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Home RUNNING JOURNAL Reflections Cover Photo : Mal Rowe

Transport history is an interesting subject, sometimes it requires research not only of the time under consideration, but often both prior to and after the main events in order that a complete picture is obtained of what might appear at first a jigsaw puzzle.

In the last article along these lines, "Acts and Antics" (Running Journal December, 1972), the story of the acts, the private operators, and their effects on the finances of the Tramways Board were dealt with. These two factors unfortunately affect this part of Tramways history.

Under the Melbourne Metropolitan Tramways Act of 1918, Section 34, the Board was required to prepare a general scheme for the development of tramways for the service of the Metropolis and to prepare special schemes for the construction of all future tramways.

On January 24, 1926 the Swanston Street line was converted to electric traction, fifteen months later the Flinders Street cable trams were converted.

The cable system was already under the death sentence by the Royal Commission appointed in November, 1910. This reported in favour of the conversion of the cable systems to an electric one using overhead trolley wires for current collection.

To state such a thing is easy enough but to implement it is another. Many "experts" were keen to air their views and the press of the period gave them ample space to do this.

Alderman Sir David Hennesey was such an expert. His main concern was "City Disfigurement" caused by the proposed overhead wires for the trams. He was a member of one of the earlier trusts and while stating that he did not want to embarrass the Tramways Board he certainly caused the Board's Chairman, Mr. Cameron, plenty of work in defending the proposal. Sir David was very interested in the conduit system of current collection and had travelled widely to back up his claims especially dealing with the systems in operation in London and Paris. The Melbourne City Council were also at the start opposed to the trolley wires and Sir David had obtained a lot of information from Paris to assist the noble gentry in the deliberations.

On the other side of the argument was the City Engineer, Mr. Morton, and of course the Tramways Board. Mr. Cameron in one special speech made a series of sarcastic comments on the then existing landscape of Swanston Street, including the verandahs of the shops. One "Electnicus" in a letter to the Editor of the Argus 23rd October, 1922, came out with the strong support for the overhead system of current collection using overhead span wires. Not only was the argument over conduit V overhead collection but also spans wires as opposed to centre poles to support them. He stated "Keep the overhead as far from Mother Earth as possible", - very apt! Mr. Cameron stated that conduit track would cost up to £20,000 per mile to construct, no mean sum, and then set off to see systems abroad for himself.

The overhead wires won the fight as we all know on 13th November 1922, the City Council voted in favour of overhead wires for current collection.

On 10th September 1922 the Tramways Board issued a 14 page booklet "The Interim Report" for the development of Tramways in the City and suburbs. It deals with the reasons for the proposed conversion and modernisation of the tramway system. It takes other means of transportation such as the conduit, surface contact, battery, petrol and petrol electric trams, trolley buses, motor buses and the reasons for their rejection.

The motor bus had its part to play but could not replace the electric tram in City transport. Later of course the Board used motor buses in 1925. The trolley bus was stated to be unsuitable for dense service, they still needed unsightly overhead wires and needed a good road surface to run on. So the electric tram it was to be.

The proposals were submitted to the Minister of Public Works on 30th November, 1922 and was passed on by him to the Parliamentary Railway Standing Committee for consideration and report. Sir David Hennessy had given evidence earlier to the same committee on the overhead wire issue.

On December 2nd, 1922 the complete report was released to the press. There were to have been 226 miles of tramway by 1940. At the time of the report there were 125 route miles of cable and electric tramway. The existing electric services had to be linked up and co-ordinated. The conversion of the doomed cable system was to be an integral part of the whole project.

The cable tram was said to be inflexible, an interesting statement as how many of us have heard the same statement made against the electric tram and the trolley bus. The cable tram was said to be particularly unsuitable for handling special services, whereas by electrification the Board would be able to deal satisfactorily with crowds from football matches, racecourse meetings, and other events involving lots of people. Any combination of cable and electric systems were ruled out.


Map containing the proposed extensions, showing the extent that the system was to be extended (click for larger image)

To simply state that the cable tram must go is easy but to carry that out was another matter involving considerable traffic and engineering works. This was without taking account of opinions voiced in the press by experts and lobbying by vested interest for their respective causes. Of course like all great plans it was not completed although the plans were well received by the press of the time. The press urged that the money being filched by the State Government under section 88 for the Infectious Diseases hospital be given to the Tramways to carry out this work. The lack of finance caused by this and the competing private operators were blamed by the Board in later years for the failure to carry out the plans.

So we must sadly reflect that we do not have 266 miles of track to ride on but at least be thankful that 123 survive; better than nothing. Tours over that mileage would have been a real challenge, One interesting trip would have been the proposed link with the Williamstown system by the line from Boundary Street, Port Melbourne, along Williamstown Road and over the Yarra on a car ferry to the system on the other side. To quote the report "The construction of large works west of Spotswood of the settlement of the Fishermens Bend area would render lines necessary, where in the absence of some special inducement no settlement is likely to take place". Instead we now have the Westgate Bridge and it, like the Tramways, has had its rise and fall! It is picking up again now and we hope so will the Tramways with, in the future, a new fleet of trams to serve future generations as well as those poor "inflexible" cable trams did in the past.

The 1922 Plan D. Menzies - Volume 10, Number 1 February 1973