Happy Centennial of a Big Global Streetcar Event

Tram procession on Riversdale Road, Camberwell, Melbourne, November 10, 1991. Courtesy Australian Rail Maps Group on Facebook.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB), whose history is wonderfully summarized in the quoted sections below, which were originally posted on Facebook by the group Australian Rail Maps, which also provided the historic photo from 1991 above.

The M&MTB built both of Muni’s W-class trams: W2 496 in 1929, and SW6 916 in 1946. (Muni also has W2 586, built in 1930, complete and in storage.) W-class trams are generally considered among the best ever built anywhere: simple, reliable, and durable. There were eight evolutionary classes of these vehicles, built between 1923 and 1956. In the photo above, W Class 380 and W1 Class 431 bring up the rear of this procession of older trams. Originally M&MTB painted its trams in a chocolate brown, but switched to the iconic green livery in the late 1920s. W-class trams still hold down service on the 35-City Circle line, as famous to Melbourne as cable cars are to San Francisco. These trams are in the process of being upgraded with some modern features while retaining their historic fabric into the W8 class, for decades more service. We have shared some of the details of these upgrades with Muni, for possible incorporation into its Melbourne trams.

You can find a complete all-time roster of Melbourne trams here.

Melbourne today continues to operate the largest electric streetcar network in the world, thanks to the enduring commitment started by M&MTB. Happy Centennial to our friends Down Under. And thanks to Adolfo Echeverry for the great photo immediately below of Muni’s 496 (left) and 916 at the Ferry Building.

Founded on November 1 1919, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board was a State Government instrumentality charged with integrating and operating Melbourne’s then fragmented tramways. The city and suburbs possessed an impressive but disjoint collection of tramways that had evolved over decades. The MMTB inherited the cable tram network built between 1885 and 1919 by the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company (MTOC), and the Northcote Municipality Cable Tramway line. Comprising numerous lines centred on downtown Melbourne, cable trams ran in all directions into the inner suburbs and was world’s largest ever cable tramway network.
The MMTB also inherited a number of municipal-owned electric tramway networks that served surrounding municipalities. Many lines connected end-on with cable trams into the centre of Melbourne. These networks included those of the Prahran & Malvern Tramways Trust (PMTT), the Hawthorn Tramways Trust (HTT), the Melbourne, Brunswick and Coburg Tramways Trust (MBCTT), the Fitzroy, Northcote and Preston Tramways Trust (FNPTT), and the then under construction Footscray Tramways Trust (FTT). It also took over the operations of the privately owned North Melbourne Electric Tramway & Lighting Company and Melbourne’s last remaining horse tram route from Royal Parade to Melbourne Zoo in Royal Park.
The MMTB set about unifying and standardising the network. Over the decades it replaced cable trams with electric trams. The last cable tram route, along Bourke Street, closed in 1940. It embarked on a massive electric tramcar modernisation and building program that gave the world the famous W class tram and enabled the older pre-MMTB trams to be withdrawn.
Ultimately, it’s because of the MMTB that Melbourne was able to stand strong against the worldwide destruction of tram networks throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and has not only retained but extended its network so that it is now the world’s largest electric tram network. Trams are now the single most iconic and defining feature of the city.
Ultimately the MMTB was dissolved on July 1 1983 when it was replaced by the Metropolitan Transit Authority that merged tram, bus and suburban train services in Melbourne. Subsequent changes have led to operation of Melbourne’s trams nowadays being franchised to Keolis Downer and run under the banner of Yarra Trams.

–From Australian Rail Maps Group on Facebook, November 1, 2019
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Boat Tram Still Sidelined

Update: 1928 Melbourne Tram 496 will continue to substitute for 1934 Blackpool (England) Boat Tram 228 on The Embarcadero Tuesday and Wednesday, July 16-17, while Muni maintenance crews analyze the problem with one of the motors or bearings. We will provide updates on the progress of fixing the boat tram as available.

Muni Maintenance management tells us they will work to get the other Boat Tram, 233, operational for Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7-8, should the problem with 228 be worse than expected.

