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Melbourne’s first cable tram service, between Bridge Road, Richmond, and Spencer Street via Flinders Street, 11 November 1885. Photo: Monovisions. This photo is now in the public domain.

Melbourne cable tram and trailer on the St Kilda line, 1905.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Melbourne Tramway History

David Matheson

 21 February 2021

Melbourne’s tramways have a lengthy history, extending back to 1884. Horse, cable and electric trams have operated. Most of the city’s tramways were under control of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) from 1919 to 1983. Following the establishment of the MMTB there was substantial growth in the network and the number of passengers carried. Melbourne’s trams are now in private ownership, being operated by Yarra Trams.


Horse trams

Melbourne’s first trams were operated by horses. On 20 December 1884 the first horse tram operated from Fairfield to Fairfield Park. Other horse tram lines opened in 1887 between Sandringham and Cheltenham, and between Victoria Bridge and Kew; in 1889 between Elsternwick and Glenhuntly, and between Brunswick and Coburg; in 1890 between Hawthorn Bridge and Auburn Road in Hawthorn, and from the corner of Royal Parade and Gatehouse Street in Parkville to the main gates of the zoo.


Horse tramways were cheaper to build than cable or electric tramways. However, disadvantages included their overall slower speeds than cable or electric trams, as well as the manure left behind and the smell that went with it. Many of the horse tramways established in the 1880s had a short lifespan or provided only intermittent services. Some were converted to electric tramways. The last horse tramway was the zoo tram line, which was taken over by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) in 1919 and closed in 1923 after a fire in the early hours of 5 November destroyed the depot and stables, including all four horse tramcars.


Cable trams

The first cable tramway opened between Spencer Street and Richmond in 1885. An extensive network of cable tramways was developed over the next five or so years, reaching 45.9 miles (73.9 km), making it one of the largest cable tram networks in the world. It was technically advanced at the time and reflected Melbourne as a sophisticated and fast-growing city. Melbourne’s cable tram network serviced the densely-populated inner city suburbs of the city. The dates of opening of the various lines are as follows:

Line                                                    Opening date

Richmond                                           11 November 1885

North Fitzroy                                      2 October 1886

Victoria Bridge                                   22 November 1886

Clifton Hill                                          10 August 1887

Nicholson Street                                 30 August 1887

Brunswick                                           1 October 1887

Johnston St Bridge (Collingwood)     21 December 1887

Brighton Road                                    11 October 1888

Prahran                                                26 October 1888

North Carlton                                      9 February 1889

Toorak                                                 15 February 1889

North Melbourne                                 3 March 1890

West Melbourne                                  18 April 1890

South Melbourne                                 17 June 1890

Port Melbourne                                   20 June 1890

Windsor–Esplanade (St Kilda )           27 October 1891


The cable tramway system was operated by the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company until the network came into government ownership on 1 July 1916, and it was then operated by the Melbourne Tramways Board. On 1 November 1919 the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB) was established and took control of the cable tramways.


A private cable tramway between Clifton Hill and Northcote was opened on 18 February 1890 by the Clifton Hill to Northcote & Preston Tramway Company. It closed and re-opened twice until it was purchased by Northcote Council, who leased it out to private operators. In 1916 Northcote Council began to run the line themselves until it came under the control of the MMTB on 2 February 1920. The cable trench on this line was shallower than on the rest of the system, precluding through running of trams until the trench was deepened when it came under control of the MMTB.


Cable tams consisted of a grip car (or dummy) which towed a trailer saloon car. A moving cable was laid underneath the street and the gripman would use a mechanism called a grip, which extended through a slot down to the cable, to attach the car to the cable, thus providing propulsion. To stop the car, the gripman would release the grip from the cable and apply the brakes. In 1925 there were 601 sets of dummy and trailer cars in service.


A Royal Commission into Melbourne’s railways and tramways reported in 1911 on some of the disadvantages of cable trams compared to electric trams, including difficulties of extending the system to outer suburbs because of high construction costs, slower speeds and less reliable machinery. It recommended electrification and that cable tram lines should be converted to electric tram lines in order of priority. Nevertheless, cable trams would continue to operate for many years. Various lines were converted to electric traction from 1925 to 1937. Around 64% of the system was converted, while the remaining lines were abandoned. On 26 October 1940 the last cable tram operated in Melbourne, from the city to Clifton Hill.


Electric trams

Although a working electric tramway had been exhibited at the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1888–89, Australia’s first electric trams in regular service operated in Melbourne on 14 October 1889. The line ran from Box Hill to Doncaster through open countryside, but closed on 6 January 1896. Cable trams continued to serve the inner suburbs, and it was not until 1906 that the first permanent electric tramways opened in Melbourne.


