Lost Sydney: Tramways

Sydney once had the largest tramway networks in Australia. The operation of trams on the streets of Sydney lasted 81 continuous years, with an initial five years of horse tramway between 1861 and 1866. From 1871, trams rapidly developed as the major form of transport around the city, and were integral to the rapid settlement and development of Sydney. Further, the operation of the trams was a factor in and a major influence upon the course of the development of the city, its present centralised form surrounded by largely residential suburbs being a direct result of the commuter facilities and travelling arrangements provided by the trams. Similar features can be observed in the historic development of Newcastle, where trams operated from 1887 until 1950.

Sydney was the only Australian city to have utilised all of the four generally recognised forms of tramway traction, being horse, steam, cable and electric, and it is generally accepted that the Sydney system was one of the most extensive public-owned tramway networks in the world. In addition to the main city network, there were a number of isolated lines in more remote suburbs, generally feeding suburban railway stations or Sydney Harbour ferry services, and two private lines operated for many years prior to one being closed and the other taken over by the Government.

At the peak of passenger movement in 1944/45, 404.6 million passenger journeys were made, averaging 1. 1 million per day. Maximum street mileage occurred in January, 1923, with 291.3 kilometres of track at a time when staff numbers reached its maximum of around 8,000. The maximum number of passengers vehicles in operation on the Sydney Main System reached 1,535 in 1935. The demise of the trams occurred rapidly between 1949 and 1961, to be largely replaced by government operated diesel motor buses. The trams, under normal development conditions, may have survived on particular routes that suited their characteristics but the intervention of the Second World War had seen enormous patronage of the tram system but no on-going investment and only essential maintenance carried out. The projected capital cost of a massive refurbishment of the system ultimately led to its abandonment instead.

The operation of trams on the roads of Sydney and Newcastle has its origins in a horse-drawn tram line first opened in Pitt Street, Sydney, between Central (Redfern) Railway Terminal and Circular Quay, opened on the 23rd December, 1861. Cumbersome and unpopular, particularly as the rails protruded above the road surface, causing difficulties for other vehicles on the roadway, it was closed in December 1866 and the rails removed.

Trams on the North Sydney Harbour Bridge approaches

During the planning for the Australian International Exhibition, held in the huge "Garden Palace" Exhibition Building erected for the purpose in the Botanical Gardens, the question of the transport of the expected crowds from the Railway Terminal to the "Garden Palace" was considered and it was decided to install a steam-powered tramline for this purpose. Mindful of the earlier unpopularity of the horse tram line, this facility was planned to be removed at the close of the exhibition. This line opened in 1879, being worked for its first two weeks by horses till the steam motor cars arrived from the United States. The line was popular and led almost immediately to calls for expansion of the tram service. In 1880, the Tramways Extension Act was passed in the NSW Parliament and construction of additional tramlines along the major transport routes to the city was commenced.

The first steam tramway line operated from adjacent to the Redfern Railway Terminal to Elizabeth Street at Hunter Street, with crossing loops at either end. A depot was located near the Redfern Terminal in Pitt Street, on the corner of what was then known as Garden Road, opposite Gipps Street West (now Barlow Street). One of the first modifications to this line occurred in 1880 when the Elizabeth Street terminus was extended from Hunter Street to Bridge Street, and a terminal yard was created on land behind the former Treasury Building, on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets. This terminal grew into a minor depot, with seven storage sidings and coke and water facilities.

In September of the same year, the first suburban line opened for traffic between Alison Road, Randwick (at the Racecourse) and Bridge Street. This line was extended into Randwick shopping centre in March 1881, whilst at the same time, a branch was led from Taylor Square along Oxford Street to Ocean Street (known as the Waverley Line). This line was quickly extended to Charing Cross. The Randwick Line was extended to Coogee in 1883.

By the end of 1881, another branch line led to Surry Hills from Oxford Street along Crown Street to Cleveland Street, the Woollahra Branch line ran from Oxford Street along Queen Street to Ocean Street, and an isolated section of track was opened between Newtown Bridge along Enmore, Victoria and Marrickville Roads to Illawarra Road, Marrickville. In 1882, a line opened from the Redfern Railway Terminal via Devonshire, Chalmers, Castlereagh, Redfern and Regent Streets, then Botany Road to a depot at the Terminus in Banksmeadow Park.

The Newtown to Marrickville line was connected to the City lines via King Street and City Road to Parramatta Road, where it branched from a new line to Glebe Point from Bridge Street, all completed by September, 1882. A new line to Forest Lodge also ran along Parramatta Road to Derwent Street, Glebe, then via Catherine Street, Mount Vernon Street, St Johns Road to Ross Street at Pyrmont Bridge Road.

