Linking a Nation: Australia's Transport and Communications 1788 - 1970

Australia: Our national stories
By Dr Robert Lee of the University of Western Sydney
Australian Heritage Commission, 2003

Chapter 6: Transport and the Making of Cities, 1850-1970

Patterns of Urban Growth

Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Photo: M Mohell/Australian Heritage Photographic Library

Until the 1850s Australia's cities were small and their transport needs easily met by human and animal power. None extended in any meaningful sense beyond what is today its central business district. In the case of Melbourne, there remained many empty tracts of land within the central grid on which the city's plan was based. Sydney was denser, and even had genuine slums, mainly in the Rocks district near Circular Quay. However, its only truly urban inhabitants who lived outside the city proper, stretching the two miles from the Harbour to what is now the site of Central Station, were the rich, whose villas dotted the foreshore east of the city in what were then the comparatively remote and spacious suburbs of Pott's Point, Elizabeth Bay and Darlinghurst. There was also a sprinkling of such villas north of the harbour, which required access by water, and southwest of the city. Similar villa districts, not quite suburbs but hardly rural, had developed in all Australia's larger cities by the 1850s. The owners of these properties came to the city by private carriage or on horseback if feeling energetic and particularly masculine. Workers, however, virtually all lived within walking distance of their place of employment. In 1850, the working class suburb did not yet exist in Australia.

Moreover, at that time cities (and hence their transport needs) were the least important they would ever be in Australian history. Sydney, for instance, had held 51 percent of the colony's population in 1800, but this had fallen to just 28 percent by 1851. Its population then was about 50,000. (This census was taken after the separation of Victoria, so Melbourne's population is not included in the 72 percent of New South Wales' inhabitants living outside Sydney in this year.) Thereafter it began to increase, reaching 36 percent in 1901, and rising continuously ever since.1 This relative unimportance of the city (and in 1851 Sydney was the only real city in Australia) relative to the rest of the country was a product of the domination of the pastoral and whaling industries in the Australian economy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both of these were highly decentralised, with a peripatetic, decidedly non-urban workforce.

All that changed with gold. For, although the goldfields were in the countryside, they stimulated urbanisation enormously. The early goldfields were not that far from the capital cities, especially in Victoria; much of their productivity was spent on urban investment; and they spawned cities of their own. The city most dramatically affected by gold was Melbourne, whose 1851 population of about 20,000 increased by over 800 percent in a decade to over 170,000 in 1861. Sydney was growing quickly too, but suddenly Melbourne was twice its size. Both cities continued to add population at much the same rate until Melbourne became a city of half a million in 1891. However, badly affected by the depression of the 1890s, it added no new population in the last decade of the century, during which time Sydney caught up and, in the first couple of years of the twentieth century, overtook Melbourne. By the 1920s their populations had doubled again to about a million, and by the 1950s had reached two million.

Other Australian cities grew rapidly too, Adelaide increasing steadily over the half century between 1851 and 1901 from 20,000 to 160,000. Brisbane and Perth were tiny towns in the 1850s, but each had a growth spurt driven by gold rushes in their respective hinterlands. Brisbane's was in the 1880s, when its population leapt from under 30,000 to over 100,000. Perth's was in the next decade, when it suddenly went from a village of 5,000 to a small but busy city of 60,000. Only Hobart remained stagnant, hardly growing from the days back in the 1840s when it had held Australia's second largest urban population, most of whom were convicts, who by definition were not living there by choice.2

In short, the patterns of urbanisation in Australia which would continue right through the twentieth century were established by 1900. In Sydney and Melbourne there were two large cities, roughly similar in size, of global cultural and economic significance. Next in importance came three provincial capitals, also around the same size each in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (although in 1901 Adelaide was still twice the size of rapidly-growing Perth). Finally, there was the rest of Australia, where there were two types of smaller provincial cities. These were ports, whose growth tended to be stable. Examples include Hobart, Launceston, Portland, Geelong, Newcastle, Mackay, Townville and Cairns. Then there were fluctuating cities driven by mineral booms in non-ferrous metals. Cities like Ballarat, Bendigo, Broken Hill, Charter's Towers and Kalgoorlie fall into this category. Newcastle was both a port and a mining centre, but its growth was driven by the more mundane mineral of coal, and hence was more measured than that of the flashy gold or silver cities. Some ports were also centres of minerals processing. Newcastle, Wollongong-Port Kembla, Burnie, Whyalla and Port Pirie are all examples of this phenomenon.

Transport was crucial to this process of urbanisation, and indeed transport linkages largely determined the patterns of urban growth. Port cities thrived if they had both good navigable water and the best railway route into their hinterlands. If they did not, they stagnated. Thus, as discussed in chapter 5, Cairns became a city because it had the easiest railway route into the interior of north Queensland, whereas Bowen, Innisfail and Port Douglas stagnated because they did not. The interesting case of Grafton - ambitiously laid out on precisely the same street plan as Melbourne, and with similar expectations for its growth - is slightly different. Like Melbourne, its site was determined by the fact that it was the head of navigation for ocean-going vessels of the 1830s into a promising pastoral district. Grafton had a sustained spurt of growth as the leading port of northern New South Wales in the days of bullock carts taking the wool of New England to the coast (roughly from 1840 to 1885), but construction of the railway from Newcastle into the northern interior of New South Wales in the 1880s condemned it to a drift into merely local significance as a port. Changing transport technology, therefore, could determine the pattern of urbanisation, and hence the very different futures of what - back in the 1840s - had been the similar centres of Melbourne and Grafton. These towns, incredibly enough given the way they grew, in their early years had shared similar aspirations, and railway policy had a lot to do with their different fates.

Within cities, the remarkable growth of the second half of the nineteenth century produced a process of suburbanisation. Suburbs required transport, and the new technology of the times provided the means. Thus, it was a symbiotic process, as improving transport created the possibilities of wider suburbanisation. Indeed, the locomotives of growth in the Australian economy at this time were partly driven by the new demands of transport and the technology of urban growth. The relationship between the copper boom of the 1880s and 1890s, electricity, and trams is all too obvious. A good example is the Sydney suburb of Balmain. A village of 1,397 people in 1851, the opening of Mort's Dock in 1855 began a process of transfer from the city and expansion of Sydney's ship maintenance and construction industry to the suburb. Moreover, although not many of the NSWGR's locomotives were built locally in the nineteenth century, most of those that were came from Mort's Dock. Although not linked by rail (the locomotives had to be floated to Sydney on barges), Mort's Dock had all the facilities needed for such work. By 1871 Balmain's population had reached 6,272, but it was still dependent on water transport for its links with the city. By1891 it was one of the most densely populated of all Sydney's suburbs with a population of 23,474.3 Significantly, all this growth occurred before the arrival of the steam tram line in 1892, until which time Balmain was served entirely by ferries.

Similarly, the shipping, railway and mining industries were all mutually interdependent and acted as stimuli for industrialisation and urbanisation. Ballarat is a good example. A city based on gold, it was also the terminus of one of Victoria's first railways. The railway stimulated the industrialisation of the city, which became the major centre of locomotive construction in Australia, mostly at the Phoenix Foundry, where more than 350 locomotives were built between 1873 and 1904. As mining became more industrialised, it too required steam machinery, much of which was built locally, especially in Victoria. Thus, the railway sustained the continued growth of what had begun as a mining city. Within the bigger cities, railway maintenance and manufacturing was also a spur to suburban growth, especially around the railway workshops in Redfern in Sydney and Williamstown (later moved to nearby Newport) in Melbourne. The railway industry was also important for urban and industrial growth in places as diverse as Launceston, Newcastle, Ipswich and Townsville.

Water Transport in Australian Cities

As the cities grew, traditional transport became stretched and inadequate. Changing maritime technology, in essence the development of steam ferries, meant that the two cities most dependent on water for their transport, Sydney and Brisbane, were able to some extent to defer large-scale investment in urban transport. Both cities expanded along their harbour and river frontages respectively. From the beginning of steam navigation in Australia in 1831, ferrying passengers around Sydney Harbour by steamboat was a significant element in Australia's coastal shipping. On a much smaller scale, ferries were also part of Melbourne's urban transport scene, connecting Williamstown and the city. This, however, was also the route of one of Victoria's first railways opened in 1857, so Melbourne never developed the intensive kind of ferry services of Sydney and, to a lesser extent, Brisbane.

What did develop in Melbourne, and would remain unique in Australia to that city, was excursion traffic on Port Phillip Bay. This had its origins in shipping between Melbourne and Geelong, which went into rapid decline (although not complete oblivion) after the railway opened between the two cities in 1857. Owners diverted their vessels into running weekend excursions to destinations around the Bay such as Queenscliff and Sorrento, and, as traffic increased with urbanisation, built new large steamers especially for the trade. This was how the Manly ferry service developed in Sydney Harbour, but Port Phillip was much larger and the distances far too long for commuting. By the time the motor age arrived, the cost of replacing these fine steamers could not be justified, and the trade faded into oblivion, but for half a century from the 1880s to the 1930s Port Phillip hosted easily Australia's finest excursion steamers.4 The demise of the Port Phillip excursion steamers is in contract to what happened to the Manly steamers, which went on to provide a regular commuter service which survives to this day, still running every half hour (and, amazingly, at precisely the same times) as it has for over a century.

The great growth in ferry transport, as in so much else, was in the 1880s. By then Brisbane had a series of ferries crossing the river. Even at that early stage, although in private ownership, the services were operated on a lease basis for the City Corporation.5 This anticipated Brisbane City Council's large-scale operation of ferry, tram and bus services in the twentieth century, easily the largest municipal transport undertaking in Australia. Perth, which developed into a city rather later than the eastern capitals, also had a small ferry operation across the Swan River, owned by the state government from 1912. Not quite constituting an urban ferry service, but not really ocean shipping either, were the ferries plying from Fremantle to Rottnest Island. This was, and remains, primarily an excursion trade.

