Catching a tram to the uni

A tram pauses at a stop near Tooth

A tram pauses at a stop near Tooth's (later Carlton) Brewery, 1957

In the photo above, taken in 1957, a tram pauses at a stop near Tooths (later Carlton) Brewery before heading on up Broadway to Dulwich Hill, dropping students along the way at the University's City Road entrance. Another tram approaches, on its way to Circular Quay; and alighting and waiting passengers take refuge from passing traffic in the tramway safety zone. Motorists cursed them, trams and safety zones and stray passengers as well.

Generations of Sydneysiders went to work each day by tram and most would have caught trams like those in the photo. Officially called O class cars but better known as "toastracks", they were introduced in 1908 and were the mainstay of the Sydney Tramway System for the next 50 years.

O class cars had timber crossbenches for the passengers and a footboard for the conductor who moved along it, taking money and returning tickets and change. There were open compartments at each end, great on a fine day, not so good on a cold, wet winter's day. Passengers could pull down canvas blinds to get some protection but conductors were stuck outside. Covered by heavy black oilskins, they edged their way along slippery footboards, pulling up blinds and leaning into compartments to collect fares and dish out soaked tickets. It was dangerous work, in fine weather let alone wet, and there were many fatalities over the years, when they slipped or were knocked off by passing cars.

Others to risk life and limb on toastracks were the paper boys who swung along the offside footboard carrying large bundles of the two morning or the two afternoon newspapers. They were supposed to be 14 years or older and to hold a permit from the Department. In practice, many had no permit mainly because they were only 11 or 12. Paper boys were often scruffy and bare-footed. It was part of the mystique. They would jump off in between stops and, alarmingly, leap from one tram to another, going in the opposite direction. They were young and agile, however, and more survived than you might imagine.

A double tram picking up a passenger in City Road on its way to Earlwood

A double tram picking up a passenger in City Road on its way to Earlwood

Examples of the destination signs

Examples of the destination signs

The photo below, of Railway Square in 1916, gives a glimpse of the way trams once dominated the Sydney scene. Annual patronage of Sydney trams built to a peak in 1945 when over 400,000,000 journeys were recorded. Soon after, however, the System went into a steady decline. Power shortages at the time didn't help trams and there was increasing competition from buses.

In the early 1950s, tramway authorities were still advertising for tram drivers and conductors who, according to the ads, would have "a job for life" but, from the mid-50s, lines closed regularly. And then it was all over. The last Sydney tram ran in February 1961.

Railway Square in 1916

Railway Square in 1916

Newspapers were solidly in favour of the move. Trams were old-fashioned, they said. Buses were the way of the future. Half a century later, it's not so obvious. Certainly, where tram lines ran along the narrow streets that are common in Sydney, trams and safety zones were a big headache for traffic. But a number of lines ran along a right-of-way, clear of roads, and on these, it was easy to understand the expression shooting through like a Bondi tram. And as people-movers, most buses don't come close to trams. A double toastrack had seats for 160 and, jam-packed, could carry 300.

Not that trips on jam-packed trams were comfortable – or all that safe. The photo below was taken in Elizabeth Street City during an evening peak hour in 1948 – hence the Mercier cartoon (see below). Emile Mercier was an institution here in the 1950s, through his daily cartoons in the Sun. He captured the flavour of Sydney at that time better than anyone.

Elizabeth Street City during an evening peak hour in 1948

Elizabeth Street City during an evening peak hour in 1948

Mercier cartoon: "Hold on Bert, there

Mercier cartoon

For the nostalgic and those who never knew Sydney trams, I can recommend a visit to the Tramway Museum in Loftus, and of course trams, now called light rail, have been making a modest comeback in this City, as they head out again from Central.

Sources

  • Photos are from the collections of D.R. Keenan, the Department of Main Roads, the Government printing Office and John Fairfax and Sons Ltd.
  • David R. Keenan, Tramways of Sydney, Transit Press (1979); City Lines of the Sydney Tramway System, Transit Press (1991).
  • The Sydney Tram, Ed. H.R. Clark, Transit Press (1988).