Sunday, April 02, 2006

Review: Time-line history of Melbourne's Government Cable and Electric Trams and Buses

By Barry George, Don Storey, John Birch, et al, published by the Association of Railway Enthusiasts, 1997

I picked this up from the Railfan Shop and it's exactly as described; a chronology of significant government tram and bus developments. The book covers horse-drawn, cable and electric trams, the VR street railways as well as government buses from the 1880s to the 1990s. Its writing style is terse and no pictures are contained within.

Though the general reader may find other books of more interest, the 'just the facts ma'am' format makes it an invaluable digest for the transport historian, researcher or activist. Given that we often forget changes ocurring as recently as a few years ago, the authors have done a valuable service in documenting these (with exact dates no less) for posterity.

Highly recommended!

(see below for my interpretion of its contents)


Some common threads

Though hundreds of dates and events are documented in Time-line history of Melbourne's Government Cable and Electric Trams and Buses there are a few common threads that unite most. The more significant include:

Transport technology

In very broad terms, the 1880s-90s and 1910s-20s stand out as periods of massive change in all transport modes. The expanding suburban steam train and cable tram networks became dominant in the late 19th century, with horse tram services also operating but eventually being replaced.

The 1920s saw suburban train electrification (beyond the scope of the book), widespread replacement of cable trams with electric trams and the use of motor buses.


The 1956 to 1962 period saw closures of all non-MMTB tram services, notably the Footscray system in 1962 and VR-run services in the southern bayside suburbs. Geelong closed around this time, while Ballarat and Bendigo services lingered longer.

However the MMTB system continued to evolve, with trams returning to Bourke St, double tracking in sections, new crossovers and (later) extensions to Bundoora and East Burwood being constructed. MMTB's bus operations also steadily expanded. This was in the sense of taking over routes abandoned by private operators (eg in the Brighton area), expanding route coverage of developing suburbs (eg Doncaster/Templestowe), and boosting service levels (eg Melton/Sunshine/Footscray and West Heidelberg areas).

Service levels

The big story here is the halving of tram service frequencies as car ownership and use grew after WWII. The trend can be seen from this table (exact dates not reproduced here):

1936: Sunday morning services commenced on cable & electric trams
1937: All-night trams introduced
1941: All night trams expanded (note wartime shift work)
1954: Off-peak and after 6pm Mon - Thurs service cut from 10 to 12 min
1957: After pm peak services cut from 12 to 15 min
1959: Saturday night services cut from 10 to 12 min
1960: Some Sunday trams cut from 10 to 15 min
1962: Sunday afternoons cut from 12 to 15 min, weekday after 6pm services cut from 12 to 15 min, Saturday pm service cut from 10 to 12 minutes, Saturday night services cut from 12 to 15 min
1963: Sunday service cut from 15 to 20 min (evenings) and down to 30 min (am)
1967: Sunday service cut from 20 to 30 min (evenings) and 15 to 20 min (pm)
1969: Mon - Sat evening trams cut from 15 to 20 min
1989: 'Staff cut' alterations made permanent
1992: 'Special weekday service' introduced and made permanent

(table contents much abridged from the reference)

Just about all this decline took place in the 1954 - 69 period. However this should be viewed in the context of the time; during this period all other Australian capital cities closed their tram networks and may have had even bigger service reductions on the replacement buses.

The service decline was largely halted in the 1970s, but the strikes during that decade would have made service unreliable and further encouraged driving. Though not shown on the table, overall service levels probably reached their nadir in the 1990s as there have been Sunday and off-peak improvements since.

There have also been several smaller themes that buck the larger trend of postwar service decline followed by a modest upswing. These include continual experimentation with (and eventual abandonment of) all-night trams. This was mostly in the 1940s and 50s, but the last tram experiment was Route 99 in the late 1990s. Another has been more uniform services seven days a week. The practice of replacing trams with buses during quiet periods ceased in the 1990s. More recently, the Sunday only route 68 has been replaced by extended services on 55, which now becomes a standard 7-day route.

Trammies' working hours

The campaign to reduce weekly working hours was a major effort from the 1880s. This push largely lost momentum after 1950, and there has been no change since 1983. Significant milestones include (exact dates not reproduced here):

1885: 60
1908: 54
1911: 48
1939/40: 44
1948: 40
1983: 38

(table contents much abridged from the reference)

Industrial unrest and service disruptions

Not unrelated to the previous strand, there have been two significant periods where trams were commonly disrupted due to industrial unrest. These were the 1940s and the early 1970s to early 1980s period. Some of the difficulties in the 1940s were caused by coal shortages and strikes in the power industry which required trams to operate to reduced timetables. The last major disputes were the 1990 'tram blockade' and the Grand Prix stoppage a little later. More recently, changing attitudes towards industrial action, trade unions and privatisation have coincided with a long period of industrial peace and more reliable services.

Key industrial issues seem to have included the abovementioned working hours, pay and allowances, conditions and manning (particularly single versus two-man operations).

Political, organisational and economic changes

These matters did not feature prominently in the reference, so I won't cover them here. However, there would be themes of private operation, competition, operators strugging, government subsidies or takeovers, etc. Also such observations would not be complete without examining similar chronicles of Victorian Railways, private bus companies and even motoring.


Mr Jherek said...

Slight comment = Footscray system was an MMTB system.

Hels said...

This is super stuff..I have created a link to your blog, for which I thank you.

I did say in my post that I dislike privatised public transport but I forgot to mention that I grieve the passing of the conductors. Both were terrible decisions, I believe.