R Class tram 1890 in Sydney Harbour, Athol Wharf, 20 July 1952. Photo: Horatio J. Kookaburra, Flickr Commons.
Rear view of R Class tram 1890 in Sydney Harbour, Athol Wharf, 20 July 1952. Photo: NSW State Archives and Records.
Trams in Sydney Harbour
21 February 2022
Sydney once had the second-largest tramway network in the Commonwealth, after London. Trams serviced numerous suburbs, including along the foreshore of Sydney Harbour. Trams plunged into the harbour at Athol Wharf on three occasions: in 1942, 1952 and 1958.
Athol Wharf Tramway
Athol Wharf is located on the northern side of Sydney Harbour. It is near the lower entrance to Taronga Zoo. Ferry services from Circular Quay stop at the wharf.
Athol Wharf was one of various locations in Sydney where tramway lines terminated at the edge of the harbour. Other locations were Circular Quay, Millers Point, Darling Street Balmain, Birchgrove, Abbotsford, Watsons Bay, McMahons Point, Milsons Point, Neutral Bay Wharf, Cremorne Wharf, Mosman Wharf, Balmoral Beach, The Spit and Manly. Tram lines also crossed the harbour on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Gladesville Bridge.
The tramway was opened from Mosman post office to Taronga Zoo on 9 October 1916, and then extended to Athol Wharf on 27 October 1917. It was a single track line that followed Bradleys Head Road and Athol Wharf Road. Between Taronga Park and Athol Wharf there was a crossing loop located at Ashton Park, and there was also a loop at the terminus. Trams connected at the wharf with ferries to Circular Quay. Services ceased and the line was closed on 28 June 1958, which also marked the closure of the North Sydney tramway system. The last tram to operate to Athol Wharf was R1 Class No. 2085, which departed from the wharf at 11.37 pm.
Loss of traction when descending the steep gradient was a constant danger on the line. It was exacerbated when leaves from overhanging trees fell on to the line and combined with rain or dew to make the rails slippery. As a consequence, trams would sometimes skid when the brakes were applied.
On 19 December 1932 two permanently coupled E Class trams were left unattended near the top entrance to the zoo when the crew went to report mechanical trouble. The trams rolled away down the gradient for around 300 yards (274 metres) before derailing half way down the hill on a sharp bend at Ashton Park. The trams smashed into a telegraph pole, almost cutting it in half, and the rear car was severely damaged. Both cars came to rest on their sides. Although they did not end up in the harbour as three other trams did in later years, they sustained serious damage. It was fortunate that the trams were derailed because if they had continued further they would have crashed into a tram with 50 or 60 passengers on board that was climbing the hill. This tram had been delayed waiting for a ferry from Circular Quay, which was running late.
R Class tram No. 1875 entered Sydney Harbour on 16 January 1942. It had been running from Balmoral to Athol Wharf at around 3.00 pm when the driver lost control. Twelve passengers, the driver and conductor were on board the tram. People waiting at the terminus scattered as the tram continued beyond the end of the line, along a section of tarred road, and then into scrub. The driver stayed at the controls as the tram plunged 45 feet (14 metres) down a slope strewn with boulders. It came to rest with the front end of the tram in the harbour. Passengers, who were mostly women and children, were thrown into a heap at the front of the tram. After the tram stopped the driver and conductor assisted the passengers on to the roadway. There were no injuries reported.
A floating crane retrieved tram No. 1875 on 18 January. It was carried across the harbour on slings and placed on the wharf at Fort Macquarie, which is today the location of the Sydney Opera House, but previously had a tram depot. After being placed on an improvised track the tram was taken to Randwick Workshops. It was repaired and subsequently returned to service.
A tram driver, a conductor and two passengers were injured when R Class tram No. 1890 plunged into Sydney Harbour at Athol Wharf at 8.50 am on 20 July 1952. The tram’s driver was Raymond Simpson and the conductor was Alexander Erban. There were two passengers on the tram, Charles Leacock and Mrs E Barbaybrook.
