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Steam tram with two double-deck carriages at the intersection of Market St and Elizabeth St, Sydney, with the Albion Hotel at right, about 1885. Photo: NSW State Archives and Records, Wikimedia Commons, Digital ID: 17420_a014_a0140001142.

R1 Class tram 2074 and O Class 808 tram in the middle of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 13 April 1958. Photo: Lindsay Bridge, Wikimedia Commons.

Sydney Tramway Network

David Matheson

 15 April2024

The Sydney tramway network was once the second-largest in the Commonwealth after London. Trams provided transport that was relatively fast, cheap and efficient. They were particularly successful in carrying large numbers of passengers over short and medium distances. The ability of trams to load passengers quickly was particularly useful following major sporting events at venues such as the Sydney Cricket Ground and Randwick Racecourse.


Introduction and Expansion

A horse tramway along Pitt Street in Sydney opened 1861 but it proved to be unpopular and closed at the end of 1866. Sydney introduced trams again in 1879, this time using steam trams. They became successful and lines were extended through many suburbs. Eventually most of Sydney tramways were electrified, but steam trams continued to operate until 1937 on the Kogarah to Sans Souci line, and until 1943 on a private line at Parramatta.


During the 50 years from 1879 to 1929 an extensive network of tramways was built. Initially lines were built to service the central business district and inner suburbs, but in later years lines were built to more distant areas. Most of the network radiated from the CBD, extending as far as La Perouse, Canterbury, Abbotsford, Ryde and Watsons Bay. There were also isolated systems and lines, including the North Sydney and Manly systems, the Ashfield to Cabarita and Mortlake lines, the Kogarah to Sans Souci line, the Sutherland to Cronulla line, and the Parramatta to Castle Hill line.


Tramways played an integral role in the development of Sydney, with the population growing from less than 400,000 in 1879 to over one million by 1929. The Sydney tramway system was very extensive, and was one of the largest tramway networks in the world, reaching 181.25 miles (291.7 km) of tram lines open in January 1923. In 1901–02 over 100 million passenger journeys were made on Sydney’s tramway network, over 200 million by 1910–11, and 300 million by 1919–20. Patronage declined during the 1930s, but increased again during the Second World War. In 1944–45 a record 404,630,000 passenger journeys were made. The highest number of tramcars in Sydney was reached in 1933–34 when 1535 trams were on the register of tramway rolling stock.


Electric Trams

The first electric tram in Sydney commenced running on 5 November 1890, between Randwick and Waverley. Most of Sydney’s tramways were eventually electrified. As the Sydney tramway network grew it became the most popular mode of public transport in the city and suburbs.


Sydney’s tramways were built with a gauge of 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm), which is the same gauge as the railways throughout the state. When electric trams were introduced they were powered with 600 volts DC. Electricity was supplied by overhead wires, and trams collected power by means of a trolley pole that was in contact with the wire. A large tram maintenance workshop was established at Randwick. Opening in 1882, it initially serviced steam trams, but later maintained electric trams. Various depots throughout the system were used to stable trams when they were not in use, including Fort Macquarie Depot, which was located where the Sydney Opera House was later built. Nearby Circular Quay was the hub of Sydney’s tramway network, with numerous routes commencing there.


Various types of trams operated in Sydney. Perhaps the most identifiable was the crossbench type, commonly known as a ‘toastrack’ tram. Compartments running across the width of the tram provided wooden seating for passengers. A footboard ran along the length of the tram, enabling the conductor to move along from one compartment to another to check tickets and collect fares. Some compartments had doors that could be closed but others were permanently open, which exposed passengers to adverse weather conditions. Most of the crossbench trams could be coupled into pairs, and often operated this way during peak hours or special events. The sound of the bell and the sight of crossbench tramcars became synonymous with the city.


Various classes of trams operated in Sydney, but the most familiar to most passengers was the O Class. The first O Class tram entered service on 8 March 1908, and a total of 626 O Class trams entered service, making it Australia’s most numerous class of tram. Over 600 of the O Class trams remained in service until 1952.


Modern corridor trams were introduced to Sydney, partly to portray a modern image. They offered more protection from the weather, and were fitted with upholstered seats that provided greater comfort for passengers. The R Class was introduced in 1933, and they were followed by the R1 Class in 1935.



Most Australian tramway systems were closed in the 1950s and 1960s when motor cars and buses became more favourable. A similar pattern of tramway closures had occurred in the United Kingdom and the United States. Motoring organisations argued that trams were the cause of congestion in cities, and they lobbied governments to replace trams with buses.


The separate Manly system closed in 1939 and some other sections closed after the Second World War, but most of Sydney’s tramway network remained until an extensive series of closures began in 1957. The North Sydney system ceased operating in 1958, and various other lines through the city and suburbs were closed in stages from 1957 to 1961. On 25 February 1961 the Sydney tramway system closed. The last trams operated between the CBD and La Perouse, with R1 Class tram 1995 being the final tram to operate. 1995 is now preserved at the Tramsheds food and retail precinct, located in the former Rozelle tram depot.


Light Rail

In the ensuing decades there were several proposals to reintroduce trams in Sydney. Finally, a light railway line opened between Central station and Wentworth Park on 11 August 1997. The opening of this line brought regular tram services back to Sydney for the first time since 1961. It was later extended to Dulwich Hill. Other light rail lines were subsequently built in Sydney, with the route from Circular Quay via George Street and Central to Randwick opening in December 2019, and another line to Kingsford in 2020. Work is also underway on the construction of a light rail line between Westmead and Carlingford via the Parramatta central business district. Much of the route is along the former Carlingford heavy railway line from Camellia to Carlingford. The double track line will be 12 km in length and include 16 stops.



The Sydney Tramway Museum has a large collection of trams that are mostly from the former Sydney tramway network. Exhibits include C290, the oldest electric tram in Australia, various passenger trams and service vehicles. An unusual exhibit is a prison tram that was used to transport prisoners between Long Bay Gaol and Darlinghurst Court. Representative trams from other Australian and overseas cities are also on display at the museum. Tram rides operate along 4 km of track between Sutherland and the Royal National Park. Operating days are Sundays and Wednesdays. The Sydney Tramway Museum is located next to Loftus railway station, on the suburban Illawarra railway line, in Sydney’s southern suburbs.


Steam tram motor 103A is the only operating steam tram motor in Australia. It is located at Valley Heights Locomotive Depot, and operates with a passenger trailer carriage. The Museum is open on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. Valley Heights is approximately 70 km west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains.



Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Year book of the Commonwealth of Australia, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics,

     Canberra, various editions.

Keenan, DR, Tramways of Sydney, Transit Press, Sydney, 1979.

Kelly, M, Australian trams through the ages, Topmill, Sydney, 2015.

Lee, R, Transport: an Australian history, University of NSW, Sydney, 2010.

McCarthy, K & N Chinn, New South Wales tramcar handbook 1861–1961, Part One, South Pacific Electric Railway Co-operative Society, Sydney,


Sydney Tramway Museum <>.

Valley Heights Locomotive Depot Heritage Museum < >.


Urbos 3 Light Rail Vehicle 2124 shortly after departing Central station on its journey to Dulwich Hill, 12 June 2017.


C290, Sydney Tramway Museum, Loftus, 26 February 2011.

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