A Day with the Tram Driver

March 2014

The heroes of the series – representatives of various professions tell us about details of their job that has become their mission. We will spend this day with Yulia Poleshchuk, the tram driver from Kursk.

водитель трамвая

In the morning, when the hour clock hand was near 5 am, a yellow-red tram No.073 crossed the gates of the Eastern Depot in Kursk. We meet the driver. Yulia has been "at the wheel" for 14 years. Today, another 180 km of rail and a 10-hour shift is ahead of her. Her working shift takes five trips between the bus station and Volokno residential estate. The main challenge now is to stay awake!

Awaking City

I carry a thermos of coffee but our heroine has a more efficient way to combat drowsiness which is an old habit to wake up at an ungodly hour. At 3.30, a service bus picks her up from a bus station and takes her to the depot. Tens of freshly-washed trams are already shining on a fan of tram tracks. At night, the depot drivers set the trams on the tracks in queue. Yulia uses an assignment list to find hers. Before departure, she checks the braking system and the pantograph (current collector), refills hoppers with sand, tidies the cabin.

There is no seat for another person in the cabin, so I sit on a tool box. The first passenger comes in. Valentina, a cloakroom worker from a confectionery factory, says that the tram for her is the only way to get to work in such an early hour. She lives on the outskirts and has to be downtown by six o'clock. The native of Kursk and a couple of other morning people got off at Perekalskogo Square. The tram, not too overcrowded earlier, has become completely empty.

Kursk still sleeps. Only very sparse cars and a couple of Russian Post trucks pass by. Little by little, streets come to life. "What I like about the first shift is that you wake up together with the city and sees the sunrise from the tram," Yulia notes. "And if it's snowfall or spring and nightingales sing then it is a complete and utter beauty. Of course, my kids would prefer that I'd make tea for them and see them off to school in the morning, but I can meet them and spend some quality time in the evening instead."

She always works mornings, her shift "three working days – one day off". Sometimes she is busy on weekends and holidays. "I was on duty on Easter, Christmas, and New Year," says Yulia "Once I had a shift on the 31st of December and then another one on the 1st of January straight. We like our job on such days because passengers are having fun and congratulating each other.”


Tram Dynasty

"Bus station terminus", loudspeakers said merrily... When a little girl, Yulia used to ride a three-wheeled bike while announcing tram stops to passers-by. Hardly did the 5-year girl realize then her vocation. However an old ticket-punch could be easily found among her dolls, and sound of tram wheels was the best of lullabies for her, and no wonder because she practically grew in a tram.

The Poleshchuk family has several generations of tram drivers. Their combined work record at Kursk depot makes more than a hundred years. Her Granny, Galina Borzenkova, who met then her would-be-husband there, a repair man, was the first to come into the profession in 1964. Later, in 1978, Yulia's parents, Viktor and Elena Mashoshins, also met each other at the depot. They both were tram drivers. Elena is still in the business, as a dispatcher now. By the way, she was an instructor for her daughter when she entered tram driving courses after a technical college. And she was an instructor for her son-in-law, Sergei, Yulia's husband.

"When I was small, my parents would often take me on a trip," says Yulia.  "It was real cool to ride a special wagon or a snowplough tram with my dad. My younger sister Marina and I were excited to be the only passengers! We rode through the city, proud that our dad controlled such a big thing as the tram. Mother also used to drive not only passenger trams. For example, she used to drive a tram-cafe – those trams have not been used for seven or so years now. There were tables with chairs and curtains inside. In the rear, there was a small kitchen with a counter where cooking pots for soup, main course and drinks were sitting."

Near the dispatcher's house, a tram conductor, a uniquely positive woman, joined us. By irony of fate, the gastronomic theme turned out to be very close to Lidiya – 40 years in catering business is not a joke. I asked in fun if there were any free riders there. "They are very few even here, though sometimes some characters occur..." was her answer.

A dog travelled as a stowaway

A passenger with a tail matter-of-factly half-sat half-lay on a seat. When the conductor approached, the dog started to stare in the window. Genuine dog's meditation amused both the conductor and all people in the tram: the free rider did not curse, did not bite, nor did it bark. The dog behaved itself genteelly despite of obvious absence of noble pedigree which could be easily told by half-drooping ears and a curly tail. The outbred dog continued its journey in Tram No.4 toward the railway station...

