Trams of Australia

A Brief History of Australia's Trams

The Pre-electric era

Horse trams

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 electric. Today, you can see horse trams in operation at Victor Harbor and Ballarat. Here is a picture of the Victor Harbor tram, at David Bromage's Railpage Australia.

Steam trams

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!)

An operating steam tram could once be found at Parramatta Park, 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.

Cable trams

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.

The Electric era arrives

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.

California combination cars

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 include: Adelaide's Type A, Melbourne's old A-class, Sydney's D-class and Brisbane 'matchboxes'. Many of these trams used Brill 21E trucks (bogies).

Early two-bogie trams

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 type E, Brisbane's dreadnought, 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, Melbourne V-class, Sydney E, L/P, N, O (Sydney's classic tram), and P-classes, and the Brisbane 10 and 12 crossbench.

Drop-centre trams

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: Adelaide's F, Brisbane dropcentre, Launceston's 'Bogies', 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.

Birney cars

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. (See Melbourne's, Adelaide's, Geelong's Birney cars.) The Port Adelaide trams were transferred to Geelong, and then later to Bendigo.

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.

PCC 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-controlled and articulated trams

Chopper control was introduced to the Melbourne system with the Z3 tram and was continued with in the subsequent A-class 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.