Sydney’s Trams their Rise, Decline, Demise and Rebirth

Chatting with students in class about Australia in the 1950s inevitably led to me reflect on the demise of Sydney’s tramway system. I loved trams as a child, I still do, and it remains a delight to be somewhere trams are still in use. The elevation, comfort , relative quiet and freedom from vibration when trams stop to collect passengers, or in traffic, contributes to a more peaceful journey than travel by bus or car. Some tram journeys are wonderful experiences and according to the GS Tram Site “there are almost 3200 cities in the world that have now, or had in the past, tram and/or LRT systems.”

In Constantinople/Istanbul the journey from Sultanahmet past the Grand Bazzar via Agia Sophia to the Spice Markets on the banks of the Golden Horn is enchanting.  From a childhood perspective the trip from Randwick to Flinders St along the margins of Centennial Park, past the Sydney Showground and Cricket Ground with water hens, ducks, ferris wheels and the Cricket Ground’s green domes was embued with its own magic.

In Sydney the only serious rival for trams are the ferries, but that’s another story.

Tram’s First appearance in Sydney

Trams made an early appearance in Sydney.  A limited horse drawn service appeared appeared as early as 1861, running from Central to Circular Quay and there were horse tram services still running as late as 1894, as shown in this photo from State Records NSW.

Horsedrawn tram

By 1879 the first steam tramway was established.  The photograph of this tram is from 1879 and is part of a collection from State Records NSW.

Steam Tram

Steam trams continued to be an important means of transport as Sydney grew through the next two decades.  When steam trams first appeared Sydney was a small city with 95% of the population living in the City of Sydney area and the immediate inner-city suburbs of  Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst in the east, Redfern and Newtown in the south, Glebe, Annandale and Balmain to the west.

In the 1880s suburbs such as Leichhardt, Petersham, Stanmore and Summer Hill began to develop.  These suburbs  were the outer growth zone of Sydney.  Beyond lay  dairy farms and market gardening.  Trams were part of this development.

1920s Expansion

By the 1920s suburban expansion was becoming very rapid.  Supported by an increasingly extensive urban tramway network there was a wave of development and suburbs like Bondi, Bronte, Clovelly, Coogee, Daceyville,  Kensington, Kingsford, Maroubra, Randwick, Waverley, Willoughby, Canterbury, Bankstown, Haberfield, Concord, Five Dock, Auburn, Dundas and Eastwood grew rapidly. Trams were also operating on the north shore of the harbour from Milson’s as far as Chatswood in the early 1900s.  After the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932, trams also serviced suburbs such as Neutral Bay, Cremorne and Mosman.

World’s Largest Tram Network

The following photograph of trams in Railway Square Sydney was taken in 1927 just five years before Sydney’s urban tramway system had acquired the status of the world’s largest. Tragically, 30 years later it was gone.

1927 Railway Square. State Records NSW

As a child growing up in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, during the 1950s and early 1960s, I lived through the demise of trams and the beginning of the automobile revolution.

In the following photograph from the early 1950s, taken looking south along George St from Martin Place  towards the intersection of George and Barrack Sts, the relative absence of cars is most apparent.  At this time cars were still expensive and new cars luxury items.

George St looking south from Martin Place, early 1950s. From State Records NSW

With the mass production of cars over the ensuing ten years and the change over to a transport system based on cars and buses, the impact was dramatic.

George St, Sydney looking south from Goulburn St 1960. From State Records NSW

My students were quick to find the ‘tram graveyard‘, indeed they and successive generations of their peers had found it some years before and set about transforming the trams that remained.

Sydney’s Trams Today

The present Central to Lilyfield route is a very different experience to the trams of yesteryear, for starters it’s expensive and also over engineered. It carries a few commuters but so far its main clientele seem to be tourists and patrons for the Star City Casino.  I sometimes jump on to go to the city or the Fish markets.  The line is to be extended to Dulwich Hill and there’s even talk of resurrecting the trams from the graveyard and running them around s a tourist attraction.  The Barangaroo incorporates trams running along Hickson Rd to Millers Point and Walsh Bay.

Artists Impression of Hickson Road and part of the Barangaroo development

So I guess there’s still hope for a return to a more extensive tramway system and a greener city. Indeed, some of the features of the proposed Barangaroo development include a restriction on the size of underground car parking in the southern commercial precinct to two levels and an emphasis on public transport, bicycle paths and pedestrian bridges to the CBD.

For more on Sydney’s trams see “Remnants of Sydney’s Once Great Tramway“.

17 thoughts on “Sydney’s Trams their Rise, Decline, Demise and Rebirth

  1. What a fab look at the way we were and how we stuffed up! Great history- loved the photos. I have used the new trams when visiting Sydney. My parents use the buses to get into the city now from Ashfield because parking is so dear. Before that they, like so many of us like the door to door convenience of driving your own car.

    The comparison between the photo where cars were not common and the 1960’s one was scary! I wonder what a 2010 photo would look like?
    Cheers. 🙂
    “Look what they’ve done to our city Ma!!”


