Meet the trammie who takes you to a happy spot

By Jenny Denton
Updated August 16 2022 - 12:25pm, first published 12:00pm
Happy trammie Bruce Whalley at the start of another run. Photo: Morgan Hancock
Happy trammie Bruce Whalley at the start of another run. Photo: Morgan Hancock

If you have ridden on a Route 70 or 75 tram through Richmond driven by Bruce Whalley, it is an experience not likely to be forgotten.

As you board the tram in Swan St or Bridge Rd, you could be greeted over the vehicle's microphone in any number of languages and given a colourful commentary on events, places and people that put a smile on passengers' faces.

If you got on the tram feeling forlorn, it is more often than not you would alight in a better place. As a result, Bruce has won accolades as "Melbourne's happiest tram driver", but what the 68-year-old values most about the job is the chance to make a difference.

After riding with him on a route 75 trip, state MP John Kennedy made a short statement in parliament last month about "Melbourne's happiest tram driver".

"If you've ever had the pleasure of being on a tram while Bruce is driving, you'll definitely remember it," the member for Hawthorn said.

"Bruce's unique, hilarious commentary brightens everyone's day. [His] infectious happiness really boosts our community".

In May, Bruce was interviewed on ABC Melbourne's Breakfast show after a listener phoned in to nominate him for a "Melbie" local hero award.

The driver on her recent trip had "the most wonderful handlebar moustache and was just the most dapper looking man", the listener enthused, and had "just chatted" to passengers and been "delightful" on the journey.

After the program's producers tracked him down Bruce told presenter Sammy J his job was "a lot better than working for a living".

"There's a lot of Melbourne to love. A lot of my 'tramily' are extraordinarily lovable people," he said.

While appreciative feedback is commonplace for the mustachioed, bow-tie wearing driver, who is also a community champion for men's health charity Movember, it touches him every time.

Over almost a decade at the controls and the microphone, he has received almost daily gestures of thanks - including flowers, notes, drawings and even the promise of a child's pocket money.

"It really is heartwarming to know that you are a tiny little piece [of someone's life] that puts a smile on their face," he says.

Recently on a quiet run a woman approached the driver's section to tell Bruce that her daughter, who had been struggling with VCE, had been "picked up" by a tram ride with him.

Last year a woman at a motorcycle event remembered his voice and burst into tears.

Two years earlier she had taken his tram to the Peter McCallum Centre with her father, who had only three months to live, and it meant a lot to her that he had enjoyed the ride.

Motorbikes, as well as trams, have been a major feature of Bruce's life.

His father brought him home from hospital stuffed down the front of his jacket on one, with his mother "in behind", and Bruce spent the first year of his life travelling that way.

Eleven years ago, a crash on his bike changed his life in an unexpected way, when in a routine check during treatment doctors discovered he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

"I would have died 10 years ago if I hadn't had the motorcycle accident," says the 68-year-old, who at the time had a successful career in banking and finance.

After getting the diagnosis he decided to retire but then had dinner with a couple of mates.

"One was a train driver and the other was a tram driver and they said, 'Why don't you think about doing some driving?'"

"And I remembered back as a kid I loved trams."

His family had lived close to the Camberwell depot and Bruce spent his childhood "in and around the junction".

"I was just entranced with trams," he says. "The whole of the network was W-class back then and you could ride on the outside of them.

"They were made of polished wood and were just gorgeous works of art.

"You had conductors, and some of the drivers made the journey personal. A couple of them knew my name."

Before automated stop announcements, electronic ticketing and hand-held entertainment, tram workers had a more interactive role to play and many of them gave themselves to it.

"They gave their personality - not all of them, but some of them - you had storytellers, you had quizzers, you had singers and jugglers."

Among the trammies with character was the legendary Lenny Bates.

A lifelong Richmond resident, Bates had started as a conductor in 1955 and worked for 56 years out of the Kew depot, mostly as a driver and trainer.

Known for his colourful announcements and an almost fanatical dedication to his passengers, Bates only hung up his hat a few weeks before he died in 2011.

When, still nursing a reconstructed knee, Bruce started with Yarra Trams in 2013, he was assigned to Kew, and launched into his driving career with the recently departed legend as "a sort of guiding star".

Guiding him also was a career-long focus on customer service, which saw him awarded life membership of the Customer Contact Management Association.

"In those days, there were no announcements for stops, you had to do your own," Bruce says. "So that gave me the opportunity to do the announcements with a twist.

"I took the twist from the past and put it into the present."

The chirpy commentary passengers are greeted with is peppered with jokes and ranges across topics from the landmarks along the route and the people getting on and off to the fate of his beleaguered footy team, Essendon, and events happening around town.

"I try and make stories about Melbourne," he says.

"It's 90 per cent fact and 10 per cent fiction, because I want to try and make it entertaining."

It no doubt helps that he is something of a polymath, with interests covering a wide range of subjects, particularly military history, which he first learnt about from his WWI veteran grandfathers.

A passenger touched by his Anzac Day explanations gave Bruce a crocheted poppy made for the wall at the Shrine of Remembrance which now forms "a permanent part of [his] uniform suit jacket".

He also has a facility with languages and is currently "wrestling with something north of 24" of them.

Already handy in German and Japanese, with a motorbike-related knowledge of Italian, he applied himself to learning Mandarin while driving the 109 Box Hill route, where among his passengers were a lot of "grandparents brought out to babysit grandchildren who knew no English at all".

"Now I can have conversations with people in Chinese who don't know any English and it brings a real joy to them because suddenly they're not in their bubble anymore, suddenly they've got someone they can talk to," he says.

"That's the joy of communication - being able to break through the barriers."

The polyglot driver says he had to acquire some knowledge of various other languages - including Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Laotian and Burmese - so that passengers who only speak those languages "can also smile".

With his own illness and the experiences of the people he supports through Movember prompting a rethink of his life, Bruce has resolved not to let any more opportunities pass him by.

"I'm going to make sure that when they throw me in the box, I don't have anything on my list that I haven't done, like breaking the world land speed record," he says.

The motorbike enthusiast accepted a challenge to try to break the world land speed record at an event in South Australia next year with a modified Braap ST250, and is currently working on the project with his son.

His impressive breadth of knowledge and public profile led to his recruitment to the panel of ABC quiz show The Think Tank, which is now in its fifth year.

In his spare time Bruce is writing three books - a family history, motivational book and memoir of his working life.

While he finds it slightly sad that as a driver he is singled out for "providing a little community in an increasingly isolated world", Bruce says he is "happy to stand in the front line ... and jolt people out of the humdrum groove into some unexpected merriment".

"I think it's good for the soul. Laughter is the best medicine so they say.

"My passengers tell me I make a difference, and that is huge.

"And the things it's given back to me are just legion. Sometimes I've really got to pinch myself."

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