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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12 responses to “Sydney’s last trams

  • My grandfather was the tram driver to take the last tram over the harbour bridge “Frank Ericson”.
    I wondered if you had any photos or documentary of this
    A bit of irony is he later started up his own tyre fitting business

    • Todd
      How interesting about your grandfather driving the last tram over the Bridge. I suggest you contact the Sydney Tram Museum at Loftus, south of Sydney. They have a fantastic collection of trams and other tram memorabilia including photos and film footage.

  • Hi Margaret. I’ve previously brought to your attention that the O class was far from being the most numerous tram class in the world. I note that you have now qualified that to “in one city” but I’m afraid that’s a long way off too! The PCC for a start was represented by over one to two thousand cars in some cities and in the high hundreds (more than 626) in others. The Russian KTM5 from UKVZ was also prolific, with some 15,000 produced, mainly for Russian cities. I don’t have specific city numbers but at that volume I would think several cities would have more than 626 of them. There are possibly also other tram classes around the world for which I don’t have specific details. A great design the O, but that particular claim needs to be laid to rest.

  • I was 9 my mates and I got on the last tram at Malabar Junction only going to Forrest St, but talked the tram driver into letting us stay on after la perouse after everyone else got off and dropped us off at Forrest St on way back to depot waved to us as we got off

    • What a lovely and kind gesture by the tram driver and a wonderful memory for you and your mates!
      The driver knew you appreciated it, as much as he did.

  • my uncle has 4 tickets from when he took a ride on the very last tram to run in sydney, was just wondering if they are worth anything?

  • Hi. Are there any photos of the inside of Sydney’s iconic trams. As a child in the 50’s and 60’s, I vaguely remember the slat wooden seats you could poke your fingers through, slat overhead luggage racks and the beautiful cast iron brackets.

    Can anyone advise me where I can get some pics of these memorabilia?

    My most vivid memory was that of a Manly Tram, it’s ding ding bell, the smell of electricity (if that is the correct description), and the whining motor noise as it accelerated to almost jogging pace.

    My children have asked me to document my childhood for posterity, and Sydney Trams are a very fond part. Any help would be very much appreciated.

    • Hi Graham
      you would have a wonderful day at the Sydney Tramway museum at Loftus NSW (right beside train station)where you could not only enjoy looking at all the classes of trams that ran in Sydney, but ride on some as well (including toast rack and corridor trams). Open every Sunday and Wednesday.

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