Trams of Australia

Sydney's Tram History

[Sydney Opera House]

Site of the former Fort Macquarie tram depot. Here it is, in its former glory in 1957. [Link to picture of Ft Macquarie tram depot] [16]

What follows is a brief history, with links to the tram types used in Sydney. (See also: a more detailed history.)

Sydney's (and Australia's) first tram was a horse-drawn affair in Pitt St, running from the Railway station to Circular Quay in 1861. From the beginning, the design was compromised by the desire to haul railway freight wagons along the line to supply city businesses, in addition to the passenger traffic, which resulted in a track which protruded from the road surface. If the very existence of a tramway wasn't enough to upset operators of competing transport, a tramway whose rails destroyed their wheels when they tried to cross it was too much. Hard campaigning led to the closure of the line in 1866.

Steam tramways
It was not to be until 1879 that a steam tramway was established. It was a great success, and the steam system spread rapidly. The trams comprised a little Baldwin locomotive hauling one or more (typically two) carriages - more like miniature trains. Thus the Sydney trams were higher capacity but lower in frequency than, for example, the Melbourne cable trams. A preserved Baldwin steam tram motor can be found today at the Powerhouse Museum, another is with the Steam Tram and Railway Preservation Society (formerly in Parramatta Park), and a third is in New Zealand.
[Link to picture of Newcastle tram] [Link to picture of Newcastle tram]These pictures, which are at at a site provided by the University of Newcastle library are of trams on the Newcastle system, which shared much Sydney rolling stock.

The Sydney terrain is steep and much interrupted by pieces of harbour, which, although beautiful, does present obstacles to a tram system. In fact, the system was really several isolated systems, the major ones being Sydney (and south), North Shore, Manly, and some other isolated lines. A couple of the steeper lines (North Sydney to St Leonards, and King St [city] to Edgecliff via Kings Cross) were built as cable lines because they were beyond the capabilities of steam.

Electrification came early to the Sydney lines, starting in 1898, and most of the system was converted by 1910 (although the Parramatta steam system remained until 1943). Service began with C-class saloon cars, followed by D-class combination cars. Unlike other cities which started with Combination cars and toastracks, and quickly abandoned the toastracks for dropcentre and saloon cars, Sydney started by going the other way. The early trams were followed by the unique E-class toastrack pair and the N-class bogie toastrack. Even trams which started out life as bogie combination (F-class) were re-built once to add some crossbench seating (becoming L-class), and then re-built again to convert them to an entirely crossbench layout (now L/P-class).

This line of development led to the high capacity O-class toastrack tram in 1908, which became Sydney's classic tram, and its little brother, the K-class. The O-class was followed by the improved P-class in the early 1920s, which had the same seating layout. It was not until the 1930s with the introduction of the R-class that the drop-centre saloon tram, widely used elsewhere in Australia, finally came to Sydney.

[Link to picture of trams at Central Station] Here are the trams queued up at Sydney's Central Railway station. Before the Harbour Bridge and related city underground railway works were completed, the trams would have provided the main link between the station and the rest of the city and Circular Quay. [16]

When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened, the North Shore tramlines were brought over the bridge to the city centre. However, they terminated in the underground Wynyard railway station, and did not interconnect with the city lines at all.

The Balmain Counterweight Dummy
The electric trams could handle the steep terrain of Sydney much better than the steam trams, but some hills were just too much. One of these was the 1/4 mile of Darling St in Balmain which led to the wharf, which had a grade of 1 in 8.25. To enable trams to operate this section, a counterweight trolley was installed under the road surface, connected by cable to a cable tram grip dummy on the track on the surface. A tram descending would push the grip dummy ahead of it (which raised the counterweight). On the return journey, the grip dummy would give the tram a helpful push. This unique contraption can be seen at the Sydney Tramway Museum.
The Sydney tram system was Australia's largest, at 290 km, in 1933. But because the system consisted of several isolated sections, it was relatively easy to close it down, piece by piece. This process started in 1939 with the Manly system. The last Pitt St. and Castlereigh St. tram ran in 1957 on a Saturday night at 1 am. Within minutes of the tram's run the overhead wires were pulled down, and the next morning (a Sunday) the tracks were paved over, to ensure there would be no return of the trams even if the buses should prove inadequate. This shows pretty clearly that there were forces at work other than just desire for efficiency here.

By 1958 the North Shore system was closed, and in 1961, 100 years after the first tram had run, the last line closed.

The replacement buses were loss-making from the start, and within just a few years the City Council was starting to regret the loss of the trams, but it was too late. In 1975, a proposal was floating to re-instate a tram loop from Central Station to Circular Quay along Pitt and Castlereigh Streets. In 1995, this proposal has re-appeared, attached to the Darling Harbour LRV plan.

Preserved Sydney trams

At the Sydney Tramway Museum in addition to most of the tram types mentioned above, you can find examples of freight, service and grass burning cars and even a prison tram!

Any contribution to these topics, or suggestions of other topics, will be gratefully accepted!

[16] Thanks to Ian Stevens and the Sydney Tramway Museum for these pictures.