In Sydney a host of new ferry companies was established in the late 1870s and 1880s, beginning with the Port Jackson Steam Boat Company in 1877 and the North Shore Steam Ferry Company in 1878. The former operated the service to Manly. The opening of an irregular steam ferry service from Sydney in 1855 had begun the career of Manly, isolated by road until 1924, as a Sydney dormitory suburb. Reorganised several times and absorbing its rivals, it became the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company in 1917, and operated a fleet of double-ended mini-liners, mostly built by Mort's Dock, although its last three most gorgeous and luxurious vessels were imported from Scotland. Its elegant Brunswick green ferries, adorned with varnished teak upper decks and tall white immaculately painted funnels capped in black, renowned for their high standards of catering and remarkable speed, became potent symbols of the city, running every thirty minutes on schedules which have scarcely changed in over a century. Manly's hinterland was developed by a government-built tram system radiating from Manly wharf. The opening of the Spit bridge in 1924, ending Manly's isolation by road, followed by the introduction of government bus services across this bridge in 1932, marked the beginning of the end of profitability for the Manly ferries, and the service was ultimately taken over by the state government in 1974. The service remains, but the cachet of the Port Jackson Company's days has gone forever.6

The North Shore Ferry Company ultimately absorbed most of the other large Sydney ferry companies (of which the Balmain Company was the most important), becoming Sydney Ferries Limited in 1900. Many of the inner routes it served were abandoned during the first decades of the twentieth century in the face of competition from trams, but the big blow for Sydney Ferries came with the opening of the Harbour Bridge in May 1932. From over 50 million in 1927, patronage fell to 20 million in 1933. The government took over the company in 1951 when it was almost bankrupt, although the Port Jackson Company managed it until 1972. For most of the twentieth century the distinctive Sydney 'inner harbour' ferry (to distinguish them from the outer or Manly ferries) was Sydney Ferries' light green double-ender. Both companies slowly replaced the steam engines in their vessels with diesels between 1930 and 1970. The Parramatta ferry service, which had remained independent, closed in 1943, together with the steam tramway the Parramatta Company had operated since its incorporation in 1888 to connect with the ferries at Parramatta. It was truly the end of an era, because the Sydney to Parramatta service had been the first regular public transport in Australia way back at the end of the eighteenth century. Moreover, this also meant the closure of Australia's last steam tramline.7

The Origins of Urban Public Transport

Back on land, Australia's cities were primarily walking cities, at least so far as the working person was concerned, until the 1880s. The rich came from their villas to their offices in landau or brougham, victoria or buggy, depending on their status and needs of the day; although some businessmen remained resolute equestrians, including the man who was the public voice and greatest power-broker of boom-time Melbourne, David Syme. In 1881 the English visitor, Richard Twopeny, was struck by 'the extraordinary number of horsemen' in the streets of central Melbourne.8 Throughout the nineteenth century, roads and streets in Australian cities were generally of exceptionally poor quality, deep in mud when wet and dusty when dry. 'Ill-kept', 'wretched', 'muddy' and 'dusty' were the adjectives Twopeny used repeatedly in reference to Sydney's streets when he visited the city.9 Macadamised roads were no great success, and the best surfaces were the very expensive bluestone blocks used to pave some of Melbourne's streets and the hardwood blocks used first in Sydney in 1880, and then elsewhere, including Melbourne and Adelaide. By 1900 both Sydney and Melbourne had laid over 100 acres of hardwood block roadway.10 King William Street was Adelaide's first thoroughfare to be wood-blocked, using Western Australian jarrah, in 1908. The cost was so high and it aroused such a controversy that there was a minor political and constitutional crisis, with electoral reform mooted as a result of the City Council's inability to obtain funds for the scheme. Ultimately the blocks were fitted as part of the rebuilding of the street's tramways for electric traction.11 Hardwood blocks proved remarkably durable, resilient and effective as a road surface, and blocks were still in place in many Sydney streets well after World War II, and survive in a few places into the twenty-first century.12

Public transport in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne appears to have begun in the mid-1840s, a time of depression when there were many carriages offered cheaply for sale and many unemployed. The latter found work driving the former for public hire. During the 1850s, the 'jingle' a one-horse, single-axle cart with a pair of seats back-to-back became Melbourne's favoured means of public transport, partly running on fixed routes, partly available for hire. A modern reader familiar with Colts in Indonesia or songthaews in Thailand will recognise this haphazard but effective concept in urban transportation. The jingle was superseded in the 1870s by the six-passenger one-horse wagonette, and these began regularly scheduled services to many suburbs. Twopeny described them as 'light boxes on wheels, covered with oil-cloth, which can be rolled up in a few seconds if the weather is warm.'13 Most of the drivers were Irish and fares on regular runs were as low as threepence.14 This seems to have been the standard urban transport fare, as it also applied on many tram systems and for hansom cabs. As a proportion of earnings, fares would appear to have changed hardly at all in over a century, at about three percent of an unskilled worker's daily wage. The two other forms of horse-powered urban road transport at this time were the hansom cab, a one-horse enclosed vehicle identical in the colonies with its English counterpart, and the horse bus. Both first appeared in the 1860s.

Horse buses varied in size and power from two to four-horse vehicles, and could carry up to forty passengers. It was the horse bus which pioneered the concept of the regularly scheduled service into the suburbs, and so made possible the concept of the working-class or clerical level commuter. Horse bus companies operated in all of Australia's major cities by the late 1870s. In New South Wales the Public Vehicle Regulation Act of 1873 established the Metropolitan Transport Commissioners, whose job it was to supervise road transport. Their records survive, providing an accurate picture of the extent of the horse bus industry in Sydney at least. The Melbourne Omnibus Company, established in 1869, operated Melbourne's horsebuses and would later reconstitute itself to take on building the city's cable trams as well. They excited Twopeny's admiration:

Nowhere do omnibuses drive a more thriving trade than in Melbourne, and they deserve it, for they are fast, clean, roomy, and well managed. The price of labour makes conductors too expensive a luxury, and passengers have to put their fare - in most cases threepence - into a little glass box close to the driver's seat.15

Owner-drivers initially operated most horse buses, but there was a rapid tendency to monopoly, especially in Melbourne and Sydney. This was not universal: there were fifteen horse bus operators in Brisbane in 1891, but only one of any significance in Sydney. Together with a handful of smaller companies, this inaccurately named Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company (it never owned or operated a tramway) operated 64 routes in and around Sydney. Many of these routes were virtually identical to the bus routes of more than a century later. Service frequencies also have remained stable to this day, at about every five minutes on the more popular routes down to every twenty-minutes for the less important. Horse buses ran to what were then rural localities such as Belmore, Hornsby and Ryde, although generally only a couple of times a day and carried mail as well as passengers. These services used bus rather than coach vehicles, but in many respects were more like rural coaching services than urban transport. There were also extensive horse bus services acting as feeders to suburban railway stations. This phenomenon was even more marked in Melbourne than Sydney. Horse buses competed more effectively with trams in the 1880s and 1890s in Sydney than in Melbourne, essentially because Melbourne's trams served the city far better than Sydney's at this time.16 Horse buses lasted far longer than might be expected: there were still forty in Brisbane in 1919; while in Sydney there were 240 in 1901 but only twelve left in 1920, the last year they appear in the statistics.17

Trams in Australian Cities

While horse buses were the first really effective form of mass land transport in Australian cities, their domination did not last long. Transport technology was changing rapidly in the late nineteenth century, more rapidly than at any time in human history before or since, and nowhere was this more evident than in the crucial and decisive innovation which suddenly would make the very large city possible - the humble tram. Except for Melbourne (ironically, because it is the only Australian city to retain a large tram system), whose growth was train-driven, Australia's sprawling suburbs were the handmaidens of the tramline. In a dizzyingly short time, Australia's trams progressed from horse, through steam and cable, to electric traction. Cities large and small, and even some quite small towns, invested in the new technology. Some cities used a mixture of traction or moved from one system to another. Predictably enough, Sydney used all four. Equally predictably, Australia's first tramway was in that city. Horse-powered, it ran from the city's rather inconvenient railway station to Circular Quay along Pitt Street and opened in 1861. It was no great success, largely because its rails - dangerously for other traffic - were not laid into the street and because its frequencies could not compete with road transport, and it was pulled up in 1867.

Only two Australian cities developed horse tramways on a significant scale. These were Adelaide, the flattest city in Australia and hence the one best suited to horse trams, and, surprisingly, Brisbane. Adelaide was the pioneer of the lasting Australian tram system, with the first horse line opening in King William Street in 1878. Soon there were nine companies operating about a hundred trams across the city and making possible its suburbanisation beyond the parklands ringing the city proper. The lines remained horse-powered until after the city council took them over in 1907 and vested them in its Municipal Tramways Trust, which quickly electrified them from 1908. This electrification involved the rebuilding of the entire system, with new track laid throughout the city and suburbs. Thus, Adelaide, which had been the first city in Australia to have horse trams, was also the last.18 Moreover, in provincial South Australia, a horse tram service for holidaymakers began at Victor Harbor in 1894 and was not abandoned until 1954. Even more remarkably, it was revived in 1986 and still operates, one of the very few in the world. In Brisbane, the Metropolitan Tramway and Investment Company opened its first horse line from Woolloongabba across the new Victoria Bridge spanning the Brisbane River to Breakfast Creek in 1885. This was soon extended, but the Company failed in 1893 and its assets were taken over by the British-financed Brisbane Tramways Company. The new owners began electrification and extension of the system from 1897, but in 1922 the Company was nationalised, being vested in Brisbane City Council from 1925. In this way, Brisbane's early tramway history closely followed Adelaide's.

There were horse tram operations on the fringes of Sydney and Melbourne during the late nineteenth century, but these were very much ancillary to (and in some cases completely independent from) the main tramway systems of those cities. The first horse trams in Melbourne, for instance, were on a line built by land speculators to entice buyers to the sale of the Fairfield subdivision in 1884. It lasted only six years, and was closed when the land boom turned into a land crash in 1890. A few other similar lines operated beyond the reach of Melbourne's cable trams - most of these survived to be electrified during the First World War. In hilly Sydney, there was short-lived use of horse traction on a couple of government lines (at St Peters and Manly) where traffic did not justify the use of the steam trams normally used in that city.

The big revolution of around 1880, however, was not the horse tram, but the advent of mechanical traction in city streets. Sydney and Melbourne led the way, but adopted very different technologies. In both cases, though, the technology and prototypes came from the USA. Trams returned to Sydney's streets in 1879, although this time broad Elizabeth Street rather than narrow Pitt Street was the chosen thoroughfare. Its aim was to shift the crowds from Sydney's inconvenient railway station on the city's fringe to the International Exhibition in the Domain. Four steam tram motors, in effect small, enclosed railway locomotives, were imported from Baldwin in Philadelphia, together with some cross-bench trailers. The line was an enormous success and moved huge crowds. Just over two million passengers caught the tram in its first full year of operation 1880. The line was soon extended into a system covering the eastern, southwestern and inner western suburbs, and by 1890 was carrying about 60 millions a year. Together with the NSWGR's provincial tramways, it was worked by a total of 122 steam motors, most built locally.

Impressive as they were, Sydney's steam trams were inclined to be dirty, noisy and more than a little dangerous, since they were often real trains of up to three trailers and a motor hurtling down city streets. They were also alarmingly fast at times, which compensated their riders for their relatively infrequent services. Indeed fast running - or 'shooting through like a Bondi tram', as the Sydney saying still current more than forty years after the last trams ran puts it - was to remain a characteristic of Sydney trams throughout their life. In 1923 a group of visiting English experts found that Sydney's trams (by then electrified) were the fastest in the British Empire by far. Speeds of up to fifty miles an hour were attained on the longish flat stretches in reservation in Oxford Street and out to Randwick and beyond to La Perouse. In contrast to the municipal or private owned tramways of other colonies, Sydney's trams were built, owned and operated by the NSWGR, and so had a remarkably railway-like quality to them throughout their lives.

