Perth tram No. 38 on the Horseshoe Bridge over the Perth railway station in 1950. No 38 is at the southern edge of the bridge and will shortly cross over Wellington Street. Photo: Bahfrend, Wikimedia Commons. Copyright expired.
Tram No. 50 in Macquarie Street Hobart during the 1930s. Photo: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Wikimedia Commons, NS1231/1/35.
The Decline of Trams in Australian Capital Cities
28 June 2020
Trams were the dominant mode of public transport in Australian state capital cities in the first half of the twentieth century. The decline of tramways began with the increase in the number of private buses. Following the end of the Second World War considerable expense was required to upgrade and modernise tramways, but instead most were eventually closed.
The development of tramway systems in Australia
During the early years of colonial settlement in Australia, public transport was dominated by horse buses. They travelled along various routes, with some having the capacity for up to 40 passengers. Development of trams enabled faster travel and helped facilitate urban expansion into wider areas. Tramway systems in Australian cities generally serviced the central business districts and inner suburbs, with some lines extending to middle suburban areas. Eventually trams became the dominant mode of transport in the major cities.
Early trams were drawn by horses, with cable and steam trams being used later, but electric traction eventually became standard for most tramways. Passenger tramway networks in Australia reached their maximum extent in 1920 when 654.6 miles (1053.5 km) of lines were open for traffic. The peak of tram patronage was reached in 1943–44, when over one billion trips in Australian cities were made by tram. Tram journeys constituted 53.2 per cent of public transport journeys in Australian cities in 1945. In the same year railway passengers made up 26.4 per cent of public transport journeys in Australian cities.
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. Melbourne, however, retained its tram network, while in Adelaide the line from the central business district to Glenelg continued to operate.
The decline of tramways
The decline of tramways in Australia developed over many years. During the 1920s private buses dramatically increased in number. Although regulations mostly prevented them from competing directly with trams, the owners of private bus lines became forceful advocates in promoting their cause. The purchase cost of buses was cheaper than trams, and the private operators were not responsible for the maintenance of roads in the same way that tramway authorities needed to maintain lines and overhead wiring.
Motoring organisations, such as the National Roads and Motorists’ Association in New South Wales and the Royal Automobile Clubs of Victoria and Queensland, argued that trams were the cause of congestion in cities. They lobbied governments to replace trams with buses.
During the Second World War (1939–45) tramways were given very little maintenance, and by the end of the war considerable expenditure was needed to upgrade and modernise tramways in Australian cities. Voices against trams continued to make their case, and many within governments were persuaded that replacing tramway systems with buses would require considerably less expense. Overseas consultants were hired by various tramway authorities to investigate ongoing transport needs. They generally recommend the closure of entire tramway systems.
Trolley buses were viewed by some as a compromise between trams and buses. They combined the body and overall structure of a bus with the electrical system of a tram. Although using rubber tyres on roads, they relied on electric power gathered from overhead lines through a trolley pole on top of the bus, and were thus restricted in their operation to areas with overhead wiring. In Australia they were first used in Perth in 1933, and were also used in Sydney, Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston and Brisbane. Trolley buses fell out of favour because diesel buses were more flexible in their operation and cheaper to run.
Closure of tramways in Australian capital cities
Tramways in Perth were closed in favour of buses and trolley buses during the 1950s, with the system closing on 19 July 1958. The Inglewood line was the last to close, with E Class tram No. 66 making the final run. No. 66 has been preserved by the Perth Electric Tramway Society in Whiteman Park.
On 22 November 1958 the Adelaide tramway system closed, with the exception of the Glenelg line, which remains in use. Drop centre tram No. 269 made the last run between Victoria Square and Cheltenham, departing at 11.40 pm, and then returned to the city. Large crowds gathered to say farewell to the trams, with about 300 people watching it enter the depot. The Glenelg line has continued to operate. For many decades the city terminus was at Victoria Square, but lines now continue to the Entertainment Centre at Hindmarsh, along North Terrace to the Botanic Gardens, and 100 metres north along King William Road from North Terrace to the Festival Centre.
Hobart’s tramway system closed to regular passenger services on 21 October 1960. Single-deck bogie saloon tram No. 128 operated the last service from the city to Moonah Depot. It departed from the city’s General Post Office to cheering and waving from a large crowd, and its gong was sounded throughout the journey. Tram No. 130 was decorated for a ceremonial run to Springfield (West Moonah) carrying specially invited passengers on 24 October.
Sydney once had the second-largest tramway system in the Commonwealth (after London) but it eventually closed. The separate Manly system closed in 1939 and the North Sydney system in 1958. Various other lines through the city and suburbs were closed in stages from 1957 to 1961 until 25 February 1961 when the Sydney tramway system closed. The last trams operated between the city 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.
Brisbane was the last state capital tramway system to close when operations ceased on 13 April 1969. The final tram to operate in Brisbane’s streets was four motor car No. 534, which ran from Oriel Park in Ascot to Ipswich Road depot in South Brisbane. Another four motor car, No. 554, earlier became 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. Number 554 is preserved at the Brisbane Tramway Museum.
Melbourne had developed an extensive cable tram network, reaching 45.9 miles (73.9 km) by the end of the 1880s, with around 1200 cars in operation. Most of the network was eventually converted to electric traction, and the last cable tram operated in 1940. The replacement of cable trams with electric trams in Melbourne came later than the replacement of horse and steam trams with electric trams in other Australian cities. Thus, Melbourne’s system was more modern in the 1940s and 1950s, requiring less expenditure on maintenance and upgrading. The terrain in Melbourne is generally flatter than in Sydney and Brisbane, resulting in its tramway system being easier to operate and causing less wear and tear on the tram lines and on tramcars. Additionally, Melbourne’s wide streets had enabled many tram lines to be separated from motor traffic. Replacing them with buses would have led to more obstructions for motor vehicles.
For several decades Melbourne and Adelaide boasted the only tramways in Australia outside of tourist and heritage operations. Light rail is now in operation in Sydney, the Gold Coast, Newcastle and Canberra. Two tram routes in Melbourne, Route 96 to St Kilda and Route 109 to Port Melbourne, operate for part of their route along former railway corridors, and these sections are considered by many as light rail lines.
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Clark, HR, & DR Keenan, Brisbane tramways: the last decade, Transit Press, Sydney, 1977.
‘End of the line for Hobart’, Electric Traction, vol. 15, no. 12, December 1960, pp. 8–9.
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,
Seymour, CG, ‘Adelaide–25 years ago’, Trolley Wire, vol. 24, no. 5, December 1983, pp. 3–13.
Municipal Tramways Trust Type F1 tram No. 279 at Henley North, Adelaide, about 1950. Adelaide had 84 of this type of tram, the most numerous in the fleet. Photo: unknown author, State Library of South Australia Collection, Wikimedia Commons.
Brisbane tram No. 435 in Melbourne Street, 18 October 1964. Photo: Lindsay Bridge, Wikimedia Commons.