A Brief History of Australia's Trams
The Pre-electric era
In 1861, it was decided that pulling a vehicle along iron rails was a lot
easier than pulling it through mud and potholes, and more comfortable too,
so track was laid in
Pitt St, in Sydney. Australia's first horse tram had arrived. But, in what
seems like a bit of an oversight, the rails stuck up out of the road, which
made it a tad difficult to get other carriages across the rails.
Other road users were not
happy, and, like the Automobile Clubs years later, they campaigned against
the tram. It lasted only a few years.
Despite its demise, horse trams did become established. Adelaide, for
example, established an extensive horse tram system--shying away from
new fangled technologies like cable and steam--but eventually going
Today, you can
see horse trams in operation at
Victor Harbor and
Here is a
of the Victor Harbor tram, at David Bromage's Railpage Australia.
Sydney had one of the world's largest steam tram networks prior to
electrification in the late 1890's to early 1900's.
The trams were really like miniature trains, with a small locomotive
and one or (usually) more trailers. Rockhampton installed a steam tram
system as late as 1909, and used the more advanced French Purrey design,
in which the steam motor unit and passenger vehicle were combined. This was
marvellous for keeping the passengers warm in a European blizzard, but since
Rockhampton is located on the Tropic of Capricorn, it is doubtful whether
the passengers actually appreciated this feature.
(Any further information on steam trams gratefully accepted!)
steam tram could once be found at
but a fire in the depot in 1993 has put it out of action. However,
there is another, at Rockhampton,
in Queensland, which ran them until 1939.
The Powerhouse Museum
has a Sydney steam tram motor, and another is at the
Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT),
Auckland, New Zealand.
A British steam tram which was trialled in Sydney for a while
can be found at the
British National Tramway Museum.
Melbourne however was convinced of the merits of a cable system. A
monopoly franchise was set up, and by the turn of the century Melbourne's
cable-car network was extensive.
The cable trams had the advantage (for passengers) over
steam of being suited to high frequency operation of small cars, as opposed
to less frequent operation of steam-hauled small trains.
Sydney did run a couple of cable tram lines,
where the terrain was too steep
for its steam trams. There were no other cable systems in Australia.
There were some early experiments with battery powered trams, but like
everywhere else in the world, they were a dismal failure. So all cities
pretty much moved to electric supply with an overhead wire. Most used
trolley poles to pick up the current.
Apart from Hobart, which imported British double-decker trams for its
system, the rest of Australia was largely influenced by American trams.
Most tram bodies were locally built, but the use of American bogies (trucks)
and electrical equipment was very common, particularly in the early years.
The very early electric trams were inspired in design by the San Francisco
cable car design which had gone before them. They had a centre
(enclosed) saloon and crossbench seating at each end. Trams of this type
Adelaide's Type A,
Melbourne's old A-class,
Sydney's D-class and
Many of these trams used Brill 21E trucks (bogies).
As passenger traffic expanded, the need arose for higher capacity trams.
One approach was to build trams with two bogies (trucks), and another
was to use the toastrack design (all-crossbench seating), or both.
Early two-bogie trams, introduced in the early 1910s, were:
Adelaide's type D and
Melbourne's O-class and
Sydney's F-class trams.
These early bogie trams often used Brill 22E trucks, which were of the
'Maximum traction' design. There was only one motor per bogie, with the
driven wheels being larger (at 838 mm diameter) than the pony wheels
(at 508 mm). The term 'maximum traction' is a bit of a joke to drivers
now, because apparently it is very easy to lose traction with these trams.
But the ride quality, from the passenger's point of view, was greatly
improved. Single bogie trams seem to lurch around corners and pitch and jerk
when braking, by comparison with two-bogie trams.
This was a great design for seating a lot of passengers. Not so good if you
were the conductor, because you had to run up and down the footboards
on the outside of the tram (rain or shine) to collect the fares.
And hang on when going around corners. OK, so Occupational Health and
Safety hadn't been invented yet. These were quite popular trams
in the northern cities because they could load quickly and move a large
crowd very efficiently, but further south, in Melbourne and even
Adelaide, they could be pretty unpleasant in Winter. There, they
were few in number and did not last long.
Examples are the Adelaide type B,
O (Sydney's classic tram), and
and the Brisbane 10 and 12 crossbench.
The two-bogie drop-centre design began to appear around the time of
World War 1. The design apparently originated in New Zealand, and
appeared in all the major Australian cities except Hobart.
It was to become the typical
Australian and New Zealand tram design (although it was not common
anywhere else). Most performed service for many years.
Trams of this design include:
Melbourne's C, L and
W classes (the last being Melbourne's classic tram),
and Sydney's R class.
Around this time, bogies with equal wheel sizes and four motors were introduced
to trams in place of the earlier 'maximum traction' designs. These provided
improved traction and reliability.
Not many trams were imported into Australia; most were locally built.
In an exception,
two Birney Lightweight Safety cars were imported to the
Melbourne system, two to the Geelong, and four to the
Port Adelaide systems.
Geelong's Birney cars.)
The Port Adelaide trams were transferred to Geelong, and then later
The Birney cars are single-bogie trams which are famous in tramway history.
They have a longer wheelbase than the earlier single-bogie trams used
in Australia, which meant that the ride quality was not as bad,
but it was still nowhere near as good as that provided by two-bogie trams.
Of these eight trams, seven have survived to this day and are in
operating condition: five are at
Bendigo Tramways, one at
the Australian Electric Transport Museum,
and one at the Hawthorn Tram Depot.
Thus Australia has a large proportion of the world's surviving Birney cars.
Although there were plans to import a PCC car for evaluation on the
Melbourne system, this never came to pass. Instead, a set of PCC
control equipment was imported, and fitted to a locally-built
vehicle. This was PCC car No. 980. The floor in the drop-centre section
of the tram had to be raised to fit the PCC equipment. The full acceleration
and deceleration capabilities of the equipment were disabled,
as they were considered a hazard on a system where no other tram possessed
them. So the tram had neither the styling nor the performance of the
American PCCs. The idea was not pursued.
Later, when it was proposed to introduce a new series of trams, a
prototype, tram No. 1041, was built.
The motors and bogies were ripped out of No. 980
and installed in this prototype. It was controlled with imported Belgian
equipment, but was also classified as a PCC car.
The subsequent Z-class tram was strongly
based on No. 1041.
When the Z-class was introduced in 1975, no. 1041 was largly withdrawn
from service, but it did not finally depart until 1985.
Melbourne's PCC experiment had finally come to an end.
A proposal has been made to preserve PCC car 980, in which it will go to the
Sydney Tramway Museum, which already possesses
a PCC car from San Francisco.
Chopper control was introduced to the Melbourne system with the
Z3 tram and was continued with in the subsequent
and the articulated B-class trams.
Sydney's future light rail vehicle, based on the ASEA-Brown Boveri Variotram
design, will also be an articulated, chopper-controlled tram.
Decline and fall
The axe began to fall upon most Australian trams in the 1950s and '60s,
when they were replaced with 'modern diesel buses'. Car drivers rejoiced,
thinking that commuting would be a lot easier with the trams out of
the way, but found that they were deluded. The larger cities
are beginning to realise the magnitude of their mistake. Melbourne, alone
in resisting the trend, was
voted the 'world's most liveable city' a few years ago (a claim it repeats
ad nauseum) and there is no doubt that its comprehensive tram system
made a large contribution to that assessment.