Brisbane horse-drawn tram. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Brisbane drop-centre tram No. 242 at the New Farm Ferry terminus. The tram is in its original configuration, without enclosed ends, about 1925. Photo: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Wikimedia Commons.
18 April 2022
Brisbane had a standard gauge (1435 mm) tramway network operating from 1885 until 1969. Services were initially operated by horse trams, but electric trams commenced in 1897. Like many other Australian cities, the system declined following the Second World War, and the last regular tram services ran on 13 April 1969.
Plans for a horse tram system in Brisbane were proposed in 1879 and 1881 but both did not eventuate. A plan for steam trams around the same time also fell through. Brisbane’s first horse trams were introduced by the Metropolitan Tramway Investment Company. Services commenced on 10 August 1885 with an official tramcar running from Victoria Bridge to the Exhibition Building and then to Breakfast Creek.
The horse fleet in 1885 consisted of 18 cars that had been built in the United States, nine by the Brill Company of Philadelphia and nine by Stephenson and Company of New York. They included both single-deck and double-deck cars. Two more trams arrived in January 1886. In general operation each tram was hauled by two horses.
Initial services operated in the central business district and inner suburbs. Double tracks were soon laid across the Victoria Bridge, with the first tram crossing on 30 April 1886. On the south side of the Brisbane River, horse trams operated to Woolloongabba, with later extensions to the West End.
The Metropolitan Tramway Investment Company never made big profits and economic difficulties in the early 1890s exacerbated its financial problems. Consideration was given to closing down Brisbane’s horse tramway system. In 1895 the Metropolitan Tramway Investment Company was acquired by the newly-formed Brisbane Tramway Company, which immediately began a program of expansion and electrification. Horse tram services soon ceased although some of the horse tramcars were converted to electric operation.
Electric tramways were inaugurated in Brisbane on 21 June 1897. At the date of opening there were 20 electric trams operating on a network of 15 miles (24 km). The supply and installation of electrical equipment had been ordered from the General Electric Company in the United States, one of the largest companies in the world at the time, which sent Joseph Badger to Brisbane as Chief Electrical Engineer. He arrived in 1896, became Manager of the Brisbane Tramway Company in 1897, and remained in charge until his return to the United States in 1923.
Joseph Badger drove the official tram to open the electric service on 21 June 1897 from Logan Road to Victoria Bridge. At the front of the tram with Joseph Badger was Harold Clapp, who had supervised the conversion of the city’s horse tram network to electric traction and had instructed drivers of the new trams. Clapp worked in the United States from 1901 to 1920 and was then Chairman of the Victorian Railways Commissioners from 1920 until 1939.
Electric trams began operating in Queen Street, one of the busiest streets in the central business district, on 3 July 1897. Further expansion of the system followed with lines opening in the years shown below:
1897: Logan Road, Paddington, Red Hill
1899: Ipswich Road, Ascot
1901: Kelvin Grove, Clayfield
1902: Wharf Street, Upper Edward Street
1903: Lower Edward Street, East Brisbane
1904: Toowong, Rosalie
1908: Dutton Park
1914: Greenslopes, Kedron, Merthyr Road
1915: Coorparoo, Cracknell Road
1917: Grey Street, Adelaide Street, Ann Street.
Brisbane’s trams continued to be operated by the Brisbane Tramway Company until 1 January 1923 when the system was acquired by the Brisbane Tramways Trust for a cost of £1,400,000. Little investment had taken place during the final years of the Brisbane Tramway Company, so the Brisbane Tramways Trust began work on upgrading and expanding the system, as well as purchasing new tramcars. Extensions to the system were:
1923: Exhibition Loop
1925: Camp Hill, Cavendish Road, Lutwyche, Balmoral, West End, Oriel Park.
On 30 November 1925 the Brisbane Tramways Trust was dissolved and the following day, 1 December, the tramways were transferred to the expanded Brisbane City Council. The transfer included approximately 50 miles (80 km) of lines and 225 tramcars. Brisbane City Council continued to operate the city’s tramways until the final closure in 1969. Further extensions were:
1926: New Farm Park, Holland Park, Newmarket
1935: Ashgrove, Balmoral
1937: Bardon, Moorooka, Doomben
1940: Stafford, Salisbury
The highest number of passengers carried by Brisbane tramways was in 1944–45 when almost 160 million journeys were recorded and 408 tramcars were in operation. Brisbane’s tramway system reached its maximum extent in 1952 when it had a total of 109 route km of lines open.
