There is a lot of talk recently about light rail networks in Sydney being the answer to our traffic congestion and public transport needs moving people fast, cheap, safely and efficiently. It’s a good idea for Sydney but not a new idea.
In 1861 Sydney experimented with a new system of public transport-a horse draw tram running from the old railway terminal at Redfern to Circular Quay: 1 mile and 63 chains.
The tram, while novel, was not a huge success. The rails were all wrong and needed to be laid upside down to work, which meant the other city horse drawn vehicles had trouble getting over them. The problems were exacerbated by the tragic death of Australia’s first composer, Isaac Nathan, who slipped under the wheels when alighting. The service was discontinued in December 1866.
But this was not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but just the end of the beginning. Interest remained and in 1879 a new line was laid to coincide with the Garden Palace Exhibition in the Botanic Gardens. Just as the Garden Palace was a marvel of modern design and innovation, so too were the new steam trams that ran down Elizabeth Street to it. But wary of the past, the Government said it was a temporary line, only in place for the exhibition.
Luckily for Sydney, the line was so popular that it not only stayed but quickly began to expand.
The first line out of the city was to Randwick to serve the racecourse. In time this became one of the busiest lines on the system (on race days). On one day in 1922 for the Sydney Cup, 92, 287 people travelled to the races by tram! Try doing that on today’s bus system. And as it got busier the trams were updated with steam trams being replaced with electric cars from 1890.
And so it went. The lines rapidly pushed out into the suburbs and beyond to where suburbs were to follow. From 1879 when there was only 2.5 km of track, it jumped to 50 km by 1884 to 290km at its peak in 1929. Lines extended to Bondi, La Perouse, Chatswood, Narrabeen and Ryde.
In a time before private cars the trams were the most popular form of transport in the city. In 1909 it was recorded that between 5 and 6.30pm on a weeknight a tram passed the intersection of King and George Streets every 8 seconds, that’s 564 in 90 minutes. In 1937 50,000 people were leaving the city on trams between 5-6pm every day after work.
They were a massive industry and included a lot of infrastructure, with overhead lines, power stations and depots all built to serve them. Many of the depots remain as bus depots including Waverly, Concord and Tempe.
There were also all types of special trams such as the prison van tram which ran out to Long Bay (that was a long ride) or the dog specials which took owners and dogs to the showground for shows or greyhounds to the track. But there were accidents, with some people getting knocked over or killed and some trams derailing or even ending up in the harbour.
Still all good things must come to an end. After WWII Sydney was a changing place and trams struggled to keep up. The decentralisation of industry moved workers beyond the limits of the tram system, while increasing private car ownership lead people away from public transport. When it came the end came quickly. Lines began closing here and there from the mid 1940s, but in 1957 the decision was made to cease operations and in four years it was gone.
The last tram ran on February 25, 1961. Needless to say it was packed.