There were a few private tramways, built as part of land development schemes, on the outskirts of Sydney and Newcastle, notably from Rockdale to Brighton and Fassifern to Toronto, but these were soon absorbed by the NSWGR. Another, from North Sydney to Willoughby, was started but never completed when the property and bank crash came in 1891.Because of their connection to the NSWGR, wherever possible, the engineers of Sydney's tramways laid the tracks off streets in separate reservations. These reservations included the fabulous and dramatic descents through deep sandstone cuttings to salt water at Coogee, Bronte, Bondi, Watson's Bay and Balmoral. No other tram system in the world had anything even slightly comparable. In steam days its termini even had stationmasters. Indeed, especially in the city's eastern suburbs, the trams were the (much cheaper) substitute for the railway that was needed but not completed until 1979. These off-road reservations out in the suburbs contrasted with the extremely crowded city streets the trams shared with road traffic in the city centre.

While Sydney relied on its wild and exciting steam motors, at least for the first twenty years of its tramway operations, Melbourne opted for a more sedate and, it must be said, safer system. In 1883 the Victorian parliament authorised the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company to install a system of cable trams and operate them on a thirty-two year lease. The Company's principals included Francis Boardman Clapp, who had spent some time in the United States and whose son would later be Victorian Railways' Chairman of Commissioners. The first line opened along Flinders Street and out to the Yarra River bridge at Richmond in November 1885. Trams were drawn along the streets by a subterranean cable powered by a steam engine at a winding house. The cable moved at a steady twelve miles per hour (20km/h). By the end of the decade Melbourne had the world's largest network of cable trams, some 45 miles (72km) in length and carrying about fifty million passengers a year.

One wit observed that in Melbourne's inner northern suburbs trams operated down every street and not a few lanes. Others praised their silence and 'swan-like' motion. Service frequencies were impressive, with trams every minute in the city and every five minutes on the suburban runs. Fares were a penny in the city and threepence out into the suburbs, comparable with Sydney's flat fares of threepence cash or twopence by prepaid ticket. The cable trams were immensely profitable, returning a dividend in the late 1880s of 20 percent. By 1890 its ten-shilling shares were trading at 9 each, which meant that the stock-market valuation of the Company was an absurd 8,500,000. The inevitable crash came soon after, and profits fell dramatically too, as many of those who still had jobs chose to walk to work to save their threepence. Tramway workers' wages were cut by a third by 1893, prompting formation of a union and the beginnings of a very long tradition of worker militancy on Melbourne's trams. This was in stark contrast with the remarkable absence of unionism and any militancy on Victoria's railways.19

Cable trams were effective, but capital costs were high and could only be justified where traffic was dense, as in inner Melbourne. At the time of their introduction, Melbourne was the second city in the world to have a cable tram, after San Francisco, where the first line had opened in 1873. Their great advantage in that city was their ability to climb steep grades, since the trams were quite independent of their motive power. For that reason alone, San Francisco now has the world's last, as well as having had the world's first, significant cable tram network. Melbourne's cable system, unusually but not uniquely, was built on fairly flat terrain - Denver, Colorado, whose topography and population were (and are) generally similar to Melbourne's, also built an extensive cable system. The only other Australian city to use cable trams was, briefly, Sydney where, on the model of San Francisco, two cable lines were built where the terrain was too steep to permit steam operations. These were the North Sydney and Edgecliff lines, opened in 1886 and 1894 respectively. Perhaps coincidentally, these served Sydney's richest suburbs.

The real future of tram operation, though, lay in electric traction. Werner von Siemens had first demonstrated the possibility of electricity for rail traction with a model in Berlin in 1879 and built the world's first electric tram for operations in Lichterfelde near Berlin in 1881. In 1889, Australia's first electric tramway began operation at Doncaster in outer eastern Melbourne. Like the pioneering Melbourne horse tram, it was a land speculator's marketing tool, and closed in 1896. In 1890, the NSWGR Commissioners experimentally electrified a short branch line in the eastern suburbs. They were sufficiently pleased with the results to transfer the equipment to the new line they built beyond the terminus of the North Sydney cable line to Mosman. This opened in 1893, and thus became Australia's first permanent electric line, surviving until the general closures of 1958. Extraordinarily enough, almost simultaneously a short, narrow-gauge electric tramway opened under private ownership in Hobart. This was extended into a modest system with three mainlines, which was acquired by the municipality in 1907. Its defining characteristic always was its double-deck cars, which, while common in England, were very rare on Australian tramways. The Hobart system lasted until 1960, and a small system also operated in Launceston from 1911 to 1952.

Electrification of Sydney's main tram network began in 1899 with the building of the George Street electric lines, and was completed by 1908. With electrification came considerable extensions to the network and the building of tramlines along all four of the city's north-south thoroughfares to cope with the density of traffic. Steam trams continued to operate on some peripheral lines, the last government line (from Kogarah to San Souci) closing in 1937. The impact of electrification and continued urbanisation on passenger statistics was dramatic. Patronage more than trebled in the first decade, from 63 to 190 millions between 1900 and 1910, and reaching 308 million in 1920. By then the system was basically complete at about 181 miles (291km), including the isolated systems in North Sydney, Manly, Enfield, Rockdale and Kogarah. As well as a being a transport system, Sydney's tramways had a symbiotic relationship with the development of leisure facilities in the city. The two most important of these were Sydney Cricket Ground, served by an extensive network of loops and sidings; and Randwick Racecourse, where there was a tram station capable of moving the largest crowds ever assembling in Australia at that time in thirty minutes. The tram station at Randwick Racecourse had a series of platforms with access by footbridges, and was larger than all but a handful of railway stations in Australia. It remains substantially intact, although now only used by buses serving the comparatively tiny crowds now bothering to go to the track, to this day.

After 1920, only a few extensions would be built before closures began in 1939. The most important (and spectacular) of these later additions was the trackage opened in 1932 over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and into the terminus at Wynyard in the city. This terminus, uniquely for Australia, was located in a tunnel, and on the northern approaches the tram tracks crossed the world's largest trams-only bridge. Approaches to the harbour were always interesting on Sydney's tramways, from the lines through the bush at the Zoo, Watson's Bay and Balmoral; to the counterweight cable car at Balmain; to the amazing Fort Macquarie Depot on what is now the site of Sydney Opera House, the only mock-Tudor, quasi gothic-revival, balustraded and turreted tramshed in the world. With features like this, Sydney unquestionably possessed the most interesting, varied and spectacular tram system anywhere on the planet. It had no rivals, anywhere. It was, and would remain, the second largest system in the British Empire (after London) and one of the largest in the world. It was also extremely intensively worked, with about 1,500 cars in service at any one time when mature. Patronage peaked in 1945 at the extraordinary level of 405 million. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, there was an average of more than one tram journey per day made by every man and woman, infant and child in the city. It is doubtful if any city in the world used its trams with more enthusiasm than Sydney.

It was a similar story, albeit on a smaller scale, in Brisbane, which also had a very efficient and massively patronised electric tram system. Its mileage peaked as late as 1952 at 68 (109km) and ridership in the same year as Sydney at 160 million in 1944-5. For a city of half a million people, this was a remarkable figure. Following the successful introduction of electric trams in Sydney and Hobart in 1893, and then Brisbane in 1897, most Australian cities turned to this technology, and electric tramways spread quickly across all its cities, with the notable exceptions of Melbourne and Adelaide.

The two Victorian goldfields cities of Ballarat and Bendigo had begun tram operations quite early, in 1887 and 1890 respectively. Ballarat used conventional enough horse trams, but Bendigo was revolutionary enough to experiment with battery-powered electric trams from the beginning. Adelaide and Sydney also conducted experiments about this time with battery power. Nowhere was it a success, and the Bendigo trams were often stranded with flat batteries as they climbed to the terminus at Eaglehawk. The Company collapsed after a year and the tramway was sold to new owners who ordered steam motors like those operating in Sydney from Baldwin. These at least were reliable, but the 1890s depression affected revenue and it was sold again in 1899 to the British-based Electric Supply Company of Victoria. It completed electrification of the line and extended it into a modest but efficient system of nine miles (15km). The Company then took over the Ballarat horse tramways, which it similarly electrified in 1905 and extended into a 14-mile (22km) system. Finally it built a smaller system in Geelong, which opened in 1912. The State Electricity Commission of Victoria took over the three systems in 1934, rather against its wishes. It modernised them and bought second-hand Adelaide and Melbourne trams to improve services, but it always wanted to abandon them as soon as possible. Geelong was the first to go in 1956, but spirited public opposition and affection for the trams in Bendigo and Ballarat (not to mention the fact that both are very fickle marginal political seats, which no government dare afford to alienate) meant those cities kept their trams until 1971 and 1972. They survived long enough for significant proportions to be retained for heritage purposes. In the case of Bendigo, this was a very significant proportion indeed, including the system's depot and main line through the heart of the city.

Across the continent, tramway development began later in Western Australia, since Perth remained a small town until the gold rushes of the 1890s, and consequently electric traction was used from the beginning. A British company, Perth Electric Tramways Limited, opened the first line in 1899. By 1913, when it was nationalised and put under the control of the Government Railways, this had become a 23-mile (37km) system. Passenger numbers rose from 11 million in 1915-16 to 35 millions in 1933, and trackage peaked in 1941 at 42 miles (68km). Meanwhile, separate systems were built in Fremantle, Kalgoorlie and, most improbably, the tiny mining town of Leonora, way out in the outback, 240 kilometres northwest of Kalgoorlie. In Fremantle, the Fremantle Municipal Tramways and Electric Lighting Board, formed on local municipal initiative, undertook both electricity generation and tramway construction. The system opened in 1905 and 1906, with patronage peaking at 9 million in 1943. However, the tramways were only occasionally profitable after 1930, and when the State Electricity Commission took over the city's power supply in 1952 it promptly closed the system, without much public protest.

Out in the eastern goldfields, on the edge of the mighty Nullarbor Plain, were Australia's most isolated tramways. Kalgoorlie had a lavish electric tramway, as befitted a gold rush town with ambitions. The Kalgoorlie Electric Tramways Limited opened its first line in 1902 and two years later had extended it into a system some 9 miles (14km) long linking Kalgoorlie and the nearby mining town of Boulder. Even before completion, though, the Company sold some of its larger cars to Perth, indicating that its ambitions outran the traffic on offer. Despite its disappointments, the system limped on under private ownership until 1949 when the Eastern Goldfields Transport Board acquired it from the increasingly desperate Company. In an unlikely twist of events, Kalgoorlie had Australia's last privately owned tram system. The Transport Board, though, ran only peak-hour and miners' special services, and closed the system in 1952. The case of Leonora was even more extraordinary. For eight years from 1908, this tiny town was graced by a short electric tramline worked with just one car. It was rough operating a tram in the outback, and the greatest hazards were not always natural: in 1911 some boys placed four plugs of gelignite on the tracks to see what might happen. The tram only just survived its brush with high explosives, only to close when the power station burned down in 1916. A converted truck ran along the tracks to provide a desultory service for another five years after that. Thus ended the bizarre career of the Leonora tram.

