Heavy rain fell in Melbourne during February, 1972, making it the wettest February on record. In the first 21 days 922 points of rain had fallen, compared to the average rainfall for February, of 184 points. The precious wettest month was November, 1954.
This bad weather created severe problems for the transport operation in Melbourne. The worst days were Tuesday 15th, Wednesday, 16th and Thursday, 17th, with Thursday being the most dramatic.
On Tuesday, 15th February, at around 3.30 p.m. in the city area, skies darkened, the wind howled and a massive deluge commenced with 75 points of rain falling in 10 minutes, leading to power black outs, and substantial damage. One casualty of this was the wrecking of the verandah of the Savoy Plaza Hotel, in Spencer Street.
Services were delayed be flood waters on the following routes:-
North Balwyn -
St. Kilda Beach (10 & 12)-
Via South Melbourne
Essendon Aerodrome -
West Coburg -
East Malvern -
Spencer & Little
Clarendon St. &
Normanby Rd. South
Racecourse & Flemington
Rds. Delay over 1 hour.
Commercial Rd. &
Park St, West Brunswick
Bambra & Balaclava Rds.
Where possible cars were diverted, short shunted and, or, run bang road to maintain services and a bus was used between Bell and Regent Streets on the West Preston route.
Trams destined for Spencer Street pause at the G.P.O corner before attempting to cross the river flowing along Elizabeth Street
Wednesday, 16th, started as a normal day including the usual peak hour problems. However, at 7 p.m. emergency services came into operation when a power pole was knocked down by a truck in St. Georges Road, West Preston. This resulted in a large percentage of emergency vehicles and staff being called to that locality. At this stage, fate took a hand and again the rain came down, mostly in the western suburbs. Silt caused detailment and delay for 95 minutes at Raleighs Road and Wests Road, Maribyrnong. There was also silted points at Ascot Vale Road, resulting in one tram on the "Up" West Maribyrnong, being diverted to the City via Moonee Ponds Junction. There were also delays at Essendon Station of up to 21 minutes caused by flood waters. The waters later subsided and weary Board's officers headed for home. The worst, however, was still to come.
On Thursday, 17th February, at about 3.15 p.m., the rain started to fall moderately and by 4.05 p.m. it had reached deluge proportions, and was accompanied by a severe electrical disturbance. Three inches of rain fell in one hour. The downpour was heaviest in the Central area and in Carlton, Fitzroy and Richmond. By 4.45 p.m. waves were seen to be lapping round the parking metres in Elizabeth Street, driven by a 34 m.p.h. wind. The water was estimated to be at a depth of 4 ft. at one stage and an old sea-dog is supposed to have estimated that the water flow was 12 knots.
It was not long before the following trams caught up to the first vehicles and were trapped in the rising flood waters.
This flow of water led to severe flooding of Flinders Street with trams stranded in the water up to their doors.
Other parts of the city also suffered in varying degrees, including Spencer Street, Sydney Road, at Moreland Road, Lygon Street, at Park Street, Carlton, Flemington Road, Kingsway, at Dorcas Street, which impeded the traffic to and from South Melbourne Depot.
The workshops at Preston also had their troubles including parts of the workshops being flooded. Later, when they had bailed out, the staff were to carry out a fantastic job in rectifying the damage caused to the trams by the floods. Up to 9 a.m. on the Friday 72 defective trams were reported to Preston, of these, 43 were attended to Preston Workshops, and 29 at varying Running Sheds. As an aftermath 20 additional trams were attended to for faults.
Although there were not enough serviceable trams, to meet the Friday morning peak, the clearance of service trams by the workshops, and running sheds, and the ferrying of these to Depots gave sufficient serviceable trams to mount full services in the afternoon peak on Friday.
A lot of work went on behind the scenes as the flood waters receded, most routes were functioning with some service, by 8 p.m. with exception to Prahran, where it was about 9 p.m. when any reasonable service was restored.
Trams were locked and abandoned on shunts, sidings, and at termini as follows:-
2 - north of Lonsdale Street
Gradually, these trams were towed, or pushed, back to depots, the last tram being 945, ex. Simpson Street, into South Melbourne at 3 a.m. on Friday 18th.
The underground 'Gents' at the Post Office was rather damp!- so were the traction motors of 591, caught in the worst struck part of the city.
While the towing and pushing was going on, Preston Workshops were in the throes of getting any trams which could turn a wheel, to the various depots, to run into traffic. No 610 was transferred to Glenhuntly Depot from Preston as a standby car but did not run in traffic. 469 also ex. Preston Workshops, transferred to Kew and ran up and down Chapel Street on the North Richmond route. Four L class cars were in traffic for the Friday p.m. peak, and were L01, L02, 103, L05. There were numerous transfers of Rolling Stock between depots often for only short periods and space does not permit me to go into any details. One item of interest, however, was the use of W 3 class car, 658, on a trip from Brunswick Depot to St. Kilda Beach, and back again.
Because of the abnormal road conditions a high number of overhead poles were hit by motorists - one snapped and required replacement.
Flooding in sub-stations was minor.
The buses fared well with only one bus slightly damaged. This was a MK. 6 bus in Flinders Street - the fan was bent by the force of water. This was quickly repaired and the bus resumed service, The buses also provided emergency services. Doncaster Depot provided 4 buses to operate on the North Balwyn, Mont Albert, Wattle Park and Burwood routes. Footscray provided two to operate on Burwood and Toorak routes, North Fitzroy provided two to operate on the West Maribyrnong and Toorak routes.
The Victorian Railways also suffered severely from the ravages of the floods as people who tried to get home that night, will well remember. Train services were disrupted all over the Metropolitan area. The flood water that swept from Elizabeth Street into Flinders Street also found its way into Flinders Street Station and eventually into the signalling equipment. Services were disrupted from 4 p.m. to approximately 7.20 p.m., when some trains started to run on the Eastern lines and services were gradually built up from there. During this period same services, on the Western lines, such as Upfield, etc., attempted to operate by being turned back from Spencer Street but were later withdrawn because of water on the tracks in the Spencer Street yards. Some trains operated from the outer suburban stations to provide limited service in the outer areas. The waters also blocked the subways entrances to Flinders Street and Spencer Street Stations and 36 ft. of water filled up the "cut-in" to the Melbourne Underground Loop Railway.
Like the Tramways, the Railways also had their problems on Friday, l8th. Because the floods did not permit all the trains to be stabled at outer termini, as is normally the case, for the a.m. peak "up" trains to city were reduced. Under these great odds, and having to operate such old equipment, to do it the Railways truly came through with flying colours.
We all have our memories of the floods, the very heavy loading on the trams, and, above all, the great dedication of the staff in keeping the wheels turning in the face of great adversity. The Chairman, quite rightly, sent a letter to all the staff commending them on their efforts. I think the great "pommie" Mr, Winston Churchill, as he was then, in the dark days of 1940, summed the whole business up very well, when he said "Never so much was owed by so many to so few - this was their finest hour".
I would like to extend my thanks to the Secretary of the Tramways Board, and numerous other officers, who assisted me in compiling this record, and also for assistance in providing information so that this great event could be well recorded on film. My thanks also, to Keith Kings, Jim Rush, and Ron Scholten for information and assistance.