The year 1883 saw a line opened to Annandale along Parramatta Road, extended to Short Street, Leichhardt via Norton Street in 1884 and to Darley Road via Norton Street in 1887. The Waverley Line was extended to Bondi Junction in 1884 and to Bondi Aquarium in 1887. The first cross-country (i.e. neither terminus was in the city) service opened in 1887, connecting the Coogee Line at Randwick to the Waverley Line at Waverley, with services from Randwick to Bondi Junction. This line was, from 1890 to 1892, the first experimental electrified line in Sydney. It reverted to steam operation when the electrical equipment was transferred to the North Shore.

Development of both new lines and extensions to existing lines continued through the 1890s. The Marrickville Line was extended to Dulwich Hill in 1889; the Waverley Line to St Thomas Street, Waverley in 1890; the Forest Lodge Line became the Balmain Line when extended through Annandale and Rozelle to Darling Street, Balmain, then to Gladstone Park in 1892; the Bondi Line was extended to Bondi Beach in 1894 and the Glebe Line to Glebe Point in 1896. New lines included one from Leichhardt to Abbotsford, opened in 1890 and extended to Abbotsford Point in 1893, from the Railway Terminal to Moore Park via Cleveland Street in 1891, from Newtown Bridge to St Peters Station via King Street in 1891 and from Allison Road via Anzac Parade to Randwick Rifle Range in 1900. This last line was extended to Little Bay in 1901 and to La Perouse in 1902.

Maps of the Sydney Tramway network, 1947

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Cable Tram Lines

Cable Trams were contemporary with steam trams however their mode of operation was less satisfactory, particularly regarding their reliability and the load capacity of the system. They were suited to lines involving steep grades however and for this reason were constructed in two locations as part of the Sydney network. In both cases, the lines were operated from a single powerhouse along the line within which a large steam engine drove a continuous cable running in a central track between the tram rails, to which the cars connected to gain motive power.
The North Shore Tramway

The first cable Tramway was opened between Milsons Point Wharf and North Sydney in 1886; the fare was four pence. It passed through the centre of the North Sydney township along Miller Street and terminated at a depot and powerhouse on the corner of Miller and Ridge Streets. The line was important in connecting the township with the main ferry wharf for the North Shore, the land in between being a steep rise from the waterfront to the ridge. The line was extended to Crows Nest along Falcon Street in 1893, enlarging the residential catchment area. In the same year, an experimental electric tram line was opened in the opposite direction to Spit Junction from the Ridge Street depot. This line was extended to Mosman Wharf in 1897.

The ultimate success of electric trams led to their taking over the cable tram lines, first the Crows Nest line, which was extended to Willoughby in April 1898, followed by the conversion of the original line to Milsons Point in February, 1900. The Spit Junction service was extended to Hayes Street, Neutral Bay and to The Spit in the same year. The Ridge Street Powerhouse, as well as housing the Cable Haulage engine, contained the engine and generator for the electric tramlines (from 1895, the generator was driven off the Cable Haulage Engine). In 1903, electric cables were laid across the harbour and connected to the substation established in the former Cable Haulage Room and the Ridge Street Power plant ceased to function. The Depot Car Shed continued in use till replaced in 1909.

A line north towards the as yet undeveloped area now known as Northbridge was first proposed in the 1880s with the launching of the North Sydney Tramway and Development Company. This company was formed to sell land and develop the area beyond Flat Rock Creek (Willoughby). A major tool in its marketing strategy was the construction of the Cammeray Suspension Bridge over the creek. Unfortunately, the hype and publicity surrounding the bridge was not enough to keep the company afloat, and having opened the bridge in 1892, the company went into liquidation. The tramway which was to pass over it had not yet been built. It was later constructed from North Sydney as far as the bridge, opening in May 1909. The tramway was extended as agreed in 1914, the terminus being in Sailors Bay Road, near the public school.

When the bridge was closed to traffic in 1936 after serious faults were discovered in the steel work and cables, the tram service was reduced to as far as the bridge. The bridge's cables were removed and the roadway supported by a reinforced concrete arch. When the bridge was re-opened in September 1939, patronage had fallen off so much tram services were withdrawn completely. The whole lower north shore tramway system was closed in June 1958 to be replaced by buses. When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened, the North Shore tramlines were brought over the bridge to the city centre. However, they terminated in the underground Wynyard railway station, and did not connect with the city lines at all.
The King Street Cable Tramway