A tram service had left from Balmoral, where it was scheduled to depart at 8.23 am. Driver Simpson reported that he changed trams at the top entrance to the zoo because the brakes on the tram he had been driving were not good enough. Nevertheless, soon after he set off with tram No. 1890 it started to skid. He said that the wheels were locked and continued to skid along the wet rails. Despite applying the handbrake and dropping sand on the rails, the skidding did not stop. He expected that the tram would derail on a sharp curve, but it remained on the rails and gathered speed. Simpson estimated that it reached 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) as it passed the lower entrance to the zoo. Here the conductor jumped off the tram and Simpson called out to the passengers to jump off. Simpson himself then jumped off the tram, but the passengers remained on board.
The tram continued through blocks at the end of the line, tore up the roadway, and then hurtled for an estimated 60 feet (18 metres) through the air. It plunged down an embankment before stopping partly on rocks and partly in the water. Windows were smashed, wood was splintered and metal was twisted. Wheels and motors were wrenched off and some seats were torn from the floor. Driver Simpson called an ambulance before assisting the passengers. Ambulances conveyed Driver Simpson, Conductor Erban and the two passengers to hospital. All suffered head injuries and shock.
A Maritime Services Board crane retrieved the tram from the harbour and loaded it on a barge on 23 July. The front bogie of the tram had broken off in the crash, and was left behind in deep water. R Class tram No. 1890 was taken to Randwick Workshops where it was subsequently repaired before being returned to service in March 1954.
Following the accident several safety precautions were implemented. A speed restriction of six miles per hour (9.7 km/h) was applied to trams descending to Athol Wharf. A buffer stop made of old sleepers and ash was placed at the end of the track. Arrangements were put in place for the first run of the day to be made by an O Class tram, which would sand the rails. Instructions were issued that only experienced and specially trained crew were permitted to drive trams between Taronga Zoo and Athol Wharf.
The final accident occurred on 22 January 1958. R1 Class tram No. 2000 was descending to Athol Wharf about midday when its wheels locked on wet rails. It increased speed and began travelling well over the six miles per hour (9.7 km/h) speed limit. The tram skidded for 100 yards (91 metres) before it rode over the buffer made of ash and old sleepers at the end of the line. It struck a small car, which was thrown against another tram waiting at the terminus. The tram continued down a rocky slope and into the harbour before its momentum was stopped by a boulder. It came to rest with its front end in the harbour, the driver’s cabin half-submerged. No. 2000 was being driven by John Haskell, who told the conductor to move to the rear of the tram when he realised that it was going to plunge into the harbour. There were no passengers on either tram and there were no injuries to the crew. However, four people in the motor car were injured and taken to hospital.
Tram No. 2000 was subsequently removed from the harbour by a floating crane. Its front bogie and undergear were damaged and the frame was twisted. A decision was made that it would be scrapped and a breakdown tram arrived to begin stripping useful parts from it. As the closure of the Sydney tramway system was impending, returning No. 2000 to service was not worthwhile and it was scrapped at Randwick Workshops. A little over six months after the accident the North Sydney tramway system, including the line to Athol Wharf, was closed.
‘Crane lifts tram from water’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1952, p. 3.
‘Empty tram bolts near Taronga Park’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1932, p. 9.
Keenan, DR, The North Sydney lines of the Sydney tramway system, Transit Press, Sydney, 1987.
Keenan, DR, Tramways of Sydney, Transit Press, Sydney, 1979.
McCarthy, K & N Chinn, New South Wales tramcar handbook 1861–1961, Part One, South Pacific Electric Railway Co-operative Society, Sydney,
‘Runaway tram hurtles into harbour: 4 hurt’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1952, p. 1.
‘Runaway tram plunges into Sydney Harbour’, The Canberra Times, 23 January 1958, p. 19.
Saxon, I, ‘Recovering a tram from Sydney Harbour, Trolley Wire, vol. 51, no. 1, February 2010, p. 10–19.
‘Tram crashes near zoo’, The Sun, 19 December 1932, p. 9.
‘Tram runs into harbour’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 1942, p. 13.
‘Tram salvaged from harbour’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1942, p. 6.
‘Zoo tram in sea’, Trolley Wire, vol. 5, no. 1, December 1963, p. 8.
R1 Class tram 2000 in Sydney Harbour, Athol Wharf, 22 January 1958.
Photo: lindsaybridge, Flicker Commons.
Newspaper report about the 1952 accident, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1952, p. 1.