In 1905 places as diverse as Ballarat, Launceston and Kalgoorlie might have had electric trams, but Australia's second largest city and temporary national capital, Melbourne, did not. This was because the cable trams, even though they were obsolete technology by then, continued to their job so well. Melbourne's two first permanent electric lines opened from the cable tram terminus at Alexander Bridge into the northwestern suburbs in 1906, built by a British company, the North Melbourne Electric Tramway and Lighting Company. In the same year, Victorian Railways opened what it described as an 'electric street railway' from St Kilda station along Port Phillip Bay to Brighton. This tramway was built to the same 5ft 3in gauge as the rest of Victorian Railways, compared with the 4ft 8in standard gauge used for all other tramways in Victoria. It was an initiative of the all too aptly named Premier, Sir Thomas Bent, who owned extensive real estate along its route.

Melbourne's first electric trams set the precedent for a large number of electric tramways built over the following twenty or so years, all connecting with the cable trams' outer termini and taking tramlines into a new ring of suburbs. All except the first two were built and operated by local municipal tramways trusts. There were four of these trusts, all owned by groups of local councils. There were the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust; the Hawthorn Tramways Trust; the Fitzroy, Northcote and Preston Tramways Trust; and the Melbourne, Brunswick and Coburg Tramways Trust. The two remaining horse tramways in the eastern suburbs were converted to electric traction as part of the process of trust tramway building in 1915 and 1916. Except for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust's line built through unremunerative parkland to its terminus on the edge of the city at Princes Bridge, none of these trust lines was able to penetrate the dense cable network and approach the city centre. Thus, central Melbourne remained the preserve of the cable trams until after the amalgamation of all Melbourne's tramlines (except Thomas Bent's broad-gauge VR line south from St Kilda) under the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB) in 1920. This immediately became Australia's second-largest tramway operator after the NSWGR's tramway division, although the M&MTB, initially at least, was a far from unified system, since it comprised a core of cable routes with five unconnected electric systems on its fringes. The cable trams had passed onto the hands of the state government in 1916, when the Company's thirty-two year concession had expired, and the creation of the M&MTB was the government's way of managing its new acquisition.

Steam trams may have been obsolete by the early twentieth century, but they did have their advantages in terms of low capital cost and simplicity. For this reason the NSWGR built steam tram systems in three New South Wales provincial cities, Broken Hill (1902), Maitland (1909) and Newcastle (1887). Electrification of the Sydney system meant that their rolling stock was, for all practical purposes, free. Broken Hill was (apart from Leonora) the most isolated tram system in the country. All its equipment had to be shipped from Sydney to Port Pirie and then conveyed on rail freight wagons (because its gauge was different from the railway's) to Broken Hill. The Broken Hill and Maitland systems closed simultaneously in 1926, unable to compete with motor buses in such relatively small towns. Newcastle's was more robust and survived to be electrified progressively from 1923, although its steam extremities closed in 1930 without ever having wires strung over their tracks. Ultimately, though, all of Newcastle's 23-mile (38km) system would be closed by 1950. While the mighty and profitable NSWGR could well afford to flirt with loss-making provincial tramways to satisfy its political masters, the same was not true of the other provincial operator of steam trams, Rockhampton City Council. In 1908 it bravely ordered four steam-powered four-wheel units from Valentin Purrey in Bordeaux. This was new technology at the time - and French technology at that! - and Rockhampton was one of very few cities anywhere to make it work. Operations began in 1909 and lasted for thirty years, continually under municipal ownership. One of the trams, the last of its type in the world, survives at Rockhampton's Archer Park Station Museum.

Australian Electric Tramcar Design

In the period from 1900 to 1935, there developed a distinctively Australia school of tramcar design. Early trams were imported mostly from the USA, with a few coming from England (mainly in Tasmania). Most early cars followed American precedents, and the California combination car was the most widely used design. This was a half-open, half-saloon car, a design appropriate enough to the climates of both Australia and California. The first cars were four-wheelers, but by 1900 eight-wheel bogie cars were more common. While some Australian systems continued to follow American tramcar design development, and build enclosed bogie saloon cars with doors at each end of the type almost universal in North American cities by about 1910, the larger Australian systems soon went their own way.

In Sydney, local development centred on the cross-bench, side-loading car, commonly (and not always affectionately) called the toastrack tram. This design was used for excursion traffic in many cities around the world, especially those with warmer climates, but only in Sydney and Rio de Janeiro (among the world's more substantial tram systems) did it become the standard tramcar type. The reason was simple - no other design accommodated so many seated passengers or could load and unload them more quickly; and Sydney's was a spectacularly crowded tramway system, where stretching capacity always was the main concern of its operators. Fortunately for Sydney's tram passengers, the climate is relatively warm for eight months of the years, because passengers in toastrack trams were always more-or-less exposed to the elements. The idea of the toastrack tram came from the first steam-tram trailers imported from Philadelphia back in 1879, whose lower deck had this design. Early toastrack electric trams were four-wheelers, but in 1901 the first of the 96 seventy-passenger N class cars was delivered; followed in 1907 by the first of no fewer than 626 eighty-passenger O class cars; and in 1921 by the first of 258 P class cars. The O class was the most numerous class of tram in Australia - indeed, one of the most numerous in the world - and throughout the 1910-1960 period was a true Sydney icon.

Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, where the pressure of numbers was not so great, all developed versions of the drop-centre bogie car during the 1920s. This featured two enclosed saloons (with the luxury of padded seats in the southern cities, although not in sticky Brisbane) above the bogies at each end, with a lower section with open doors and more austere seating in the centre. This accommodated smokers and short-distance travellers, and the drop in the centre meant that passengers did not need to climb flights of steps to enter the car. The M&MTB's W-class design, first introduced in 1923, was and remains the classic of the genre. It was conceived to replace the mass of diverse designs the M&MTB inherited from its constituent parts. The most numerous was the W2 design, first built in 1927, which lasted in service for 60 years. The W series as a whole (variants W1 through to W7) numbered nearly 800 units, built between 1923 and 1956. The post-war cars featured such refinements as all-padded seats and automatic doors. Later examples are still in service in Melbourne and appear destined to be so indefinitely into the future.

Brisbane, like Melbourne, became a unified system in the early 1920s and immediately developed its own drop-centre car, the 400 series, appropriately enough a more open, tropical version of the type, sultrily flaunting its toastrack heritage in its open drop-centre section. Coincidentally, the first was built in 1923, exactly the same year as the first Melbourne W class. This was superseded in 1938 by the streamlined FM car, which at last brought padded seats to the northern capital. Adelaide also introduced its F type drop-centre car in the early 1920s, although reverted to the American saloon design for its last series, the H class of 1929, introduced specifically for the Glenelg line which was converted from railway to tramway operation at that time. The H class remains on this service into the twenty-first century, and so they are now Australia's oldest regularly operating trams, even if their design is rather unusual.

While Perth and Hobart continued to build American type saloon cars, and Hobart even kept its English-style double-deck cars, the triumph of the drop-centre design was confirmed when Sydney joined the ranks of their operators in 1933. Although not used on the busiest services, Sydney's new R class cars marked a huge improvement in comfort compared with their toastrack predecessors. Coming later than the Ws, 400s and Fs on which they were based, they were also more sophisticated and exhibited higher standards of design aesthetics. Indeed, it is doubtful if a more beautiful tram than a Sydney R class ever has been built. 195 were delivered during 1933-35, their sleek lines and comfort symbolising the city's determination to rid itself of the Depression. How could anyone be depressed riding in an R car? A further 155 were built to the slightly modified R1 design (with a truncated central drop section but more padded seats) in two batches up to 1953.

The Decline of Australia's Tramways

As with human life, Australia's tramways were nurturing the seeds of decay and death even as they reached their zenith. As early as the 1920s, serious threats to the health of Australia's trams were emerging. Of course, trams had never had a monopoly on urban transport. Horse buses had been able to compete effectively with trams in Sydney and Brisbane, and in Melbourne suburban railways had always competed for the same passengers. The NSWGR even briefly experimented with steam buses itself, and during 1905 and 1906 ran two steam bus services, most importantly from Darlinghurst to Potts Point through King's Cross, already the most densely populated part of Australia. However, during the 1920s, a new threat emerged. This was not yet the private car, but the privately owned motor bus. In most Australian cities, such buses did not compete directly with trams, because the bodies responsible for regulating city transport also operated the trams. The great exception was Sydney, where the NSWGR owned the trams. Here, private bus competition was unregulated and exploded in the 1920s. In 1915 there were just 15 motor buses in Sydney, rising to 149 in 1920 and 612 in 1929.20 There were almost half as many private buses as there were tramcars. These buses competed overtly with trams, often running just ahead of them to poach their passengers. What was especially galling for the NSWGR was the fact that it was paying for the maintenance of the road surface between tramlines; and in much of suburban Sydney that meant the entire paved section of roads. So the competing buses were running on roads maintained by the tramway operator.

In Melbourne, the situation was more positive. The M&MTB began a gradual process of closing the cable tram system and replacing it with electric tramways. These extended the former municipal trust and private lines into the city, eliminating the need for longer-distance Melbourne tram passengers to change at the interfaces of the cable and electric networks. First to be converted were the Swanston Street and Flinders Street lines in 1926 and 1927. The process continued through the 1920s and 1930s until the last cable lines, in Bourke Street and running into the northern suburbs, closed in 1940. In each case the former cable lines were lifted and new electric lines were laid set in concrete. This meant that, during the late 1920s and 1930s, Melbourne's entire inner city tram network was completely renewed. The great exception was the Bourke Street cable lines, which were not replaced with electric trams but with buses. This was not the result of deliberate policy, but was caused by wartime steel shortages.

Meanwhile, all Australian states had seen the creation of motorists' associations by the 1920s. The most powerful were the Sydney-based National Roads and Motorists Association (the NRMA, founded in 1923, which despite its name only operated in New South Wales) and the Royal Automobile Clubs of Victoria and Queensland (RACV and RACQ). These organisations were hostile to trams, and urged governments to replace trams with buses at every opportunity. With a stupidity and illogicality bordering on the criminal, they portrayed trams as the prime cause of congestion, rather than as the only means of moving sufficiently large numbers of people to assuage congestion. It was certainly true that there was severe tram congestion in Sydney, but this was because more people were using the trams than the system could handle. In Elizabeth Street, trams ran at an average frequency of every 19 seconds in the 1930s, and most services were operated by coupled pairs of toastrack cars seating a total of 160 passengers. King Street, operated by modern R class cars after 1934, was almost as busy. The suggestion that buses could reduce congestion on this scale was utterly ludicrous, but the NRMA frequently made the assertion. The only solution, of course, was the construction of a railway (or two) into the eastern suburbs.