Sydney's second cable tramway was established in 1894, running from the Darling Harbour end of King Street, along St James Road, College, Boomerang and William Streets then Bayswater Road and New South Head Road to Ocean Street, Edgecliff. The depot and powerhouse were located at Rushcutters Bay adjacent to Rushcutters Bay Park. This line was extended to Rose Bay in 1898, the extension being of electrified track. This services commenced in October. Power was generated in the Cable Tram Powerhouse and electric cars were hauled to this track over the cable line by the cable cars. In 1900, the electric track was extended east to Dover Road and the cable line to the depot electrified, enabling self-propelled journeys to the depot. From 1902, these journeys were incorporated into the normal schedules and passengers were carried. This coincided with the decision to replace the cable trams with electric and the whole line had been electrified by March, 1903. The last cable tram ran on 5th January 1905.
Sydney's Electric Tramway System

The earliest use of electric trams in Sydney was the experimental test line established between Waverley and Randwick, opened in 1890. In 1892 this line reverted to full steam operation and the electrical equipment was transferred to the North Shore for the North Sydney to Spit Junction line, opened in 1893. This line was extended to Mosman Wharf in 1897 and then in the opposite direction including the electrification of the intermediate cable tram track to Willoughby via Crows Nest in April 1898. The first full electric service on the south side of the Harbour opened as an extension of the Cable Tramway, from Ocean Street, Edgecliff to Rose Bay, in October, 1898. In both of these cases, power for the electric trams was generated at the cable tram powerhouses. In 1896, approval had also been given for the construction of an electric tram line between Circular Quay and Pyrmont, along George and Harris Streets and in 1897, electrification of all existing steam tram lines was accepted as policy. It was quickly concluded that a major central generating facility would be required and construction commenced on the Ultimo Power House and Ultimo Tram Depot in 1898. The George St/Harris Street tramline and the first stage of the powerhouse opened on the 8th December, 1899.

Electric traction was a major improvement over other power systems, enabling much higher loadings, much lower running and maintenance costs and more frequent services. The trams were larger, more comfortable and convenient for passengers and the better services provided encouraged their popularity. The early twentieth century was characterised by enormous increases in tram patronage and, consequently, services. Numerous new lines were opened, existing lines extended and rolling stock purchased in this period.

Electrification of the existing steam tram lines proceeded rapidly, the priority set by usage levels, convenience to existing stages of electrification and relative costs. Most lines were converted unchanged initially, with subsequent work or alterations. Steam rolling stock was pushed further out in the system until only the isolated lines in the south-east and western areas of the city remained as steam. A number of isolated lines were closed without being electrified, including the Parramatta to Castle Hill line, the Arncliffe to Bexley line and the Sutherland to Cronulla Line. One, the Kogarah to San Souci Line, was converted for use by electric trolley buses.
Unusual Sydney trams

Tram Number 948 was built specifically to carry prisoners to and from court and was known as the Prison Tram (right). Built in Randwick training workshops in 1909, it was used for transferring inmates between Long Bay Penal Institution and Darlinghurst Court House. The specially fitted tramcar with six cells ran between 1909 and 1949. Retired from service 1950, Restored at Sydney Tramway Museum in 1989. Only one prisoner escaped from the prison tram - a famous Sydney character called Darcy Dugan. Other special passenger trams operated in Sydney included Parliamentary trams. They started running in the steam days of 1880s and lasted until the late Twenties. They took members home after late night sessions in the Parliament House, Macquarie Street.
The Balmain Counterweight Dummy

Electric trams handled the steep terrain of Sydney much better than the steam trams, but some hills were just too much. One of these was the 1/4 mile of Darling St in Balmain which led to the wharf, which had a grade of 1 in 8.25. To enable trams to operate this section, a counterweight trolley was installed under the road surface, connected by cable to a cable tram grip dummy on the track on the surface. A tram descending would push the grip dummy ahead of it (which raised the counterweight). On the return journey, the grip dummy would give the tram a helpful push. This unique contraption can be seen at the Sydney Tramway Museum, Loftus.
Closure of the tram system

The Sydney tram system was Australia's largest, at 290 km, in 1933. But because the system consisted of several isolated sections, it was relatively easy to close it down, piece by piece. This process started in 1939 with the Manly system. The last Pitt St. and Castlereagh St. tram ran in 1957 on a Saturday night at 1 am. Within minutes of the tram's run the overhead wires were pulled down, and the next morning (a Sunday) the tracks were paved over, to ensure there would be no return of the trams even if the buses should prove inadequate. This shows pretty clearly that there were forces at work other than just a desire for efficiency.

In June 1958 the North Shore system was closed, and in 1961, 100 years after the first tram had run, the last line in Sydney closed. The replacement buses were loss-making from the start, and within just a few years the City Council was starting to regret the loss of the trams, but it was too late. In 1975, a proposal was floating to reinstate a tram loop from Central Station to Circular Quay along Pitt and Castlereagh Streets. In 1995, this proposal re-appeared, attached to the Darling Harbour Light Rail Plan, which was adopted. Today the line runs from Central Station to Lilyfield.
Remnants of the Sydney tram system

Above: a tunnel built to carry trams off the Sydney Harbour Bridge into Wynyard station. The tunnel is now part of a hotel car park.

