Last Rites for the Boom Time











Published in The Age newspaper 8/12/98

Recently, the last of Melbourne’s manual railway gates ceased operation. In the week leading up to their closure, I was pleased to see a notice at the crossing, advertising a ‘Wake for the Gate’ at the local Railway Hotel. I decided to support the neighbourly venture and go along.

I had grown quite attached to the gatekeepers of the Upfield line. Their modest performance made a touching opening to each day. First a bell would ring to indicate an approaching train. Then, one by one, a succession of figures would emerge from their smart wooden boxes, shoo away stragglers, and heave shut the gates. The train would pass and then it all happened again in reverse.

If we weren’t so modern, we might have made a tradition out of these forlorn figures. With some smart uniforms and fancy footwork, the northern suburbs could have had themselves a tourist attraction to rival London’s Beefeaters. More practically, the boxes might have been marvellous residencies for poets—think how conducive a train timetable would be to regular metre.

But as with everything, efficiency triumphs and we all shiver again with the cool winds of economic change. I turned up at the Railway Hotel hoping to revive a few embers of sentiment from their retrenchment. How would the gatekeepers look back over their working lives?

It was a distinctively inner suburban bar, not like the liquid supermarkets called ‘Irish pubs’ that have now begun to appear around the area. Faded photographs of faded football stars hang on the teak veneer walls. The jukebox in the corner hasn’t been updated since Meatloaf. It feels tacky, but familiar.

And it’s empty. I ask the Greek man behind the bar what had happened to the wake. ‘I don’t know. Someone else organised it. Some other bloke came and went earlier.’ I have a beer.

There is one final opportunity to bid farewell to this ‘could-a-been’ tradition. Boom gates had been installed in all the crossings except for Brunswick station, which was due to change over that Friday. I ring the Met to find out the time of the last train—7:09pm. Perhaps there’ll be a small vigil outside the box.

I get there a little after seven, and the crowd is conspicuous by its absence. At the top of the steps, the door is open. I clear my throat, hoping not to appear like some crazed Luddite. No doubt the man elected to perform the final closing is feeling the weight of the moment.

‘What d’you want?’ I request permission to witness the last operation of the gates. He is young with a day’s growth. The weatherboard shack has been his workplace for almost two weeks. He couldn’t wait to go back to a more modern signal box in Richmond. I don’t stress the sentiment of the occasion.

There are enough traces of previous operators to give the illusion of poignancy. The equipment is solid wood and metal. Some touches of irony indicate previous human habitation. A hand-operated telephone used to communicate to the next station has a notice ‘Dial a pizza’ sticky-taped on it. The newest acquisition is an electric clock, which has the words ‘Stolen from Brunswick Station’ written on its rim. It’s easy to imagine how other quaint ideas might have been cooked up in this cosy little scene.

The bell sounds. An electric light flashes. The gatekeeper taps through some Morse code and pulls at the wheel that opens the gates. For a moment, we are transported back to another world—a mechanical world. It feels real, like a documentary. Then it’s done. He slings a Nike sports bag over his shoulder and shuffles home.

We can’t complain about the Upfield line renovations. Soon there will be trains at night and on Sundays—all thanks to the savings made on automatic boom gates. Any commitment to public transport as a long-term venture should be applauded.

But it doesn’t stop the sense of loss. The Upfield line gatekeepers are just one of the many groups being eased out of public life in order to improve customer service. When we are well into the next millennium, we might remember fondly our ‘merry old Melbourne’ of gatekeepers, tram conductors, bank tellers, milk bar proprietors and Fitzroy football players. Perhaps we’ll regret that not enough fuss was made of their departure. Perhaps we’ll have forgotten how to make fuss.

Kevin Murray©2000