The crisis in Sydney came to a head during the tumultuous premiership of J.T. Lang. He was determined to smash the private bus operators to restore tramway finances. This he did very effectively, but the price he had to pay was the separation of the tramways from the NSWGR in 1930. After a series of transient managements, the trams came under the control of a Department of Road Transport and Tramways in 1933, later called the New South Wales Department of Government Transport (DGT). This organisation was not exactly hostile to trams - after all it ordered the R class immediately it was created - but its focus was rather different from the old NSWGR management. Moreover, the trams had lost their railway ally. Thereafter, the NSWGR supported strongly the building of an Eastern Suburbs Railway, which it believed would win the enormous tram revenue of that area back into its coffers. Meanwhile, the DGT began operating its first bus services late in 1932, linking St Leonard's Station and Manly Wharf. It was soon supplementing tram services with a range of motorbus operations, especially in the eastern suburbs.

The new technology of the trolley bus also attracted the interest of the DGT. This was a vehicle with the electrics of a tram but the body and suspension of a bus. The 1930s were the decade of the trolley bus craze in England, where many tramway systems were replaced by trolley buses. These used the power generation and distribution systems of the tramways they replaced, and also enabled tramway maintenance skills to be used. They were seen, therefore, as something of a compromise between retention and abandonment of tram systems. Australia's first trolley buses began operating in East Perth in October1933, by which time the vehicles for Sydney's first operation (which opened in January 1934) had arrived. This was from Sydney Town Hall to King's Cross and Potts Point in the city's eastern suburbs, effectively duplicating and relieving pressure on the extraordinarily over-patronised King Street and William Street tram services. Part of the route also followed the experimental steam bus route of 1905. It also served Australia's first suburbs of residential flat buildings, as the elegant mansions of the 1830s were demolished to make way for what was for Australia the radical innovation of apartment living.

The pioneering lines in Perth and Sydney soon were followed by others in Adelaide, Hobart and Launceston. In Tasmania the trolley buses supplemented rather than replaced tram services. In Adelaide the city and Port Adelaide had separate, unconnected tram systems. But in 1935 trolley buses replaced trams in Port Adelaide, and began running through to Adelaide itself. This was the first general closure of a tramway system in Australia. Brisbane came to the trolley bus party rather late in the day. Not until 1951 did its first trolley bus line open, once again supplementing rather than replacing trams. Trolley buses never operated in Melbourne. The first replacement of trams with trolley buses in Australia occurred in Sydney in 1937, when the last DGT steam tram line, from Kogarah station to Sans Souci on Botany Bay, was replaced by trolley buses. This was intended to be the first of many such substitutions, but it was in fact the last as well as the first. Trolley bus operations received a fillip from a most unusual source in 1937, when Leyland in England built seventy trolley buses for Canton (or Guangzhou), China. The Sino-Japanese War prevented their delivery and they were offered to Australian buyers at bargain prices. 'Cantons', as they were known, went to Adelaide, Perth and Hobart.

The trolley bus craze was short-lived, in Australia as in England. Sydney, where the expectations of trolley buses had been the highest, soon found that diesel buses could do much the same job more effectively and cheaper. The Potts Point line was closed in 1948 (twelve years before the trams they were supposed to be replacing), and the Sans Souci lines in 1959. The Tasmanian cities and Adelaide lost theirs soon after, while trolley buses lingered in both Perth and Brisbane until 1969.

The second general closure of electric tramways in Australia (after Port Adelaide) occurred in Sydney in September 1939, when the Manly system was closed in its entirety. It reopened in 1941, when wartime fuel shortages began to bite, but it was only a reprieve. The larger Australian cities all commissioned overseas consultants to report on their transport problems by in the post-war period. Their function was to justify tram closures in the face of popular opposition. Few policy decisions in Australian history have been as ill-considered, venal or irrational. Sydney was first off the mark with the Sinclair report of 1948, which recommended the closure of the entire tram system. NSWDGT Commissioner A.A. Shoebridge favoured a policy of closing outer tramlines and replacing them by a more diffused bus network, but retaining an inner core on dense routes. He was overruled politically, and ironically presided over the destruction of one of the world's greatest transport systems.

Shoebridge's consolidation policy saw the closure in the late 1940s and early 1950s of the isolated networks (except for the North Sydney lines) and some of the longer, less densely used lines of the main system. More positively, deliveries of R1 class cars continued and some of the main lines, especially in the eastern suburbs and north shore, were re-laid in mass concrete roadways. Thus, in parts at least, Sydney's tramways were being modernised just as their political masters, driven by pressure from the NRMA, were preparing to close them. It is a paradox that tramways often are regarded as a poor man's form of transport, but that the most heavily used lines in both Sydney and Melbourne have been in places like Mosman, Woollahra, Rose Bay and Coogee; Toorak, Kew and South Yarra - the richest suburbs in Australia. Indeed the first significant public protests at an Australian tram closure occurred in 1950 when the line through Vaucluse and Watson's Bay - two of the most expensive places to buy a house in the entire country - was converted to bus operation. So intense were these protests that the line was reopened after six months.

It was a final flutter for the tram system, however, especially since the New South Wales premier, J.J. Cahill, was a former tram mechanic who had been sacked for his participation in a strike back in 1917. Cahill was no friend of the trams, and he dominated his cabinet. General closures took place in stages between 1957 and 1961. The Pitt and Castlereagh Street lines closed first. The overhead was removed immediately after the last tram passed, and the tracks were tarred over the next morning, to prevent a reintroduction of tram services if the replacement bus services were a failure. There were no great difficulties on this occasion, as the southwestern lines they carried passed through the narrow confines of King Street, Newtown and were far from Sydney's busiest. It was a different story when the next major closure occurred - of the North Sydney lines in 1958. There was chaos and the beginnings of the north shore traffic snarl that lasted until the opening of the Warringah Freeway ten years later. The western (George Street) lines closed in 1959, and the busiest of all, the eastern lines, in three stages in 1960 and 1961. Sydney's last trams - to Maroubra Beach and La Perouse - ran on 25 February 1961.

It was a similar story in Brisbane. Once again, strangely, it was a Labor government which drove the policy, in this case the Brisbane City Council under Lord Mayor Clem Jones. Jones' vision was of a city where every workingman could own a car. Indeed city ordinances required provision of a car space in every residence remarkably early. The trams, with their reliable and regular ten-minutely services throughout the inner suburbs, were the main obstacle to his vision. Moreover, much of Brisbane's tram trackage had been set in concrete during the 1950s, and its fleet was comparatively modern. Virtually all off-peak services were handled by the modern FM cars, all built since 1938, supplemented in peak hours by older drop-centre cars dating from 1923. Conveniently for Jones' plans, Brisbane's Paddington tram depot burnt to the ground in September 1962, destroying 65 trams and providing the excuse for the closure of four routes that Christmas. No-one was ever charged with arson and the truth about the fire remains a matter of speculation. The tramway workshops built eight new trams in 1963 and 1964 using parts recovered from the fire. These were the 'Phoenix' cars; arisen from the fire; Australia's last new trams for twenty years; and the last of the classic distinctively Australian drop-centre design ever built.

The Phoenix cars, though, were at best a symbol of defiance, and Jones got what he wanted in 1965 when a group of North American consultants recommended closure of the tram system, a major reduction in train services, and the construction of freeways. Queensland government funding for roads in the city was made contingent on the closure of the tramways, so a new Victoria Bridge, linking Brisbane and South Brisbane, was designed without tramlines, and this sealed the system's fate. The Victoria Bridge, over which Brisbane's first horse tramway had been laid back in 1885, was at the heart of the system. All Brisbane's remaining tram and trolley bus routes were closed in 1968 and 1969. Closures were preceded by service reductions, in a fraudulent attempt to demonstrate that the replacement bus services were better. Despite this, there were citywide protests and a remarkable if fruitless enthusiasm for retaining the trams.

Events turned out very differently in Melbourne, largely because of the strong leadership provided by M&MTB Chairman from 1949 to 1970, Sir Robert Risson. Melbourne lacked the difficult topography of Sydney and Brisbane, which meant that its tramway system, while not as spectacular, was easier to operate. Melbourne's wide, straight streets helped tram operations, which in many cases effectively could be separated from motor traffic in a way in which they could not in the narrow inner city streets of Sydney and Brisbane. This meant that buses, with their need to move in and out of the curb, in many cases actually would hinder car traffic more than trams. Melbourne also had set nearly all its tramlines in concrete when the cable trams were replaced, and nearly all its trams in the 1950s were relatively modern enclosed drop-centre cars of the various W classes. It is true that Brisbane shared many of these characteristics, and that even Sydney was on the way to renewing its tramways at the same time. In Risson, though, Melbourne's trams had a strong, intelligent and passionate defender.

The 1950s were politically volatile years in Victoria, and no government felt confident enough to risk its popularity by doing anything as contentious as removing the trams. Moreover, the famous militancy of Victoria's tramway union, which would fight large-scale tram replacement and was especially hostile to any one-man bus operations, meant that tram replacement would almost certainly involve strikes. No precarious government wanted a prolonged public transport strike on its hands. This political factor helped ensure the survival of the Ballarat and Bendigo trams as well, which, although of great aesthetic value, by the 1960s could hardly be said to be the ideal transport solution for such small cities, even by the most ardent defenders of the tram as a transport mode.

In Melbourne, Risson's central argument was that a tram would always attract greater patronage on a given route than a bus. He was right, and proved the point when he succeeded in restoring trams to Bourke Street in 1956. This was the year before Sydney's first big closure, yet Risson was able to secure funding for the rebuilding of a significant part of the Melbourne system as an Olympics project. The buses (which had operated since the last cable tram had run in 1940) were replaced by Risson's new W6 and W7 trams, to the delight of their passengers but to the excoriation of sections of the press and the RACV. It was a decisive blow in favour of continuity of tram operation in Melbourne, and the system has never been seriously threatened since. The only significant closures of Melbourne tramlines were three short lines in unfashionable and politically unimportant Footscray, abandoned in 1962.

In the smaller cities, the same policies which were played out in Sydney and Brisbane dominated. In the case of most of these cities, it was difficult to justify continued tram operation. Perth, in particular, had a lot of single-track routes, which would have needed duplication and rebuilding to cope with modern traffic conditions. In Adelaide, with its wide streets and good fleet, bus replacement was less easily justified, but it seemed a progressive policy at the time and so was essentially uncontested. Certainly Adelaide had a shortage of trams in the 1950s. Therefore, since buses were cheaper to buy and operate, and traffic was nowhere near as intense as in Sydney and Melbourne, the decision to convert to buses was relatively uncontroversial. Moreover, Adelaide retained its fastest and most efficient tramline, on which its newest cars operated. This was the Glenelg line, converted from a railway in 1929. Its retention meant that Adelaide's tramway closures lacked the hard ideological element and enduring bitterness, even hatred, towards the perpetrators which characterised the same process in Sydney and Brisbane, where the trams lasted long enough for people to be acutely aware of the value of what they were losing. Adelaide's and Perth's last trams both ran in 1958.