Whilst the only trams running in Sydney today are those at the Tram Museum in suburban Loftus and the light rail from Central Station to Lilyfield via Darling Harbour, the tram system has left its mark on the city and suburban landscape in a variety of ways. Many tram terminuses, which featured loops for returning trams, remain across the metropolitan area particularly near ferry wharves and are now used by the bus services which replaced them for their turning circles.

The terminal end of Athol Wharf Road, Mosman widens into a turning circle near the wharf and is framed by the excavated escarpment on the north side and the waterfront on the south. Tram services to Taronga Zoo were commenced in October 1916 and, with the establishment of the wharf in Athol Bay, a single track line was built connecting the Wharf and the Top Gate of the zoo, opening on October 1917. Tram services continued until June 28, 1958 when they were replaced by buses.

A similarly excavated sandstone escarpment and foreshore shelf at Avenue Road, Mosman, is physical evidence of the tram service. A large turning circle excavated from the sandstone escarpment at the southern extremity of Lower Avenue Road, with central traffic island (with garden beds) today serves as a transport interchange with the adjacent Mosman Ferry Wharf. Ferry Service commenced in 1871 and trams were extended to the Wharf from Mosman Junction in 1897. Motor buses replaced the trams in 1955.

Another visible relic of the North Shore tramway system and one which is associated with the development of Balmoral is a steep cutting in the escarpment leading from Balmoral Beach up to Middle Head Road via Beaconsfield Road and Gordon Street. The Balmoral Line operated from May 1922 until the closure of the tram system in June 1958. The replacement bus services operated on a different route to the beach and the tramway reservation was abandoned. The cutting, contained largely within a Public Reserve, was recently cleared and a short section of track relaid to recall the cutting's former use. Remnants of a tram terminus and the wharf for the tram punt for the Spit Bridge tram service are located in Avona Crescent, Seaforth. The site also includes the remains of a vehicular ferry ramp.

A rare surviving component of the Manly to Narrabeen tramline is a timber framed weatherboard shelter for commuters. Constructed in 1913 as a terminus when the line was extended here, it remained in service as a tram shelter until the track closure in 1939. From 1940 it has been used as a bus shelter.

A remnant of the tram service to Bronte is a sandstone cutting in Calga Avenue, South Bronte, along which trams travelled. Excavated around 1911 when the tram service commenced, the cutting is today used for car parking. A shorter cutting used as part of a tram loop at the Watson Bay terminus is visible at Gap Park below the Dunbar anchor. Sections of exposed tram tracks can be seen in the roadway of O'Dea Avenue in Waterloo and the Great North Road, Abbotsford. A tramway Station/waiting shed, now used by buses, also remains on the Great North Road, Abbotsford A concrete tramway pier sitting upon the bed of Toongabbie Creek upstream (westwards) of Redbank Road bridge is the only remaining evidence of a tramway to Baulkham Hills opened in August 1902. Twenty years later work commenced to convert the tramway into a railway, with a new loop running from Westmead across Toongabbie Creek via a steel viaduct. The tramway pier is from this loop. The line was closed in 1932.

former Abbotsford Tramshed, now a supermarket

In 1884 a tramway was brought into service within the alignment of Tramway Avenue, Grand Avenue and Grand Avenue North, Parramatta from James Ruse Drive to the junction of Parramatta and Duck Rivers.

A tramway was built from the new wharf at the junction of the Parramatta and Duck Rivers, along George Street to the terminus in O'Connell Street between 1883 and 1884. In that year, the river at the eastern end of the wharf was deepened for steamers, making it economical to employ larger vessels on the Sydney-Parramatta route. The wharf tramway remained in use until March 1943, used mainly to carry freight for Meggitt's Mill nearby. A wide street alignment to allow for trams and tracks along the eastern end of the road in Grand Avenue, Rosehill are the only remaining evidence of the tram service.
The Tramway That Never Was

A tramway from Liverpool to Hoxton Park Estate was proposed in the late 1880s. In 1896 an extension of the Carlingford line to Dural was planned but never implemented. It was to be built in two sections: the first as far as Castle Hill, and the second to Dural. A proposal to extend the Camden branch to The Oaks was floated in 1903 by it never eventuated. In 1904 local farmers proposed a branch line from Mulgoa (Penrith) to Liverpool but lack of funds left the project stillborn.

exposed tramlines in the city

Abandoned tramway cutting at Balmoral

A tram on the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Balmain tram

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