The other form of transport that Sydney people loved was their trams. Not these new trams – the light rail – that have the sense to be silent and unobtrusive, but not enough character to be lovable. No, the old trams. Despite the fact that they left you exposed to the weather, they would regularly become detached from their power lines, and you needed the agility of a monkey to get on and off. Alan Waddell, a man who has walked over more of Sydney than most of us know about[i], was passionate about trams.

The most exciting trams were what we called the “toastracks”. The seats were in large compartments, each having two seats facing each other and going from one side of the tram to the other. So there was no aisle inside the tram. The conductor had to collect fares by walking along the outside board, clinging on to the railings with one hand while handling coins and tickets in the other. It wasn’t much fun for him when it was raining heavily. The other excitement was when the power poles came off the overhead wires. You could fill in time waiting for your tram by placing a one-penny coin on the tracks and watch it get flattened and spread out by the trams before yours.[ii]

A publicly-run steam tramway system began in 1879, with electric tramways on the North Shore in the 1890s and through the rest of the system in 1899. People depended on the trams, and extra trams were made available for special events. The advertisement for the procession to Waverley Cemetery in 1898 to re-inter Michael Dwyer included the information that ‘A special tram service has been procured’.[iii]Special trams were made available for holiday events, race days and royal visits.

As each line was superseded by buses, people rode the tram for the last time, from depot to depot. The last tram to Manly was in 1939, the Enfield tram route closed in 1948, Rockdale to Brighton-le-sands 1949, Botany to Matraville 1952, the last tram ran along George Street in 1958, and finally, the last trams to Maroubra and La Perouse on 25 February 1961.[iv]

Passenger numbers were falling as the number of private cars increased, and buses had the distinct advantage, for the Transport Commissioner, of being able to be operated by one person, rather than two. The incompleteness of the Transport Commissioner’s calculations is captured by Patrick White:

In the big pneumatic buses, manners from the age of trams continued to reveal themselves: old men with raised veins on the backs of their hands still felt the need to apologise …[v]

Nevertheless, despite the new pneumatic buses, passenger numbers continued to fall throughout the 1960s – the falls were attributed to increased use of cars and taxis; regional shopping centres; new housing developments not serviced by buses; and, most interestingly, a growth in television watching and a decline in night-time travel.[vi]


[i]See http://www.walksydneystreets.net/obituary.htm

[ii]Alan Waddell, email interview 30 March 2006

[iii]Sydney Morning Herald, May 21 1898.

[iv]‘From City to Suburb … a fifty year journey’ Greg Travers, The Sydney Tramway Museum, 1982.

[v]White, P. The Vivisector. Vintage 1994 p520.

[vi]From City to Suburb … a fifty year journey, Greg Travers, The Sydney Tramway Museum, 1982. p139