Travel for mind, body and spirit: Bottom A tram ride in Melbourne

Bottom A tram ride in Melbourne

The driver coughed and climbed back into the cab. The air brakes wheezed, a bell clanged, then a motor whined as we set off. Melbourne's trams are not for seekers of tranquillity. Neither will they suit anyone who demands a cushy repose. The only enhancement since the seats were installed 60 years ago is a bit of plasticky beige padding, of the sort that masquerades as leather all over the world and does little to mitigate some awkward turns. But anyone keen on a sedentary circuit of a handsome city should stay on board.

Melbourne does trams better than anywhere else. The state capital of Victoria is the youngest city of its size in the world, which could explain why its lay out resembles a clumsy splodge at the top of Port Phillip Bay. The city's fleet of 750 trams binds the three million people into a community.

The tentacles of the network extend deep into far suburbs called Kew and Footscray and Moonee Ponds, but the core is the City Circle line. A handful of the handsome W-class trams are employed in a constant orbit round the heart of Melbourne and provide easy access to the city's prime attractions.

"The Duke of Wellington is the oldest continuously operating public house in Melbourne" ... "It was at St Peter's that Dame Nellie Melba practised the organ as a schoolgirl." This information came not from one of my fellow passengers, but from the digital audio system recently installed in the venerable vehicle.

Car number 888 was built by the Metropolitan Tram Board in the late Thirties at the tram works in the north Melbourne suburb of Preston. Its interior finish is not the sullen, dark woodwork favoured by European trams of the time, but a paler and friendlier veneer. Outside, the smart maroon and cream livery is topped by a destination board. Travellers unfamiliar with the Melbourne web of trams are reassured that this is the City Circle, following a fixed loop (more of a square than a circle) and stopping at every block. You can get on or off wherever you wish - at sights like the Old Melbourne Gaol, where Ned Kelly was hanged in 1870, or the Immigration Museum which opened in the elegant Customs House last year. But you may prefer just to shift a little in your seat to get a better view of the absurd Forum, a Moorish fantasy of a theatre with twirling columns, half a dozen minarets and assorted dragons chasing across the facade.

You will have plenty of time to look. In the Thirties, Melbourne boasted the fastest trams in the world, touching 29mph on level stretches and averaging 11mph. In the Nineties, the only time the tram works up a bit of speed is at the western end of the back straight, Flinders Street. It canters past an advertising hoarding on the street inviting you to "rent-a-bomb" all day for A$15 [pounds 6]. This is no terrorist enterprise, but a car rental company specialising in old crocks. And, with absurdly cheap petrol (around 25p a litre), motoring is now the main mode of travel around Melbourne. But the city still takes pride in its public transport.

Topographically, Melbourne is no San Francisco. The closest you can get to anything like the Bullitt image of switchback hills is on Williams Street, the highest point in the city centre. A couple of blocks later, look for the cottage cowering amid the skyscrapers, on the corner of King and La Trobe Streets.

The tram pauses outside the State Parliament for the driver's smoking break; inside, if you time your visit to coincide with Premier's question time, you will witness some hilarious fuming on the part of the state government and the opposition.

Allowing for the odd "smoko", the entire rumbling, rattling rotation takes 40 minutes. You could walk it almost as quickly. A short circuit, but a fine trip. If you really want to give your rear a ride to remember, stay on all day long: circling for up to 13 hours for the same cost. Which happily, in this civilised repository of fine public transport, is zero. Simon Calder

The City Circle tram runs every 10 minutes between 8am and 6pm daily, with service extended on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to 9pm. Simon Calder paid pounds 856 to travel to Melbourne as part of a round-the-world itinerary on British Airways and Qantas.

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