under one motorman on one particular run and then you did a day on all the other runs. And so that was eight hour day on all the other runs under a training motorman nominated by the depot. . . Now I did my 60 hours on the Avondale/Meadowbank run. It was convenient for me because I only had to walk down to the bottom of the street.

“Well the big cars of course they were [Streamliners] they call them. They had four motors on them and they were quite powerful trams. And then you had the others which we call singles, they were ones that didn't have any back on the cabin. You stood out in front in full view of all the passengers. And they had only two motors on them. Now it was very easy for the free wheel on that bogie for you to lock it up if you applied the brakes too heavily or in adverse weather conditions. Whereas on the four-motor cars you had a motor like a centrifugal force which helped keep the wheels rolling so that they didn't skid so easily.

“You also had track brakes. That was a big hardwood block which screwed down onto the rail between the wheels of each bogie. Now on the streamliners they had the roller bearing bogies but they also had an air-operated track brake whereas the others were hand-operated. Now in the air-operated track brake and the adverse weather you had to be very careful because when you applied that brake you could actually take a bit of weight off the wheels or the bogie and you could go into a skid very easily.

“You always had [to take care] coming down Queen Street of course and down the Wellesley Streets and Parnell Rise. They were very steep inclines. And you always had just a little bit of problem there that a car could go into a slide if you were trying to stop halfway down. . . . Oh yes you had to be very careful on the braking coming down on those streets. Particularly in adverse weather. You know a light drizzle or something like that. . . . You had to be very careful coming down that you didn't go into a slide. I once lost a pole coming down Parnell Rise and I was unable to stop until I got down on the flat under the railway bridge. And it had only come off just a bit before the bridge but it wracked the side of the bridge and sort of put a real bend in the pole. I was still able to use it."

Eric trained initially on the lighter 1400s but most of his initial 60 hours was done on the bigger straight shift cars - streamliners, semi-streamliners - the large four-motor cars. After training Eric took on mostly broken shifts from the Epsom Depot, explaining that seeing as he was already there as a conductor it was natural for him to stay there as a motorman.

Above: Tram 248 with tram behind and car on tree lined street. Photo: Graham Stewart.
Above: Tram 248 and 253 on tram tracks on suburban road next to tram stop shelter. Photo: Graham Stewart.

“You didn't start quite so early in the morning and you didn't have the real late-night finishes except on a Saturday night and the Sunday. On a Sunday of course you were rostered on a normal trip like the Avondale/Meadowbank or whatever you know. Those ones. And you did either a morning shift or a night shift. They were quite good. But the rest of the time I was on a broken shift which I quite enjoyed because as I say you didn't start so early in the morning and you didn't finish so late at night so to speak. So that was quite good.

“I don't know of any that changed depots because they advanced or what, unless they lived somewhere different and requested it. . . . The only tramline I never worked a tram on was out of the back of the Epsom depot onto Greenlane Road. They did have some tracks that went out and I never, ever ran on those. But I ran on every other section of the track that had Auckland trams on them."

While Eric’s time on the trams was generally accident-free he does recall incidents that occurred for some of his colleagues.

“I never ran into the back of another tram. Ever. That was called a rear-ender. And that came about from the very early days when a horse-drawn tram going down say Wellesley Street or something like that – and if the motorman didn't keep the brake correct he might run into the rear end of the horse.

“I had a conductor that worked with me for quite a long while. His wife wanted him to be a motorman so they could crew together. She was a conductress. And he had a rear-ender so that put him back on the bag* because if you had a rear-ender you were back on the bag for quite a period. And he stayed on the bag. He didn't really want to be a motorman.”

(*'On the bag' is a colloquialism for being rostered as a conductor or conductress. It referred to carrying the conductor's cash bag ready to issue fares.)

Eric only once had the opportunity to crew Tram 253 (Queen Mary), a tram quite different from other streamliners in that she had Regenerative Braking, a relatively new technology at the time, which fed electricity generated from braking back into the overhead lines for other trams to use.

“Only the once I had to crew her and that was when I did a mid relief on a Herne Bay car and that's the one she was on. She used to be on Herne Bay/Three Kings. Now on that car she had so many resistance notches in series and then went into running notches. Now running notches did roughly the same speed . . . more or less, up or down road so to speak. On those running notches if you overran – say you had it in a mid notch and the car was running downhill, excess electricity was [then] returned to the wire. The idea was to assist the other car up the hill [with the surplus electricity].”

Above: Tram 248 with tram behind and car on tree lined street. Photo: Graham Stewart.
Above: Tram 248 with tram behind and car on tree lined street. Photo: Graham Stewart.

Eric preferred driving the bigger cars which gave you better traction, better take-off,

and were better in braking than the singles or the 1400s.

“Because it only had one motor on each bogie it was easy for the free wheel to pick up and slide so you were better off with the big car.

“I only once ever had to have the conductor – in this case it was a conductress - drive from the other end. I had a short in the controller on the motorman's end and it meant that the conductress . . . went to the other end. . . . Betty Butterworth, and she was a very good conductress. And she drove from the other end. Now in the driver's cabin I got one ding for her to shut off, two dings to open up. So I still had the brake and everything in the front.”

In 1952 Eric purchased a taxi business and left his job as a motorman for the Auckland Transport Board but his love of trams kept him involved by way of the Old Time Transport Preservation League.

“And the blokes who were forming it I knew them personally. . . . the idea was to preserve some of the old transport. . . . I was the only one actually working for the trams at the time. Merv Sterling, whose brother used to be a motorman, I can't remember whether his brother was there at the time or not. But I was the only one that had been involved with the trams as such who joined. The others were all people I knew. I'd known them for many, many years.

“Well there was the two Stewart boys – Bill Stewart, there was also Peter Mellor – Peter Mellor was actually the first secretary of the Old Time Transport Preservation league. . . . he and Graham Stewart saved the MOTAT 100. They got it from Whanganui and stored it on a farm all those years. And eventually, Graham got it put . . . up into the workshops at Royal Oak there. And so that kept it from rotting away to nothing. . . If it hadn't been for them the things would have been lost. They'd have gone."

Later Eric got involved with MOTAT, first in the steam section and then again with trams.

“I started the Sunday running there all those years and years ago. And used to run the steam engines with an L wagon on it and it was the L class loco we ran and got the Sunday running. And we only had that little short piece of track in front of the Waitakere station to run up and down, but we gave people rides. . . . I can't remember what year I started doing trams again. But I had all the necessary tickets. I've also got all the steam tickets and things and I drove 100 at one stage – that was the steam tram.”

Below: A more recent photo of Tram 248, Eric’s favourite tram. Photo: Unknown.
Below: A more recent photo of Tram 248, Eric’s favourite tram. Photo: Unknown.

Due mainly to wider doors than the Wellington and Melbourne Trams Eric’s preferences for potential trams in service at MOTAT lay with the Auckland trams, 248 in particular.

“I prefer the Auckland Trams. No doubt about that. Far better trams!”

At the time of the interview - in October 2006 - he was also looking forward to being able to take the controls on Tram 44 when she was up and running.


Eric Burns et al. 18 Oct 2006. MOTAT oral history interview with Eric Burns, 07-763. Walsh Memorial Library, the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT)

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