Building Australia's Suburban Railways

Australia's first steam railway was a suburban line, running trains every half hour from Melbourne to Port Melbourne from the day of its opening in 1854. Half-hourly train services have been an aspect of Australian city life ever since. Although Sydney's first railway opened to Parramatta a year later, it was a very different sort of an enterprise. It was aiming for the interior of a continent, and envisaged no suburban traffic. In fact, its trains ran only four times a day and its Sydney station was sufficiently far from the city centre to be useless for a commuter (although the term had not yet been coined). This pattern would continue until the 1890s. In Melbourne, an extensive suburban system, mostly in private hands, would be built over the next forty years. In Sydney the first purely suburban railway would not be built until as late as 1896 (from Sydenham to Belmore), and the city's station would remain on its fringe, a tram, cab or bus ride away from where most potential passengers worked, until as late as 1926. This was a huge contrast, and explains why Sydney's trams developed in the remarkable way described above.

By 1861 four private companies had built separate lines out of Melbourne into its suburbs, using three separate city termini - Flinders Street (for the Brighton and St Kilda lines); Princes Bridge (for the Richmond, Hawthorn and Prahran lines) and Spencer Street (for the Williamstown and Essendon lines). The Spencer Street lines (serving the unfashionable western and northern suburbs) were marginal business prospects and so soon nationalised, while the other two lines were amalgamated in 1865 as the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay United Railway Company (M&HBURCo), whose network ultimately comprised five lines from Melbourne to termini at Port Melbourne, St Kilda, Hawthorn and Brighton Beach. The M&HBURCo was fortunate in that its two city termini were convenient to the business heart of Melbourne. It also had wonderfully flat terrain over which to build its lines. So, it was a successful enterprise, returning a steady 7 percent, but ultimately the directors decided to sell the company to the colonial government, since that clearly was where the future of railway construction lay. The Company, though, was in sufficiently good financial shape for them to indulge in protracted haggling over the price. Eventually it was transferred on 1 July 1878.

The 1880s saw a positive orgy of railway-building in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, whose system reached its peak in 1891. Some lines were speculative. One railway only ever was traversed by one train before closure, and the greatest symbol of the entire wasteful orgy was the extraordinary Outer Circle line to Oakleigh. This was completed in 1890 to a scheme predating the government's purchase of the M&HBURCo. At least when first mooted it would have the advantage of connecting VR's isolated Gippsland line to the rest of the government's railways, but by the time it was built it was completely useless, meandering through Melbourne's northeastern suburbs contrary to all the flows of traffic. Services ceased after just three years. While some of the1880s investment in suburban railways around Melbourne was wasteful and even downright corrupt, most of it was useful and the network laid down, even if more than a little ahead of its time, has meant that the city has had a good radial suburban railway system, bringing quite remote suburbs close to the city. Equally useful was the connection on viaducts between the two city termini of Flinders Street and Spencer Street, opened in 1891. Princes Bridge and Flinders Street had been connected back in the days of the M&HBURCo.21

Meanwhile in Sydney, there was only very slow growth of suburban services along the main line to Parramatta, as places like Stanmore and Burwood became suburbs of substantial villas for the middle class who wanted to look impressive. Those who could afford it, though, tended to build their villas near the harbour or in the eastern suburbs, where ferries or trams provided the transport. Nonetheless, by about 1880 Sydney at last had a half-hourly service along the main line as far out as Homebush, some 8 miles (13km) from the inconveniently located Sydney station. The North Shore line (opening to the harbour side at Milson's Point in 1893) conveyed significant suburban traffic from the beginning, but was only built because parliament thought it would be a shorter route for country produce from the north to Sydney Harbour (a role it has never fulfilled). Thus, the Belmore line, opened in 1896 and soon extended through to Bankstown, was Sydney's first deliberately suburban railway. Up until the 1880s train fares were expensive and rail commuting was the preserve of the middle class. In 1881 the first workmen's weekly tickets were introduced in Sydney in 1881 and in Melbourne in 1882, and suddenly the second-class compartments of suburban trains became crowded with the kind of people who had never been able before to travel such long distances to work. It was a spur to further suburbanisation and the marked the beginnings of the Australian phenomenon of suburban sprawl.

By the early 1880s the wealth of Melbourne was concentrated in its suburbs, where there were thousands of large houses and tens of thousands of comfortable villas. After describing the affluence of these suburbs, which was on a scale unknown in England, one perceptive visitor discussed the importance of the railways built by the M&HBURCo to their development:

All these suburbs are connected with the town by railway. A quarter of an hour will bring you ten miles to Brighton, and twelve minutes will take you to St Kilda, the most fashionable watering place. Within ten minutes by rail are the inland suburbs, Toorak, South Yarra and Kew, all three very fashionable; Balaklava, Elsternwick and Windsor, outgrowths of St Kilda, also fashionable; Hawthorn, which is budding well; Richmond, adjacent to East Melbourne, and middle class; and Emerald Hill and Albert Park with a working class population. Adjoining the city itself are North Melbourne, Fitzroy, Carlton, Hotham and East Melbourne, all except the last inhabited by the working classes… Nearly everybody who can lives in the suburbs, and the excellence of the railway system enables them to extend much farther away from the city than in Adelaide or Sydney.22

Train services were nowhere near as frequent on the main lines near Sydney, except to Homebush. For instance, when the railway opened from Strathfield to Hornsby in 1884, which would be very much a suburban line at a similar distance from the city in Melbourne at that time, it rejoiced in just two trains a day. In short, Melbourne was a train city and Sydney was a tram city, the exact reverse of the situation a century and more later. Part of the reason was the location of Sydney's station, and there were repeated attempts in the second half of the nineteenth century to build a new terminal somewhere closer to the city. Most proposals envisaged a terminus somewhere near King Street. However, the New South Wales parliament always baulked at the cost, frequently noting that a hundred miles of railway could be built in the bush for the same cost as the one and a half miles required to bring trains into the heart of Sydney. In a polity dominated by country politicians, the bush railways would always get first priority.

Sydney and Melbourne were, of course, the two Australian cities where the relationship between railway construction policy and urbanisation was clearest. However, railways also had an impact on the process of urbanisation (and suburbanisation) in smaller cities. Even cities as small as Perth and Hobart have had their patterns of growth affected by railways: in Perth, suburban development ran along the axis from Fremantle to Guilford, the route of the eastern railway into the interior; while in Hobart there was similar ribbon development along the route of the Tasmanian Mainline Railway north of the city parallel to the Derwent. Brisbane is an interesting case, for railways were late coming to the city but important in determining its shape. The first railway in Brisbane was not opened until 1875, fully ten years after the first Queensland line had opened in the interior of the colony. The following year the original line (whose eastern terminus was Ipswich) was connected to Brisbane. During the 1880s branch lines were built north of the river to places like the docks at Pinkenba, Sandgate on Moreton Bay, Dayboro and Caboolture; while a separate system was created centred on South Brisbane. For a full century, passengers from south of the river would need to cross Victoria Bridge by tram to reach the city. The South Brisbane system comprised two main lines, a shorter line east to the shores of Moreton Bay at Manly and Cleveland; and a longer one to the coast at Southport, opened in 1889 and extended to the New South Wales border at Tweed Heads in 1903. The Brisbane railway system as built essentially in the 1880s was to remain remarkably unchanged for the best part of another century.

In Adelaide, even flatter than Melbourne, suburban railways were easily and cheaply built, and the typical Adelaide suburban railway of the late nineteenth century was a very flimsy affair, often running along streets and not conveying a very serious traffic by the standards of Melbourne, or even Sydney. The Semaphore, Grange and Glenelg lines were typical examples of such railways. Like Sydney, but for almost exactly the opposite reasons, Adelaide was essentially a tram city in the 1880s and 1890s, and remained so for longer than Sydney.

While transport was being mechanised in the later nineteenth century, the horse still commanded enormous respect and enthusiasm in Australia. Those who no longer worked with horses or could afford to own one, could always bet on them and watch them perform at the races. The turf was late colonial Australia's most popular form of leisure, and in Melbourne the railway had an important role in the logistics of getting punters there. This was in stark contrast with Sydney, none of whose racecourses was served by rail until the Belmore line was extended to Canterbury, and where an elaborate steam tram station were constructed to serve the most important track at Randwick, and less elaborate ones to serve the other tracks scattered through the northern capital's eastern suburbs. By the 1920s, the crowds being moved by tram from Randwick would rival those moved by train from Flemington. So intense was Randwick's traffic that side-loading cars would move through the racecourse platforms without stopping as punters scrambled aboard. The trams then travelled through the inner eastern suburbs on their own tracks, separated from the rest of the regular routes. As with the Melbourne punters' trains, only return tickets were sold for these trams, ensuring that unlucky or desperate punters would at least have a ride home.

In the Melbourne of the 1880s, Twopeny was struck by what seemed to him the extraordinary efficiency of VR's services to the Victoria Racing Club track at Flemington, which seemed to him a model which English railways and turf clubs could well emulate:

On race-days trains run out from Melbourne every ten minutes; and as you can buy your train and race ticket beforehand in town, you need never be jostled or hurried. Everything works as if by machinery. It would really pay the [London and] South Western [Railway's] officials to take a lesson at the Spencer Street Station next Cup-day, to prevent the annual scramble at Waterloo every Ascot meeting.23

The race crowds VR handled, even in the 1880s, were astounding. In 1881 greater Melbourne's population was about 280,000, but no fewer than 100,000 were at Flemington for the running of the Melbourne Cup in the Exhibition year of 1880. This was more than a third of the city's entire population! Most travelled by train. Normal attendances on Cup day were between 60,000 and 80,000, which was still an enormous number to move, yet VR did it efficiently enough to excite the admiration of an observer as experienced and critical as Twopeny.

Electrification and Modernisation of Australia's Suburban Railways

In the early twentieth century, Melbourne easily had the best public transport in Australia, and far-and-away the best suburban trains. Its transport mix was reflected in the almost equal numbers using its trams and trains: in 1907, for instance, both modes carried about 62 million passengers. By comparison, in Sydney, with a similar population, and where there were few suburban railways, in 1908 the trams carried 147.7 millions and the suburban trains just 41.4 millions.24

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the technology existed for railway electrification, which had clear environmental and operational advantages over steam traction for a busy and intensive service. The initiative for electrification came in Melbourne from politicians. Two parliamentary committees investigated the prospects in 1898 and 1903. The first rejected the idea, while the second suggested further research on the matter. The Chairman of Commissioners from 1903 to 1910 was Thomas Tait, previously operations manager on the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway and a man determined to modernise. Tait was sent to Europe and North America in 1907 specifically charged to examine electrification and to assess the relative merits of the technology in use. While overseas, Tait met Charles Hesterman Merz, who was consulting engineer on electrification to the English North Eastern Railway, and commissioned him to do a report on the options for railway electrification in Melbourne.

Merz believed that Melbourne, with its 298 miles of suburban railway carrying 59,477,123 passengers with a train mileage of 2,772,669 in 1907, could support the cost. His report was very thorough, and discussed details such as location of the power station, conversion of rolling stock, options for power delivery (favouring 800 volt third rail), and the financing of the scheme. He even made recommendation as to staffing levels. Naturally it was the financial issue which most exercised the Government's and the Railway Commissioners' minds. Merz made no attempt to hide the large capital outlay required. He estimated it at 2,227,050. However, he pointed out that operating costs would be lower and that, even though train mileage would increase, so would patronage. The three-headed and deliciously named Premier, Treasurer and Railways Minister, Sir Thomas Bent, called for a report from Tait and his brother commissioners. They all accepted the technical aspects of Merz's report, but rejected the financial element, preferring to acquire more DDE class 4-6-2 tank locomotives which were designed for ready conversion to tender locomotives if electrification ever occurred. Even the moderniser Tait concluded that steam was more economical.