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Melbourne Tram Subs for Boat This Week

The popular 1934 Blackpool (England) open-topped “Boat Tram” encountered a problem at the end of its service week last Wednesday and is being worked on this week, so 1929 Melbourne Tram 496 will substitute for it on the special waterfront service Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Muni assures us they’ll make every effort to return Boat service as quickly as possible.

The Melbourne tram is a sweet ride, and with windows that drop all the way down and an open center section, it provides great views and a breezy ride too. Come take a cruise, on the “Wonder from Down Under”.

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“Seattle’s Classic Waterfront Streetcars Stuck at Dead End”

The headline above adorns a sobering story in the Seattle Times about the dangers of taking streetcars for granted. It’s not about the new, modern South Lake Union line, which has already spurred a second line under construction and a plan for several more lines (on top of the newish light rail system).
It’s about the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line, opened in 1982 through the relentless efforts of its namesake, a long-time Seattle City Council member who died in 2004. George Benson believed the city’s dowdy waterfront would be helped by attractive public transportation. His personal advocacy made it happen. Five ex-Melbourne W2 class trams built between 1925 and 1930 (and identical to Muni’s No. 496) tooled along between the International District and central Seattle, mostly running alongside the surface street known as Alaskan Way, a rough equivalent of The Embarcadero in San Francisco.


Ex-Melbourne tram No. 605 on the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar line before it was shut down in 2007.

Beside the waterfront streetcar line, there’s another similarity to San Francisco: a double-deck freeway obscuring that waterfront boulevard and holding back its renaissance. After pitched political battles that went on for decades, Seattle is finally tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct because it’s seismically unsafe. (Cue Yogi Berra: “Deja vu all over again.”)
The forthcoming demolition of the viaduct would probably have required a temporary shutdown of the waterfront streetcar, if it hadn’t already been “temporarily” shut down five years ago when its modest maintenance barn was ripped down for an outdoor sculpture garden and Metro — Seattle’s transit agency — kept finding excuses not to build a temporary replacement maintenance facility. (As we told Metro at the time, the cheap and simple facility created at Duboce and Market for the Trolley Festivals of the 1980s worked just fine for five years.)
The New York firm tasked with designing the reborn Alaskan Way (the freeway traffic is going into a tunnel) said last year they’d prefer pedicabs (those tourist contraptions you see on The Embarcadero) to vintage streetcars as part of the plan, but the City of Seattle now says streetcars may possibly fit into that new streetscape after all. But maybe modern ones, as on the other planned Seattle lines, instead of the Melbourne trams.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Times published an update saying that Metro is now listening to offers for its five ex-Melbourne trams, and that interests from St. Louis were out last week to kick the tires and may make an offer.
If there is a lesson here, we think it’s this: you cannot take what you have for granted. That’s especially true of projects driven to initial success by a single champion or a small group, no matter how much power they might have had at the time. You have to build an enduring constituency for such projects, both bottom-up (from merchants and neighborhood groups that benefit) and top-down (from elected officials, transit board members, etc.) The Seattle experience shows what can happen otherwise.
By the way, we (Market Street Railway) did consider the possibility of trying to acquire the Seattle trams awhile back, but believed Seattle supporters of George Benson’s dream should have every chance to resurrect the service there.
For the record, the five Melbourne trams are said to be in good condition, with the doors on one side sealed off (meaning they would have to operate as single-end cars in San Francisco or be restored to their original configuration. With open-platform center entrances, they require two operators, a significant cost consideration. And they would require significant electrical work to be put into service. (Similar work on Muni’s second Melbourne tram, No. 916, being done as the stretched-thin maintenance team has time, started more than two years ago, and is still not done.)
MSR continues to believe — and advocate — that the highest priority should be completing restoration of streetcars Muni already has. We specifically would like to see four streetcars in Muni’s possession restored that are double-ended and can be operated by a single-person crew: 1924 Market Street Railway Company home-built streetcar No. 798, 1923 New Orleans “Streetcar Named Desire” No. 913, 1926 Johnstown, Pennsylvania streetcar No. 351, and 1927 Osaka, Japan tram No. 151.
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