A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUSTRALIAS TRAM SYSTEM

Australias tram system is now the main public transport operation in Melbourne, and to a much lesser extent, Adelaide and Bendigo. Most Australian cities in the past used to have extensive tram networks though these networks were heavily dismounted during the 1950s through to early 1970’s. Many of these trams are now kept in local museums in the various cities.

In 1881 Australia’s first tram was introduced, this new system involved running iron tracks across major way routes in the cities and was a vast improvement over dragging wheels through the muddy tracks that were roads at the time. This first tram was drawn by horse along Sydney Pitt Street, running from the Railway station to Circular Quay. However as these early trams required iron girders to run across the roads and extending above the level of the ground, these quickly caused general roar as they damaged the wheels of other vehicles and obstructed the road, the tramline was soon after dismounted and closed just 5 years later in 1886.

Despite its demise in Sydney, horse trams did become established in some Australian cities. Adelaide quickly established an extensive horse tram system, shying away from new fangled technologies like cable and steam later introduced until historically with the invention of the electric tram when it no longer could be avoided.

Sydney was not to see Trams used again until 1879 when a steam tramway was developed. This modern version proved to be a much bigger success as the tracks could have laid below the level of the road, and soon became popular. One of these early ‘Baldwin’ trams is still on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, Sydney. Due to the hilly terrain of Sydney and it’s harbor layout the tram system was effectively a number of independent tram services, the main ones at the time were Sydney city, North Shore and Manly with a popular tram running out to Sydney’s Eastern beaches known as the Bronte Tram.

Throughout the 1890’s and early 1900’s Sydney had one of the largest steam tram networks in the world. Melbourne on the other hand was much happier with cable trams and these dominated the streets of Melbourne at the end of the 19th Century. However as technology improved electrification was introduced in 1898, this new clean technology was a vastly more efficient system that the old steam and cable trams and eventually replaced the old methods completely by 1910. Initially battery powered trams were used but these proved to be a dismal And far less reliable version of the older technologies though Electric trams quickly became the preferred system as overhead electric lines were used.

Australias tram system or MCTS as it was known became the largest in the world in the late 19th century, with some cable lines operating the early 1940’s. Sydney operated just two major cable tram lines (in North Sydney and along South Head Road) and avoided the high capital outlay required for cable trafficking, preferring instead to retain their steam trams, until most of the system was converted to electric operation between 1898 and 1910.

Smaller provincial towns New South Wales, such as Maitland, Broken Hill and Newcastle had steam tram systems operated by the New South Wales Government. Rockhampton, QLD also had a steam tram system, which was operated by the City of Rockhampton. With the exception of Newcastle, these systems had all closed down by the 1930’s.

Major Gold mining towns, with their rapid growth and ever increasing wealth quickly adopted trams, with Bendigo and Ballarat in VIC and Kalgoolie and Leonora in WA all adopting electric tram systems. The Victorian systems survived until 1972 where following their takeover by the state government they were subsequently closed down, the West Australian tram systems ceased operations in the 1950s as a result of the economic decline of those towns at the time as the frantic gold rush passed.

The axle began to fall upon on most Australian tram networks in the 1950s and 60s as they were replaced by diesel buses. At the time car drivers rejoiced, believing that commuting would be a lot easier with the trams out of the way. However as traffic levels increased and the roads proved unable to deal with the ever increasing number of cars, larger cities began to realise their mistake. Melbourne alone in resisting the trend, was voted the ‘world’s most liveable city’ a few years ago (though Sydney siders will be pleased to know that Sydney has since reclaimed this accolade.) A major factor in this accolade is almost certainly Australias tram system – it still runs.

Post by Ben Burnes.

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