Despite the Commissioners' attitude, the politicians were still keen on electrification. In late 1910 the Government appointed a Metropolitan Traffic Commission, which recommended immediate electrification. Merz was commissioned to prepare a second report. Now in partnership as Merz and McLelland, they presented their report in 1912. Merz pointed out that technology had improved rapidly, and that the financial situation had improved. He now advised use of 1,500-volt DC overhead current collection by pantograph. This was truly radical, for not one such system existed anywhere in the world. Melbourne appeared destined to have the world's first, because the Victorian Parliament approved the scheme and authorised the expenditure in December 1912. Merz promptly returned to England (via Bombay, where he would install an electric railway system virtually identical to Melbourne's) and began ordering equipment for the conversion of 400 steam-hauled carriages to electric motorcars. Locally, the largest task was construction of the power station at Newport and erection of the overhead. Merz and the Commissioners had envisaged the introduction of automatic signalling accompanying electrification, but in fact little was accomplished. No new railways were built, and the other major capital work of the time, the construction of the new 11-platorm Flinders Street station, had been completed in 1910.

Construction began in earnest in December 1913. It was a large project involving the electrification of some 240 route kilometres. It had been hoped to operate the first electric services in June 1915, but wartime conditions led to delays, both in the supply of equipment from England and because some specifications were changed as technology improved. Electric operations began in Melbourne on 28 May 1919. It was just early enough in the history of the introduction of the motorcar in Australia for the impact to be considerable. Suburban patronage had been 96,797,783 in 1917-18, the last year of all-steam operation, but rose by 63.4% over just six years to 158,194,558 in 1923-24. The Commissioners boasted in their annual report that Melbourne then had the largest electrified suburban service in the world which had been converted from steam, powered by the greatest power station in the southern hemisphere. What they did not boast about was the fact that the electrification project had not been accompanied by any other works. The trains, track, stations and signalling remained as they had in the days of steam. This had made the scheme a relatively cheap one, but also meant that its limitations would soon become apparent.25

In Sydney, railway electrification was not so much the answer to the problems of congestion on the steam railways, as it was in Melbourne, but to tram congestion. This meant that, also very differently from Melbourne, suburban railway electrification would be accompanied by the construction of new city railways and one of the world's most spectacular railway bridges (which would also carry a roadway). By 1919 the tram system was mature and traffic reflected this: there were 253.9 million journeys by tram that year, compared with only 89.5 million by suburban train. Even the ferries, in this most maritime of cities, carried only 35.3 millions. The train's share of Sydney's public transport load was only 23.6%, probably a little less, since there were horse and motor buses in the city as well.26 By then Sydney's tram traffic in the morning peaks frequently approached gridlock in the city, as tram after tram from the suburbs, especially the Eastern Suburbs, poured into its narrow streets. This occurred even though motor traffic was still insignificant. Moreover, Sydney's main terminal station was extremely inconvenient, being more than a mile from the centre of business. A splendid new station had opened in 1906 only a few hundred yards nearer the city centre than the old. It did have the advantages of being well planned, spacious and having excellent facilities for passengers to transfer to trams running to the city, but it was still not a city station. Indeed its construction on that site was a deliberate decision to postpone the building of a railway into the city. This decision proved wise, given that bringing long-distance trains in particular and steam trains in general into the heart of the city would create as many urban problems as it would solve. As electric railway technology improved rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century, it became clear that underground railways would be the solution.

In these circumstances, expert and popular opinion concurred: Sydney needed a city and suburban railway to prevent it choking under the weight of its own traffic. The problem was getting a parliament dominated by rural interests to vote funds for one. It was to be a long process. The Railway's Engineer-in-Chief, Henry Deane, had proposed underground and submarine electric tramways - in reality light rail - as early as 1895. By 1905 electric technology for railways had improved to the point where Deane, then about to retire, advised electrification of the existing railways. Charles Merz's 1907-8 report into railway electrification in Melbourne was avidly read in Sydney, and all interested parties drew the lessons from it they wished. Thus, the Railway Commissioners, conservative and determined to maintain profitability, noted Merz's conclusions that electrification could lead to greater expenses and not necessarily proportionately increased profits.

The political response in Sydney was the establishment of the Royal Commission on City Improvements in May 1908. The first recommendation was 'the immediate introduction of a system of underground electric railways'. It also advised the construction of the metropolitan goods lines, as proposed by the Railway Commissioners, which would separate the freight traffic to Sydney Harbour from passenger trains. At this point, the first ever Labour Government in New South Wales was elected in 1910. Urban problems were a more pressing issue for the new administration than its rural-dominated predecessors. At the urging of the Railway Commissioners, the new government was able immediately to start work on the metropolitan goods line and the widening of the entrance to Sydney yard. These moves would also benefit country producers, so appropriation passed through the conservative-dominated Legislative Council without difficulty. The goods lines, now, ironically, used by the trams of Sydney light rail since 1998, were completed in 1922. It would be a different story for the city railway.

The Labour Government referred the city railway and harbour crossing issues to the Parliamentary Committee on Public Works. The star witness was a brilliant Public Works Department engineer, the Queensland-born Dr J.J.C. Bradfield. He advised abandonment of plans for a submarine harbour tunnel, and the erection of a single-span bridge across the harbour. Together with an underground rail loop under the city, the bridge would connect the railways on the north and south side of the harbour. He also envisaged another rail loop, partly underground, into the densely populated eastern suburbs. The Government adopted Bradfield's recommendations and appointed him in 1912 to head a new department with the ambitious title of Sydney Harbour Bridge and City Transit. Bradfield rallied the Railway Commissioners to his opinions, since by then they too believed that electrification was essential. Thus, a City Railway Bill embracing parts of Bradfield's scheme (but not including the bridge) passed through the Legislative Assembly in October 1913, only to be rejected in the Legislative Council, dominated by conservative politicians representing rural interests, a week later.

Bradfield and the Government were undaunted, and used political defeat as an opportunity to refine their thoughts further. In 1914 Bradfield visited the US and Europe, returning just after the War broke out. Bradfield was most impressed with what he saw in New York, and much of what he recommended reflected New York practice, including the need for all-steel, wide-bodied electric trains. Bradfield's report became law in a new City Railway Act of October 1915, which provided for electrification of existing suburban railways, and construction of an underground city loop as well as two new railways, an Eastern Suburbs Railway and a Western Suburbs Railway. Construction began immediately but was suspended in May 1917 as the War became ever more desperate and an ever-greater drain on resources. Despite this, the Railway Commissioners pressed on with widening track centres, cutting back platforms and tunnels, installing automatic signalling, and ordering 196 new wide suburban passenger cars (still timber bodied, but with steel underframes and automatic couplings between cars) capable of conversion to electric operation.

Work on the city railway recommenced in February 1922. Intense political pressure with elections due in March, the completion of the metropolitan goods lines, and the commencement of electric train services in Melbourne appeared to be the main stimuli. Labor lost the election - it lost the u in its name the same year in a flurry of ultra-radical spelling reform - but work continued uninterrupted throughout the politically turbulent 1920s. The scale of the work was huge. It included two separate underground railways, one double-track, the other of four tracks, from Central station into the city. On these railways were four underground stations - one with two platforms; one with four; and two each with six platforms on two levels; as well as a new suburban electric station beside the existing Sydney Central station. One of these underground railways would emerge from its tunnels at the northern end of the city and leap over Sydney Harbour on Bradfield's stupendous steel arch railway bridge - the largest such bridge in the world. This was ambition on a grand scale, and it must be admitted that there was a touch of megalomania to Bradfield's personality, a fact for which every Sydney resident ever since can be grateful.

The Bridge and city railway bills passed despite virulent opposition from the Country Party, whose leader described them with characteristic short-sightedness as 'a blot on the Statute Book'.27 There were also the so-called flying junctions, which enabled a train to move from any one line to another between Central and Redfern without crossing a line in the opposing direction. Four new electric carsheds, a dedicated workshop, a new power-station and the distribution network for the DC power were built as well. When these works are added to the loading gauge-widening, quadruplication (in places sextuplication) and resignalling of the railways around Sydney, it would be no exaggeration to say that the system was rebuilt in the eight years leading up to the operation of the first electric trains in March 1926. The first stage of the underground - the second (after a much smaller metro in Buenos Aires) in the world outside Europe and North America - opened without ceremony to Museum and St James stations on 20 December 1926.

Bradfield's steel cars began to arrive in 1925, the first 150 being delivered from Leeds Forge in England, the remaining 438 built locally. The first began service steam-hauled, but soon they formed the basis of the electric fleet. Finally, in 1924, after Labor had been returned to office, the contracts were let for the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as conceived by Bradfield. Once commenced, work could not be suspended, despite two changes of government and vehement opposition in the bush to this alleged extravagance. So, the Bridge was completed in March 1932, at time of unprecedented economic and political chaos in New South Wales. With the Bridge's opening, the first wave of electrification of Sydney's suburban railways was more-or-less completed. The sensational opening of the Bridge is best remembered for the political demonstration which accompanied it, when a fanatical right-wing equestrian attempted to pre-empt the Premier's cutting of the ceremonial ribbon. His gripe was that a member of the royal family should have performed the job. More significantly, though, was the fact that the crowd present that day was the largest ever assembled in Australia before or since. There is no more impressive railway or transportation site in Australia than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and no place which more eloquently symbolises the aspirations and ambitions of a nation.

To Bradfield's great disappointment, the final stage in his city loop, connecting St James and Wynyard stations by way of Circular Quay, was not built at the time. Nor were his Warringah and Eastern Suburbs Railways. The postponement of the Warringah Railway at least had the advantage of enabling the eastern pair of tracks on the Bridge to be used to take the North Shore trams into the city. Despite these disappointments, the ensemble of the Bridge, electrified suburban railways and the city underground as planned and executed by Bradfield have been an enormous success. New lines and extensions of electrification have been added roughly every decade since. Eventually in 1956 the loop line through to Circular Quay was opened, achieving a dream already a century old. In addition, there were two new suburban lines opened in the late 1930s, and the most recent line, to Sydney airport, opened as recently as May 2000. The Eastern Suburbs Railway was eventually opened in 1979 (although diverted to run through King's Cross instead of beneath Oxford Street as Bradfield had envisaged), eighteen years after the trams it had been conceived to replace had been withdrawn. Its construction was the most protracted of any of Sydney's railways, work having begun in 1917. Mainline electrification began in 1956, with the electrification of the railway across the Blue Mountains to Lithgow. All these works have been built to the technical standards of Bradfield's 1915 report.

