It’s a joke, albeit not a particularly funny one to regular users, but it’s said that the Melbourne public transport system has only a passing relationship with the general laws of time. Trains seem to treat the schedule as more of a guideline than a rule and I’ve spoken to more than one person who missed their train by arriving a couple of minutes late and being surprised when the train actually arrived on time, a reversal of usual operating procedure. Some days it seems as though, despite his legendary propensity for optimising the efficiency of public transport, not even Mussolini could make these trains run on time.
So, why is this? Incompetence? The quirks of a flawed and outdated system? Perhaps. Or does it run deeper and is the entire public transport system itself built on a foundation of massive temporal instability?
I'll agree that for most people, localised time distortions are not the foremost rational explanation, but it’s true that for the heart of modern transport system, anachronisms do abound in Flinders Street Station.
The clocks above the main station entrance, telling people when the next train from each line will depart, are probably the most famous, giving rise to the old catch cry of, ‘I’ll meet you under the clocks,’ back in the days before ubiquitous mobile phones, when a meeting place had to be arranged in advanced between you and a friend travelling into the city on different train lines. Tradition and a public outcry against their removal dictated that they resist the change to a digital readout back in the early 80s, but there are plenty of up to the minute digital displays within the station, so I guess we can forgive a heritage icon triumphing over tradition in this case.
Then there’s the entreaties painted on the tiles lining the walls of the lower concourses, urging us not to spit on the walls or the ground. These always amuse me. A relic of an earlier, possibly less genteel time, I imagine that on the day they are finally fade away completely or are painted over, someone walking alongside me is going to gaze in wonder and excitement at the now bare wall and immediately launch a big ball of saliva somewhere in my general vicinity.
And then there’s this…
Located at the station end of the Degraves Street underpass, this is incredibly useful for anyone who wishes to know where to catch a train to either St. Kilda or Port Melbourne. There’s just one problem though. Trains haven’t run to either of these suburbs in 25 years since the lines were closed in 1987.
The tracks are still there, linking up with existing tram lines for light rail use and in some cases, the train stations have been retained, the platforms serving as elevated tram stops. So it’s not as though all trace of them has been obliterated out of existence. But even so, the experience of catching a train along either of these lines is something that is fading into memory.
Then why does this remain? It hasn’t been relevant in 25 years, but to this day it remains painted on the wall, directing people erroneously. To make matters even more confusing, platform 11 no longer exists either, causing platform numbering to go 1-10, then 12-14. I know we don’t believe in curses, but with general superstition in our society leading to the removal of 13 from airports and elevators and buildings, one would think that platform 13 would be the one eliminated or renamed.
Because things aren’t strange enough, I guess.
On a whim, I followed the old Port Melbourne line out to its termination point. The station platform is still there, located smack dab in the middle of what is now Beacon Cove. A suburb which didn’t seem to be built gradually, building by building, but seems to have sprung into existence fully formed. As if I turned my back on a patch of nothingness one day, only to turn back around not long later to find a brand new suburb. When I first drove through it, I referred to it as ‘Legoland’ and thought I was incredibly witty for doing so, little realising the same joke seemed to spring up everywhere at once amongst people who saw the suburb like I did, a suburb that gives the impression of being built somewhere else entirely and then planted directly down on its location in one piece. Without a history of its own. Which sounds like I’m criticising Beacon Cove, but I’m not really. I’m aware history and tradition has to have a starting point, and in 50 or 100 years, no-one will bat an eye. It’s only today where it seems incongruous. Out of time, if I may.
Which leads me back to Flinders Street station, which seems to be emblematic of Melbourne as a whole. On one hand, Melbourne embraces its status as a vibrant 21st century metropolis, building on the foundations of what came before, and on the other hand, the city itself is seemingly more than content to leave these foundations on display, even when they bear little resemblance to what their progeny has become.
So is this just a small part of a larger issue? I originally thought it could possibly be a localised problem, limited to the confines of the station, but perhaps it's endemic throughout the entire city, and the real reason the clocks remain is not for the delight of tourists who snap photos of the station's facade and remark at how a city can attempt to balance the old and the new, but perhaps it's a warning for the rest of us. The clocks, that at first confusing glance seem to indicate the presence of a dozen different time zones, serve to caution us that time is not rigid like we all believe it is and instead has a propensity to slip on an irregular basis.
|This photo was taken at about 11:30am.|
Perhaps. Or perhaps I'm just over thinking things.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a train to catch. (Checks watch) Any minute now...