Trams of Australia

Introductory rave

The tram is the ideal form of urban transport. It can travel the streets where the people are and where they want to go, or it can have separate off-street tracks for higher speed service. It is a great social mixer, being happily used by all walks of life. You can see concert-goers in dinner suits and evening dresses, students, commuters, tourists, and unemployed all together on a Melbourne tram - something you just won't see on a bus. It is smooth and quiet compared with a bus, so it isn't surprising that a tram service will attract a higher ridership than a bus service over the same route.

If trams are so good, why did most of them disappear?

When the private car became more popular and affordable, the tram faced two problems. The first of these was the initial loss of passengers to the car. This was unavoidable, but its effect seems to be often overstated. The second was that the cars began to obstruct the trams in the streets, causing the quality of service (or timetable-keeping) to decline (and therefore a further loss of passengers). It is one of the great ironies of life that motoring interests managed to present this problem as though it were the other way around.

The staggering selfishness of this position can be seen when one realises that the tramway operators were required (at least in this country) to maintain the roads they operated over. Motorists, of course, did not exactly volunteer to pay for maintenance of roads, so roads without trams were often muddy tracks. The motorists were attracted to the higher quality roads on tram routes, but complained about the trams which provided them. They wanted a free ride!

These days, of course, motorists expect and get such a free ride, with government-maintained roads, and see no connection between this and operating subsidies to public transport, which they resent. Even today, much expenditure on public transport is actually focused on improving the lot of the motorist rather than the public transport passenger: for example - grade separated rail crossings (which improve things for the cars, not the trains), or so-called "safety-zones" in which passengers must wait for trams out in the weather-exposed centre of the street rather than (horror!) delay a car when boarding their tram.

In short, the demise of tram systems has a great deal more to do with politics than many are prepared to admit.