Sydney’s last trams

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Photography by D.R. Keenan. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Fifty years ago today, on the 25 February 1961, Sydney’s last electric trams operated on the La Perouse and Maroubra Beach lines. The last day of trams is a great date to remember for trivia nights. This wonderful image taken by D.R. Keenan shows an R1 class tram at Maroubra Junction on the day. It was swamped with joy riders and crowds along the route. Note the chalked messages of goodwill.

Experimental electric trams began in Sydney in 1890 but before that we had horse trams from 1861, steam trams from 1879 and on some steep lines, cable trams from area.

They were fast, quiet, clean, and enormously popular. Demand for larger trams with cross-bench seating and semi-enclosed areas saw new models quickly appear.

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Photography Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The most famous of all Sydney’s electric trams were the O class or ‘toastrack’ trams. The Museum has a toastrack, No 805 and it’s been loaned to the Sydney Tramway Museum for a special 2-day festival to mark this event.

The name ‘toastrack’ referred to the equally-spaced vertical divisions between the bench seats. There was no centre aisle so the ticket conductor had to balance on an external footboard outside the tram. No health and safety regulations back then! The tram had both enclosed and open sections and lots of doorways to let passengers get on and off quickly. They were capable of carrying 80 seated passengers and 128 in ‘crush’ conditions, were mostly run in pairs and ideal for moving large crowds from venues like sporting fixtures and the Easter Show. With 626 in the fleet, the O class was numerically the largest class of tramcar used in the one city in the world and technically the most advanced and fastest in Australia at the time. They were locally built between 1908 and 1914 and served as the basis of Sydney’s electric tram fleet for over 40 years, and were said to be loved by passengers and tram crews alike, but were all removed from service by 1958.

Sydney writer Robert Makim recalls the skill of the conductors on O class trams during the 1920s and his description adds to this image from the Rainsford/.Fairfax Photo Library.

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Photography Collection: Rainsford/.Fairfax Photo Library

“The tram guards were a race apart and were generally much admired by little boys, even though we did our best to outwit them by ‘scaling’ a ride, crouching unseen on the footboard on the other side of the tram. They [the conductors] had a marvellous free-flowing style of walking the footboards. By using vertical [and horizontal] handrails, they would sweep majestically from one end of the tram to the other with a graceful sideways step not unlike a ballroom dancer. They were outside in all kinds of weather, and in heavy rain would be swathed in voluminous black oilskins. Their leather money bag with its ticket clipboard never seemed to get wet, as they would open the doors, lean inside with their bag, brace themselves with their elbows and knees, announce ‘Fares ‘ease’, and then perform the complicated task of thumbing off the correct tickets, taking money and counting change, all the while balancing on the footboard as the tram swayed along the tracks.”

The government pushed tramlines out into the suburbs all over Sydney. Unlike today, this quite often preceded urban development. The tram system was capable of moving massive numbers, and could deliver over 80,000 people to Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse for a single meeting, then disperse the crowd within 20 minutes of the finish. An enviable achievement, unsurpassed today. Despite this, even by the early 1930s the NSW Government had decided the future of public transport in Sydney lay with buses not trams but the Second World War intervened and postponed closures of tram lines.

“Why did we get rid of the trams in the first place?” is a question I’m often asked. Well, after the war the car was on the rise, and police, motoring organisations and many newspapers began to turn on the trams. They were seen as an old-fashioned relic of the 19th century, not wanted in a modern automobile-based city. Tramways and other public transport systems had been under great strain during the war, and many were in a badly worn state at its conclusion. As public transport patronage began to drop off in favour of the car, administrators were not inclined to spend large amounts of money maintaining or expanding the tramways and a policy of conversion to bus operation was fully instigated. The closure was so rapid that tram lines were tarred over and the overhead wires removed the same night trams finished just to make sure there was no going back.

Thirty six years later, in answer to the city’s worsening transport problems, trams returned to Sydney. The short private tram line, by now called light rail, opened from Ultimo to Pyrmont in 1997. However, councils and the public continue to lobby for more light rail lines in Sydney. Since them little has been achieved despite the fact that as a public transport mode it continues to make massive inroads into congested cities around the world.

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Photography by Howard Clark. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

When Sydney’s light rail opened the only tram available to prepare the tracks was a 100-year-old D-class scrubber car which had to be borrowed from the Sydney Tram Museum. This image was taken by Howard Clark.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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