Many locals remember how a big white dog used to ride a tram three years ago. Sharik, a common name for stray dogs in Russia, knew the city through and through and knew where to get in and where to get off. "We all loved it as a member of our family," says Yulia. "I would open the door to see our Sharik sitting in a seat and looking in the window. If it had had money Sharik would have paid, sure. When I encountered the dog for the first time I didn't realize it waited for a tram. It was sitting at a halt-on-demand tram stop, just near the depot. As there were no people there I passed by. A conductor came up asking why I hadn't stopped to let our regular passenger in. We looked in the rear view mirror just to see how the dog stood up in bewilderment staring after the evading tram."

Soft-hearted people wanted to take Sharik to their homes but it wouldn't go. And some time before the dog appeared in Kursk, people in the city of Ekaterinburg had been talking away about a dog who used a tram to get to Ural University's canteen. In pictures, they look like they come from the same litter. Maybe it had been our travelling dog? Nobody knows for sure. Another everybody's favourite pet, mongrel Matilda, also regularly uses the electric transport.

собака в трамвае

Of course, her!

Rush-hour. The tram is overcrowded. When a rush of school children and factory workers faded out, our tram, running at a cruiser speed of 40 km/h (could reach 85 km/h but we observed the rules), entered...a forest. Route 3 has such an interesting leg along its track. Yulia was surprised not less than us but when she was a trainee.

The native of Kursk remembers her first working day as if it was yesterday. "I wasn't anxious when I was receiving a tram but when I drove to the gates I experienced a sort of stupor, I could hardly drive further. When a trainee, an instructor would prompt things, would encourage you, but now you are alone, all by yourself, and passenger should appear soon. So I drove, almost shaking." Now she can train new-comers herself. In 2013, a tram driver competition was held in Kursk. Who won? Poleshchuk.

The turn signals of a tram going in the opposite direction blinked – we saluted in response. There is tram brotherhood just like in any other transport business. Tram-specific superstitious beliefs also exist. For example, if a bird flew inside a tram, wait a breakdown. The tram we are riding looks like new after overhaul though it is over thirty years old. Yulia has been driving this tram for seven years already. "I remember how our grandpa took us on one of such trams in 1985," she smiles upon this memory. "The depot just received the first lot of TZM model trams from Czechoslovakia. We liked it a lot: a spacious, light passenger compartment, and it still smelled of paint!"

Sometimes it happens that the tram acts as technical support. "Once a lady, trying to make a detour of traffic jam, got stuck on tracks," remembers our driver. "One of her car's wheels got in a ditch. What could I do? One has to follow the schedule. I took out a wire rope, hooked the car to the tram, reversed a little, and pulled out the car."

You can fear nothing with such a mom. Yulia used to take his son, Eugene, with her to ride a tram since his early childhood. And her younger 12-year old daughter has caught up recently. "It was my niece's birthday, I wanted to organize a holiday for kids. It is possible to rent a tram from the depot. We rented a standard tram, not vintage, decorated it with balloons, and on we rolled with music and games. Not only the kids but also their parents enjoyed the adventure!" Only one person was trusted to steer this carnival on the road. Of course, her!

"Thanks that you live..."

We drank a cup of tea with Yulia in the dispatcher's house during her 25-minute break. Meanwhile, our tram continued to move – a substitute driver took over. Poleshchuk tells us a case from her experience, "One male was so drunk that he couldn't remember himself. He suddenly became worse. I had to park the tram on a ring tracks and call an ambulance. The man was brought to life in the dispatcher's house. At this very moment, another tram driver came in and recognized the man. She glanced at him perplexed and said, "Hey dude, you've already died!" "Yes," was his humble reply. So it turned out, that he'd ridden in her tram one month ago. Then he was taken to hospital by an ambulance. All thought that he'd died. He came to in a morgue to find out that his wife had ordered wreaths. Like water off a duck's back – he lives!

There's never a dull moment with this job. Sometimes passengers carry loud piglets, chickens in boxes and buckets full of kittens. Sometimes somebody tries to drag a scooter in a tram because he ran out of fuel. All sorts of people can be encountered in a tram – Afghanistan vets, criticizing authorities, a young gypsy musician with a concertina and local eccentrics like one old man who wears female hats and high heels. One can learn all kinds of news on a short ride: where meteorite will fall tomorrow, what direction dollar exchange rate will go and, what is most important, where you can buy the freshest greens – don't you go to a shop, Marivanna's greens are the best in the marketplace. People have opinions about everything. The years made people familiar with each other along the same route. Here comes a guy who was a school kid yesterday, and now he boards the tram with his own child...