The first permanent electric tram line in Melbourne was between St Kilda and Brighton, and opened for traffic on 5 May 1906. It was operated by Victorian Railways, which referred to it as an electric street railway, and was a broad (1600 mm) gauge line, whereas other tramways in Melbourne were built to standard (1435 mm) gauge. Victorian Railways continued to operate the line until the 1950s.


Further electric tramways were constructed, most extending to developing suburbs and connecting with cable tramways, which served the inner city suburbs. They were built and operated by local trusts, although the North Melbourne Electric Tramways & Lighting Company also operated two electric tram lines. On 2 February 1920 the lines of five electric tramway trusts were transferred to the MMTB. The North Melbourne Electric Tramways & Lighting Company lines come under the control of the MMTB in 1922.


Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB)

The MMTB was established in 1919 and soon operated nearly all tramways in Melbourne. Two lines operated by the Victorian Railways were never part of the MMTB and closed in the 1950s. After its establishment the MMTB began working towards converting the cable tramways to electric traction, and also building new electric tram lines. The MMTB controlled tramways within Melbourne until 1983. The table below shows key statistics regarding the electric tram network in Melbourne for every five years from 1920 to 1980.

Melbourne Tramway Statistics.jpg

The system expanded rapidly during the 1920s and there was an enormous increase in passenger numbers. Cable tramways were gradually replaced by electric trams through to 1940. Following the Second World War passenger numbers declined with growing competition from buses, motor vehicles and other modes of transport.


Sir Robert Risson, who had been recognised for outstanding military service during the Second World War, was appointed Chairman of the MMTB in October 1949. He held this position until 30 June 1970. Risson is widely regarded as ensuring the retention of Melbourne’s tramway system when all other tramways in Australian cities (with the exception of Adelaide’s Glenelg line) were closed down. He strongly believed in trams and argued that they were the most efficient means of transport within inner metropolitan areas, despite strong pressure for their abolition.


Other factors that contributed towards Melbourne retaining trams included its wide city streets that provided space for both trams and motor vehicles, a fleet of well-maintained tramcars that were relatively young in average age, tram lines in generally good condition, and an independent tramways board. The MMTB controlled tramways in Melbourne until 30 June 1983 when it was abolished and the tramways became part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which operated and co-ordinated public transport within the city. On 30 June 1989 the MTA was abolished and responsibility for tramways came under the Public Transport Corporation (PTC) from 1 July.

W type trams

When the MMTB took control of the cable tram network in 1919, the transfer included 539 grip cars, 485 four-wheel trailer cars and 58 bogie trailer cars. A total of 146 electric trams of 15 different types were then transferred from the various tramway trusts in Melbourne. Most of the trams were small and did not have the capacity to meet the needs of the growing tramway network into the future. Larger trams were required and reducing the types of vehicles in the fleet would bring greater efficiency. These needs were filled when the first W Class tram entered service on 21 December 1923.


Reflecting modern tramcar design, 200 members of the W Class entered service from 1923 to 1926. They featured a drop centre design with four motors, air brakes, varnished seats and doorways protected by blinds. Variations to the original design led to different classes of trams that were generally similar to each other. The W type trams, with various classes, became the standard Melbourne tram, and a total of 756 entered service up to 1956. The W2 Class were Melbourne’s most numerous class of trams, with 406 members, including 180 newly-built trams, while the remainder were rebuilt from the W Class and W1 Class trams.


After many decades of faithful service, during the 1990s the W type trams were withdrawn in large numbers. They were replaced by more modern vehicles. A small number of W type trams continue in service as heritage trams on Route 35 City Circle, which operates a free tourist tram service. Around 100 W type trams have been preserved by various tramway preservation groups, both in Australia and overseas, and many are in operational condition. Numerous non-operational trams have also been made available to community groups.



In 1997 Melbourne’s tramways were separated into two groups, and then on 29 August 1999 these groups were transferred to two different private owners. TransdevTSL became the operators of Yarra Trams and National Express became the operators of Swanston Trams. Melbourne’s passenger trains were privatised at the same time. Swanston Trams was renamed M>Tram in 2001, but in 2002 National Express withdrew from operating trams in Melbourne and they were returned to the Victorian Government. The Victorian Government operated trams again until 1 April 2004 when Yarra Trams took control the city’s entire tram network. On 30 November 2009 Keolis Downer took over the Yarra Trams franchise and continues to operate Melbourne’s tramways.



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          <> 1989.

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          Government Printer, Melbourne, 1911.

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A female conductor aligns trolley pole on No. 257, a W class tram built in 1924 and converted to W2 class between 1928 and 1933, Melbourne, 1942. Photo: State Library of Victoria, Wikimedia Commons,

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An overcrowded East Preston tram with tram surfers moving along a street in Melbourne, 10 June 1944. Photo: Australian War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons,

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