Thus, in Sydney, railway electrification was far more than the mere technical issue of railway traction. It was part of a great social and political movement whose aim was the improved amenity of Sydney as a city. Railway electrification came as part of a package, essentially Bradfield's package and the New South Wales Labor Party's package, for remaking Sydney as a modern city. That package has been a brilliant success. It was never implemented quite as Bradfield envisaged, and the growth of motor traffic inevitably has meant that parts of Bradfield's vision were unnecessary, the assumptions behind them flawed. Nonetheless, in essence the scheme has been fulfilled, and Sydney's status as a world city largely has been based on the infrastructure accompanying the electrification of its railways in the 1920s. Thus, Sydney was well behind Melbourne in welcoming electric trains, but it was in Sydney where those trains were to have the greatest impact.

In both cities the increases in rail patronage following electrification were modest rather than spectacular (although greater in Sydney than Melbourne, reflecting the much greater investment in Sydney). Thus, suburban journeys in Melbourne rose from 103 million in 1918-19 to 160 million in 1926-7, by the time the electrification project was complete.28 The reasons for this are easy to deduce. There are two. The Great Depression began in 1929, just as the railway electrification projects were completed. At the same time, growth in car ownership meant that those who were more prosperous increasingly took to the roads. The Depression did lead to a pause in the growth of car ownership, but only a pause. For instance, the number of cars in New South Wales rose from 28,665 in 1921 to 170,039 in 1929, then fell to 144,749 in 1931, but had recovered to 216,443 in 1939. Or, in other terms, there were 2.1 vehicles per 100 persons in 1921, but 11.9 in 1939, a relative increase of 567%.29 This was precisely the period when the railways were electrified. Even the massive investment in the Sydney Harbour Bridge benefited motor as much as rail traffic, since the bridge included a roadway.

Nevertheless, in Sydney, with two new suburban lines opened during the 1930s as well as the Harbour Bridge and city underground to stimulate business, growth was steady, despite the Depression. Electrification provided a boost in passenger numbers, even if not quite to the extent Bradfield had envisaged. From 117.6 million in 1925, they rose to 137.5 million in 1930, a gain almost entirely lost in the first year of the Depression which followed.30 It is significant, though, that the annual rate of increase was higher between 1920 and 1925 (that is, before electrification) than in the following five years.31 Patronage grew rapidly during the War from a Depression low-point of 119 million in 1931, and, while not exactly buoyant throughout the post-war period, has been healthy since. It peaked at about 260 million in 1955, fell gradually to 205 million by 1980, but has grown consistently since then and at the beginning of the new century is around the 300 million mark.32

In Melbourne, it has been a different story. Suburban passenger patronage was relatively stable after the initial boost provided by electrification. Patronage declined during the Depression and rose during World War II, with the result that in 1956-56 journeys numbered 161 million, virtually the same as the 160 million of 1926-27. From that point on, though patronage fell, reaching a low point of 93 million in 1977-78. In 1981 Melbourne at last acquired a new piece of city railway infrastructure - the underground city loop - but it was fifty years too late. Patronage did recover slightly, and by 1995-6 had reached 111 million. In general, though, suburban train usage per capita was only half in Melbourne what it was in Sydney in the 1990s, a result in part of the differing philosophies of electrification.33 This was bad news for Melbourne's' suburban railways, for so long the best in the country, for their length and operating costs are not much less than Sydney's, but their usage not much more than a third.

The electrification of Melbourne and Sydney's suburban railways, and the associated work such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and city railway in Sydney, have been among Australia's greatest ever infrastructure projects. More than anything else, these have contributed to urban amenity and the modern shape of these cities. Electric railways have also had much to do with driving the real estate market, which are the motors of so much economic activity in both cities.

Australia's other cities did not electrify their railways in the 1920s, as did Sydney and Melbourne. The result was prolonged stagnation of their suburban railways and a flight into car transport on their peripheries. With the resources they were given, the railway commissioners in the other states, and indeed the New South Wales Commissioner in Newcastle and Wollongong, did what they could to improve suburban services and maintain market share in the face of competition from trams, buses and, after about 1950, private cars. In all states, the 1920s and 1930s saw the introduction of petrol, and later diesel railcars. At first these were intended for rural services, and indeed that is where many spent their entire lives. However, railway administrations soon discovered their advantages on lightly trafficked suburban services as well. Although their capital costs and imported fuel costs were high, other operating costs were low, and they were relatively fast, cleaner than steam trains (even those fuelled on the best of Maitland coal), and unquestionably modern. They were used extensively on off-peak and some peak services in Adelaide, Perth and South Brisbane by the late 1930s. Brisbane and Newcastle, though, would remain the domain of the steam locomotive. Indeed these two cities would continue as such until the end of steam traction in Australia, their passengers travelling to the city in the late 1960s in the same carriages - often hauled by the same locomotives - as their great grandfathers and grandmothers had used back in the first decade of the century.

By the 1950s, when Sydney was busy building new suburban railways and electrifying others, the first closures began around Adelaide and Brisbane. While most of the Adelaide lines closed were light railways laid along streets, the same was not true in Brisbane, where the system was radically pruned. The nadir was reached in 1963 when the South Brisbane to Southport and Tweed Heads lines were closed. By then, this part of Queensland was developing rapidly and had become known as the Gold Coast. For the shysters who had taken over both the local Country Party branches and the City Council, this wonderfully convenient railway had no use. It was closed and its real estate sold to benefit a handful of politically influential speculators. As with the closure of the Brisbane's trams a few years later (where the Queensland ALP was the guilty party), the astoundingly corrupt Queensland political environment of the 1960s destroyed what was poised to become the state's most valuable pieces of infrastructure. The egregious folly of this vandalism took only a few decades to realise, and the line was rebuilt (at vast expense) in the 1990s.

Outside the two dominant cities of Sydney and Melbourne, it was in Brisbane that the pressures for suburban electrification were greatest. It was the third largest state capital, and like its larger cousins had a number of city stations, one of which (Central) was wedged between two tunnels. Traffic was busy, even intense for the infrastructure available, and until the mid-1950s it was all worked by steam locomotives, all burning the none-too-clean Ipswich coal. Report after report, beginning in the late 1940s, recommended the electrification of Brisbane's suburban railways, but the money could never be found, as both major political parties, Labor and Country, relied heavily on the bush for support. At that stage Brisbane could not find, as there was in Sydney and Melbourne, a broad consensus between Labor and Liberals on the need for urban improvements. During the 1950s, new carriages were delivered in anticipation of the imminent electrification of Brisbane's railways. Based on Sydney's suburban cars but with a modern stainless steel finish, they were capable of conversion to electric traction, just like the Sydney and Melbourne cars delivered in the 1910 to 1925 period. They never were, but spent their entire careers hauled by steam, and later diesel locomotives. Eventually, electrification of Brisbane's railways began in the 1970s, outside the scope of this work, to be followed by Perth's a decade later.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s Tasmania abandoned all passenger train operations, including Hobart's suburban services; and in 1975 South Australia's railways were split between the Commonwealth and the State, the latter merging the suburban railways it retained with its bus and tram operations. Under this regime, Adelaide's suburban railways have shrunk even further. Thus, at the end of our period, the contrast between the cities which had electrified their suburban railways and those which had not was dramatic. Those with electrified railways had experienced growth and high property prices. Those without had stagnated, although Brisbane and Perth would come to make the leap into urbanity and the era of electric railways in the late twentieth century.


1 Figures from Gary Wotherspoon, 'The "Sydney Interest" and the Rail 1860-1900' in Max Kelly, Nineteenth Century Sydney, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1978, p 12.
2 Statistics from Michael Cannon, Life in the Cities: Australia in the Victorian Age: 3, Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1975, pp 14-16.
3 Lesley Lynch, 'T.S. Mort, His Dock and Balmain Labour' in Kelly, Nineteenth Century Sydney, p 81.
4 On the Port Phillip excursion steamers, see T. K. Fitchett, Down the Bay: the story of the excursion steamers of Port Phillip, Adelaide, Rigby, 1973.
5 E. E. Morris (ed), Cassell's Picturesque Australasia, London, Cassell, 1889, p 104.
6 A M Prescott, '"A thousand miles from care": the Manly ferry' in Gary Wotherspoon, Sydney's Transport: Studies in Urban History, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1983, pp 63-80.
7 On Sydney ferries, see Graeme Andrews, The Ferries of Sydney, Terrey Hills, Reed, 1975.
8 R.E.N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, London, Elliot Stock, 1883, p 16.
9 Ibid, p 21.
10 Cannon, Life in the Cities, p 51.
11 The Tramways of Adelaide, past, present and future, Adelaide, The Critic, 1909 [reprinted in facsimile by the Australian Electric Transport Museum, Adelaide, nd [c 2000], p 29.
12 Don Fraser, 'Roads and Streets' in Don Fraser (ed), Sydney from Settlement to City, an engineering history of Sydney, Sydney, Institution of Engineers Australia, 1989, pp 48-51.
13 Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, p 14.
14 Morris, Cassell's Picturesque Australasia, p 66.
15 Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, p 15.
16 On Horse buses, see Dick Audley, 'Sydney's horse bus industry in 1889' in Wotherspoon, Sydney's Transport, pp 81-100.
17 Table compiled from police records in Lester Hovenden, 'The impact of the motor vehicle, 1900-39', in Wotherspoon, Sydney's Transport, p 142.
18 The Tramways of Adelaide, p 9.
19 Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers, Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1976, pp 75-78.
20 Ibid.
21 This account is based on that in Leo J Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62, Melbourne, Victorian Railways Public Relations and Betterment Board, 1962.
22 R.E.N. Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, London, Elliot Stock, 1883, pp 16-7.
23 Ibid, p 211.
24 I.A. Brady, 'Jubilee of Sydney's Electric Trains', ARHS Bulletin 37, 461 (March 1976), 49.
25 This account owes much to S E Dornan and R G Henderson, The Electric Railways of Victoria, Sydney, Australian Electric Traction Association, 1979, pp 5-32.
26 Calculated from AM Prescott, 'A Thousand miles from care': the Manly ferry', Garry Wotherspoon (ed) Sydney's Transport, Studies in urban history, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1983, p 65.
27 The words are those of Country Party leader Colonel Bruxner, quoted in Richard Raxworthy, The Unreasonable Man, the life and works of J.J.C. Bradfield, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1989, p70.
28 Dornan and Henderson, The Electric Railways of Victoria, p 5.
29 Official Year Book of New South Wales, 1938-1939, p 413.
30 Figures from the Annual Reports of the NSW Railway Commissioners.
31 The annual rate of increase 1920-25 was 7.62% compared with 4.70% for 1925-30. See Robert Gibbons, 'The 'fall of the giant': trams versus trains and buses in Sydney, 1900-61', Wotherspoon, Sydney's Transport, p 160.
32 Calculated form figures in the relevant Year Books of New South Wales. Note that the criteria for suburban journeys vary over this period, so the figures are best regarded as approximate.
33 Marc Fiddian, Trains, Tracks, Travellers: a History of the Victorian Railways, Pakenham, South Eastern Independent Newspapers, 1997, pp 134, 143-5.