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A history of Australia's Electric Trams


The first electric tramway in Australia began operating between Box Hill and Doncaster in Melbourne in 1889 but this was short-lived. Hobart was the first Australian city to have a complete if modest electric tramway system using double-deck cars, which began operating in 1893. A service began in Brisbane in 1897, Perth in 1899, Melbourne service proper in 1906 and Adelaide in 1909.

In Sydney experimental electric trams began in 1890. Initially comprising a single saloon passenger area, they were fast, quiet, clean, and enormously popular. Demand for larger trams with cross-bench seating combined with semi-enclosed areas saw new models quickly appear. The impact of introducing electric trams was dramatic. Annual patronage trebled in the first decade from 63 million to 190 million reaching 308 million by 1923.

The most famous of all Sydney electric trams were the O  Class ‘toastrack’ trams. The name ‘toastrack’ referred to the equally spaced vertical divisions between the bench seats. There was no centre aisle. The tram featured both enclosed and open sections and had numerous doorways to ensure that passengers could quickly enter and leave. They were capable of carrying 80 seated passengers and 128 in ‘crush’ conditions, were mostly run in pairs and ideal for moving large crowds from venues such as race meetings, sporting fixtures and shows. With 626 in the fleet, the O class was numerically the largest class of tramcar used in the one city in the world and technically the fastest and most advanced in Australia at the time. They were locally built between 1908 and 1914 and served as the backbone of Sydney’s electric tram fleet for over years, loved by passengers and tram crews alike.

The tram system was capable of moving massive numbers, and could deliver over 80,000 people to Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse for a single meeting, then disperse the crowd within 20 minutes of the finish. An enviable achievement, unsurpassed today. Sydneys tram system became the largest in the British empire (after London) and patronage peaked in 1945 with 405 million passengers that year.

Governments, local authorities and private companies all over Australia pushed tramlines out into the suburbs, quite often preceding urban development. After the Second World War, however, with the motor car on the rise, police, motoring organisations and many newspapers began to turn on the trams. They were seen unfairly as the cause of city congestion and an old-fashioned relic of the 19th century, not wanted in a modern automobile-based city. Tramways and other public transport systems all over Australia had been under great strain during the war, and many were in a badly worn state at its conclusion. As public transport patronage began to drop off in favour of the car, administrators were not inclined to spend large amounts of money maintaining or expanding the tramways.

A policy of conversion to trolley bus or motorbus operation was soon adopted by almost all operators except Melbourne. During the 1950s most of the country’s great tramway systems were dismantled in a series of ill-considered decisions, including those in Newcastle, Kalgoorlie, Fremantle, Launceston, Adelaide (except for the Glenelg line), Perth and Geelong. The closure of the immense system began in 1956, its replacement by diesel buses being spread over five years. As soon as the last tram had passed, the overhead wires were removed and the tracks tarred over the next morning to prevent trams being reintroduced if buses were a failure. Hobart’s tramways closed in 1960 and Brisbane’s in 1969. Only Melbourne resisted the anti-tram lobby as its wide streets laid out in a grid pattern could accommodate both trams and cars.  Today it is the only major city of the English- speaking world to retain its tramway system intact, even expanding it in the last few years. Melbourne continues to enjoy an urban transport system that is not only clean and effective but has tourist appeal, operating the fourth largest network (in excess of 240 km) in the world with about 500 vehicles.

This article is courtesy of the great book ‘On the Move, a history of transport in Australia’, by Margaret Simpson’ and is brought to you by Blue Horizon Printing, specialists in premium quality replica tram and bus scroll art.


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