Trams of Australia

Melbourne's Tram History

Melbourne's tram system began operations in 1885, when the first cable line operated by the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company opened for business. The cable tram system grew to be very comprehensive (see Melbourne's cable trams for more details) and operated successfully for 55 years.
Electric trams
Australia's first electric tram line, from Box Hill Station to Doncaster, was built by a group of land developers using equipment left over from the Great Exhibition of 1888. It opened in 1889. At this time the line must have been right out in the sticks, since Box Hill itself was many kilometres beyond the existing tram system. It had one or two problems, such as arguments with land owners who fenced over the line and pulled down the power lines, and poor reliability, since its owners knew nothing about running a tram system, and it died by 1896. The only hint now that there was ever a tram system in the Doncaster area is a road along the former route - Tram Road.

The first serious electric trams in Melbourne began in 1906 with the North Melbourne Electric Tramway and Lighting Company (NMETL) who built a line from the edge of the cable system out towards Essendon, and the Victorian Railways who built a line from St. Kilda to Brighton. The NMETL, a British concern, was interested in selling electricity to customers along the route (and the same motive led to the establishment of the Ballarat, Bendigo, and Geelong electric tram systems). The company commenced operations with single bogie saloon cars (later classified U-class) and unpopular toastrack cars (later classified V-class).

The Victorian Railways (VR) line came about when the well-named Thomas Bent became Premier of the state. He used the position to enhance the value of his property interests in Brighton by forcing the VR to build and operate a tram service in 1906. The reluctant Railways then insisted that the tram be called a "Street Railway"; built it using the 5 ft 3 inch VR railway gauge instead of the proposed tramway standard gauge of 4 ft 8.5 inches, and connected it with the St Kilda Railway station instead of the cable tram terminus.

The VR later built a second tram line (this time using standard gauge) as a cheap substitute for a much demanded railway extension from Sandringham. For more information about these trams and lines, see David Brown's VR trams page.

Municipal Tramways Trusts
In other parts of Melbourne, groups of local councils got together and formed various municipal Tramways Trusts to build electric lines which fed the cable system. Except for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust (HTT) line to Princes Bridge, none were able to penetrate the dense cable tram network to reach the city directly.

First among these trusts was the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust (PMTT), which started operations in 1910 with single-bogie drop-end open California combination cars (later classified A-class. In 1912 it acquired unusual two-bogie combination cars with the saloon at one end and crossbench seating at the other but sold them to the HTT in 1916 (they were later classified O-class). In 1913, two-bogie drop-centre combination cars were introduced (later classified C-class) starting the design trend which spread right across Australia. This was followed by the very similar E-class. The PMTT also tried summer cars similar to crossbench cars, (later classified F and G-class) but these were later converted to more traditional combination layouts, confirming the unpopularity of crossbench (toastrack) trams in Melbourne. Later trams, which were classified H, J and B-classes were once again the traditional California combination layout.

The last trams ordered by the PMTT were later called L-class. They did not enter service until after the takeover of the municipal trusts by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) in 1920. They were the widest trams to operate in Melbourne, and the first with four motors.

The other municipal trusts' operations used similar rolling stock to the PMTT. One additional major type (later classified T-class) operated by the Melbourne, Brunswick and Coburg Tramways Trust, was a combination car with very long saloon, mounted on a Brill Radiax (radial axle) truck.

Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board
Then the MMTB took over from the cable system and the various municipal trusts, it was faced with a unified fleet of cable cars but an excessive number of differing electric tram designs. It quickly classified all the tram designs with letter codes, allocated in the same order as each trust numbered its trams, as follows:
Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust (PMTT)A - K
Hawthorn Tramways Trust (HTT)M - P
Fitzroy, Northcote & Preston Tramways Trust (FNPTT)R
Melbourne, Brunswick & Coburg Tramways Trust (MBCTT)S & T
North Melbourne Electric Tramway & Lighting Co. (NMETL)U & V
It then renumbered all the trams, using roughly the same order.

A need for new trams quickly led to the MMTB building a number of single-truck straight-sill closed combination cars (Q-class). Later it was realised that many of these different letter codes were really the same tram designs, so the codes were rationalised and trams re-classified in 1928. The trams are described here under their post-1928 classifications.

The MMTB needed a standard design. It came up with the famous W-class design which is still running. A couple of Birney cars were imported, which started the X-class series, and the Board experimented with saloon cars suitable for one-man operation in the Y-class.

The two tram lines operated by the Victorian Railways were not taken over by the MMTB. On the closure of the VR lines in 1959, three trams, called VR class, were purchased by the MMTB and operated for another 20 years.

After the Second World War, when all that was shiny and new (like the motor car) was embraced, and all that was established and old-fashioned (like the tram) was rejected, Melbourne alone stood against the tide. The Chairman of the MMTB, Sir Robert Risson, far from having a taste for tramway closures like his opposite numbers elsewhere, stoutly defended the trams against a hostile press. He upgraded track by setting it in mass concrete (when this was still politically possible) and even the Government could see that removing trams would be a waste of the investment. He argued that trams would always attract more patronage than an equivalent bus service, and proved it in 1956 when the Bourke St bus service (which had replaced a cable tram line) was upgraded to a tram in time for the Olympic games, despite the wailing of the newpapers.

No doubt the cause was aided by an intransigent union, who were so determined that any bus which replaced a tram must have two-man crewing, that the economics was not really weighted in favour of the bus anyway. The other factor in Melbourne's favour that is often mentioned is the wide main streets, which meant that there was less obstruction of cars than in other cities.

By the mid 1970s, Melbourne could see how lucky she had been not to follow the fashions of the '50s, and even the conservative government, normally given to starving public transport to death, agreed to the purchase of new trams. These were the Z-class, which are a mixed success, but were good enough to be followed by the A-class and B-class trams in the 1980s.

In 1915, the Hawthorn Tramways Trust bought 137 acres of land at the corner of Riversdale and Boundary (Warrigal) roads for a park. They proposed to call it 'Metropolitan Tramways Park' but the name was changed to 'Wattle Park'. Over the years, the HTT, and its successor, the MMTB planted over 7000 trees there, including some 6000 wattle trees.

There will have been some commercial motive here as the park would generate tram traffic, but this action does reveal a civic mindedness (for a transport authority) that is quite startling to today's mind. These days, hordes of economists would probably queue up to denounce such an action, but times were more civilised in the past, and the residents of Melbourne are fortunate that it was done. The involvement of tramway operators with the park continues even now, in the form of the Melbourne Transit Band, which plays there every month during the warmer months.

History map
A map of Melbourne's tramway history is now available, both in printed form (at Information Victoria in Collins St) and on the net.
Cable cars
A class
B class
C class
D class
E class
F class
G class
H class
J class
K class
L class
M class
N class
O class
P class
Q class
R class
S class
T class
U class
V class
VR trams
W class
X class
Y class
Z class
A class
B class