    1. Thanks Audrey, I’m glad you liked it. I’ll make sure I visit that spot in George St and take a contemporary shot. My guess is that it’s not as bad as the 1960s, now that the Western Distributer is in place.


  2. Thanks for the memories and the pictures, Russell. There’s another whole story of course, about the conductors swinging along the footplate, risking life and limb to collect tickets and generally keep order.

    I’m pretty confident of a memory of my late father, whose family had a small business for a while in Ultimo, telling me of horse drawn trams coming over the Pyrmont Bridge and changing the team of horses on the city side of the bridge, ready for the climb up Market St. He was not born in 1897, so my assumption is they were still using at least that horse drawn tram in at least the first decade of the 20th century.


  3. One line that many commentators miss, is that which went along Stoney Creek Road from Bexley to Bexley West; it terminated at Preddy’s Road, and the trams turned off to the right into the next street to “park”.

    My grandfather was a conductor on this tram for many years, as well as the Sans Souci line from Kogarah. He wásn’t allowed to leave the terminus on his lunch break, and as his home was only about 1/2 mile away, my mother and her sisters used to carry his lunch, including a large teapot, over to the terminus through fields of blackberries.

    He suffered terrible rheumatism perhaps brought about or exacerbated by swinging around the outside of the toastrack trams in all weathers. He only lived for a couple of years after retiring at 60.


  4. I’ve seen most of these photos before, but not the 1960 one. Nice find, Russell… To Audrey, I’d say the scene 50 years later is about the same. The trip up George St by bus is torturously slow. I usually get off at Railway Sq and walk. By the time I get to Bathurst St, the 438 bus I was on sometimes passes me, but often I’m way in front.

    Clover Moore’s plan to replace the buses with light rail has some merit, but it’s hard to imagine any politician being brave enough to force people to change modes of transport. Especially as the contract Metro Light Rail has with the government makes integration of the government run buses and the privately run trams impossible at present.

    That may change, but don’t hold your breath. While the Dulwich Hill project is well under way, the Barangaroo leg of the current expansion hasn’t even started its planning processes. Only extreme optimists believe that it will survive the change of government.


  5. Great expo on the trams of my childhood/youth. I am at the moment making a film of my childhood years in Sydney (1941 to early 1960s) and I am wanting to include cut aways showing images similar to the pics shown on your site. I note they are from state records. What’s the go in getting same, did it cost you? Am I legally able to down load your images? Do you know if there are any of the 1950s trams in a museum somewhere?

    Do you know much about the disposal stores just post war in Sydney?

    Regards Fred Hillier


    1. Thanks for the positive comment on this post. It’s remarkable just what a lot of attention this particular post receives. There still seems to be a great deal of interest in trams as a contemporary approach to urban mass transit.

      For those of us who grew up in the era of trams, particularly the post war children who had more disposable income than their depression and wartime era parents, trams were the way we travelled around Sydney.

      State Records will allow publication of images on a non-profit basis with acknowledgement. For commercial ventures separate arrangements must be made.

      I’d say that the Sydney Tramway Museum almost certainly has 1950s trams.

      On Disposals Stores in Sydney, well I certainly used to visit them, when I was a teenager in the early 60s and was aware of them in the 50s. What do you need to know?


      1. Hello Max

        I am trying to find photos and or information about the first electric tram to attend Central Railway Station

        Can you help?



      2. Greg, I think it’s very close to 1900, but I can’t be precise. I was wondering if these were electric trams, but then I thought I could see a funnel on the front so concluded they were steam. Still searching for confirmation one way or another I noticed that someone had linked to this Streeton painting which confirms the steam assumption. They also linked to this photo.

        Finally, here’s a shot taken at Railway Square in 1900 showing electric trams.


  6. Thanks Max

    Any information would be great.

    There is a old family story that says that one of my relatives was the conductor or driver of the first electric tram that went to Central station.

    We have found that he was employeed between 1900 and 1904 on the trams via employment records.

    I am hopping this would have been a celebrated event I was hoping there would have been a newpaper article or photos.

    My father who is a direct blood relative is about to turn 80 and it would be great to have something special to show him.

    Any help that you could give would be greatly appreciated



  7. My father was a tram conductor out of Rozelle Depot from 1943-1961 when he was retrained as a bus driver and retired in 1978.
    I’m wondering about the photo of George St. dated 1960 as I travelled from Lilyfield to school at Fort Street GHS on Observatory hill on the trams during 1959/61. I have a photo of the last tram leaving Lilyfield in 1961. This photo shows a single decker bus coming from Glebe. In my memory these didn’t come in for a few year later. I thought too that the first buses were all double-decker.
    I’m writing memoirs about the importance of trams in my life. Found your site researching for photos.


    1. Thanks Lyn. The photo came from the State Records and as you’ll see, it’s marked 1960. Looking down at the posts below this, on their Flickr site, I see that others have queried the date of the photo as well. They’re using the makes of cars to locate the exact year. It seems it’s 1962 and your observation adds further evidence to this. Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it.

      I’d love to see the memoirs when you’ve completed them, if they’re to be made public.


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