By Jan Lowe 5th March 2010
What do tram number 159 and Noel Donaldson have in common? They both turned 85 this year and on Sunday there was a birthday party at the Tramway Museum in Queen Elizabeth Park at Paekakariki to celebrate.
In 1942 Mr. Donaldson joined the tram depot in Kilbirnie at 16 years of age, as a conductor. The usual age for that job was 18 but because it was war time exceptions were made. Women were allowed to work as conductresses as there was a shortage of men.
By the time he was 21, Mr. Donaldson had worked his way through theoretical and practical training and spent 6 months driving trams with a tutor. He was trained on all of Wellington’s trams – Brooklyn, Karori, Wadestown, Miramar, Seatoun and Oriental Bay, Haitaitai and Lyall Bay. After 6 months he was on his own and for the next 8 years Mr. Donaldson was a regular driver around the city. He then went to Christchurch and spent two years in the workshops, learning the mechanics of trams and graduating as a Fitters Mate.
He moved on to driving trucks and working as a commercial driver but his great love was the tram. When trams were discontinued in 1964, tram museums began to open and Mr Donaldson again became active in wanting to preserve, service and drive trams. At that time he was the only person in New Zealand to have a government ticket, and his next 41 years were spent as a teacher and trainer of tram drivers and mechanical buffs.
“Those years were terrific….I really enjoyed them,” he says.” There is something different about trams …they are our link with the past.”
He even remembers his conductor’s number – 504 – and he was driver 173. Mr. Donaldson still drives the trams at Paekakariki and came at the weekend as guest of honour for the celebrations. He has given up the training side of things. Many of today’s drivers were taught by Mr. Donaldson.
Most trams did not make it to the preservation sites but those that did were restored and are in perfect working order. Some are still in the restoration stage.
Wayne Buckingham, Commercial Manager at the Tram Museum says that to date there are no women tram drivers. “We would like some,” he said. Anyone interested in learning more can contact Mr. Buckingham at the depot at Queen Elizabeth Park. A new Visitors Centre and Cafe is almost completed and will be opening at the park later this year.