Some of Brisbane’s first electric tramcars were converted from former horse trams, while others were newly built. By 1920 the Brisbane Tramway Company had 181 trams in its fleet. Various types and sizes of trams were in service, with the largest being the standard centre-aisle cars, known as Dreadnoughts, which had seating for 56 passengers and a total capacity of 90. A total of 65 of these trams entered service from 1908 to 1925.
When the Brisbane Tramways Trust took control of Brisbane’s tramway network in 1923 it initiated the design of a new tramcar which would provide greater seating capacity than existing trams, as well as protection from the weather and faster loading times. A prototype tram was built at the Trust’s workshops and trials proved successful. More trams were ordered, which became the drop-centre type. During 1925 a total of 21 of these trams entered service and more entered service in subsequent years. The drop-centre cars were Brisbane’s most numerous trams, with 191 entering service from 1925 to 1938. They had 64 seats, but fully loaded their capacity was 110 passengers. The drop-centre section was open to the weather, with canvas blinds provided to give protection from inclement weather, while the two end sections were enclosed. Various modifications were undertaken during their working lives.
The final type of trams to be built for the Brisbane system were the four-motor trams, also known as drop-centre saloon cars or 400s. A total of 155 of these trams, numbered from 400 to 554, entered service from 1938 to 1964. They were designed and built by Brisbane City Council. Although they had the same capacity as the earlier drop-centre trams, they were fully enclosed, except for the doorways. The frame was made of welded rolled steel with no separate underframe. Each tram was powered by four 40 hp (30 kW) motors. The last eight of these trams were built using parts salvaged from the Paddington Depot fire in 1962.
Other capital cities around Australia had seen their tram services downgraded and then abandoned following the Second World War. Brisbane’s tramway system would experience a similar fate.
During the early evening of 28 September 1962, a fire at Paddington tram depot in Brisbane destroyed 65 trams, consisting of six Dreadnoughts, 47 drop-centre cars and 12 four-motor cars. The remaining tramcar fleet was insufficient to operate a full service on all routes so buses replaced some services during the evening peak. On 24 December that year buses replaced trams to Toowong, Rainworth, Bulimba Ferry and Kalinga. Although this change was announced as a three-month trial, it subsequently became permanent.
In August 1965 a preliminary report was released by a company of North American consultants regarding the future transport and traffic requirements of Brisbane. The report recommended that trams and trolleybuses be scrapped within three years; they were to be replaced by buses. Services were reduced in frequency over the following years. On 21 June 1968, Clem Jones, the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, announced that all tramway and trolleybus routes would be replaced by diesel buses during the 1968–69 financial year.
The last weekend of tram services was 12 and 13 April 1969. Transport enthusiasts, including many from interstate, and the general public gathered for one final tram journey in the city. Additional tramcars were brought into serviced to cater for the increased demand. The Brisbane Tramway Museum Society operated a tour on the Sunday using four-motor cars 402 and 534. Special souvenir tickets, priced at 20 cents, were issued to mark the last day of tram operations. An estimated 73,000 people rode the trams on the final day.
Four motor car No. 554 was the last official car to operate in Brisbane when it ran from the Valley to Milton Workshops, where a ceremony was held to mark the end of the Brisbane tramway system. At seven minutes before midnight Lord Mayor Clem Jones moved the tram controller on 554 to the off position to signify the official end of tramway operations on 13 April 1969. Tram 554 was then handed to the Brisbane Tramway Museum for preservation, where it remains today. The final tram to operate in Brisbane’s streets was actually four motor car No. 534, which ran from Oriel Park in Ascot to Ipswich Road depot in South Brisbane. Traffic Manager WR Dann drove it into the depot just before midnight. The tramway era was over. Brisbane was the last capital city tramway system in Australia to cease operating.
Brisbane Tramway Museum, Ferny Grove
Brisbane Tramway Museum has a collection of 24 former Brisbane tramcars and two trolleybuses. Six of its tramcars are operational, with short tram rides available. Four-motor tram No. 554, which was the last tram to enter service in Brisbane, and the last tram to officially operate in Brisbane’s streets, is one of the operational exhibits. The museum is open on Sundays. It is located at Ferny Grove, approximately 15 km north-west of Brisbane central business district. Regular train services operate on the Ferny Grove railway line.
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Brisbane four-motor tram No. 435 in Melbourne Street, 18 October 1964. Photo: Lindsay Bridge, Wikimedia Commons.
Single truck crossbench tram No. 65 with drop-centre combination car No. 341 behind, Brisbane Tramway Museum, Ferny Grove, 26 September 2010.