Monday, 9 June 2014

Railway Archaeology - The Ballarat Tramways

Trams have become pretty closely associated with Melbourne nowadays - I know when I was younger I thought of them as a uniquely "Melbourne" phenomenon. At 250km of track, Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world, with only a few major European cities even coming close. But things were not always this way - many other cities in Australia had tramways, with Sydney's network being even bigger than Melbourne's. But most of Australia's tramways were ripped up during the 20th Century, and have by and large been forgotten until quite recently.

Melbourne's tram network began in the 1880s, and the legislation that allowed it was crafted with the assumption that Melbourne would be the only city in Victoria that would have trams. Shortly after Melbourne's tramways opened, the citizens of Ballarat started a push for the tramways to come to their growing township. In 1883 regional councils were given the power to build tramways if they took on all the risk, and in 1885 were given the power to grant concessions to private operators who wanted to build tramways, which was the preferred model at the time. With these legislative barriers removed, construction was able to go ahead in Ballarat, with Geelong and Bendigo following soon after.

Tram in Sturt Street, circa 1910 (Source)
The first line between the city centre and the Botanical Gardens opened on 21 December 1887. It was operated by double-decker horsedrawn trams, the first of which has been preserved by the Ballarat Tramway Museum and still runs to this day. The decision to go with horsedrawn trams was not uncommon at the time - they had a strong recommendation from Adelaide, who had found great success with theirs - but did not account for Ballarat's hilly terrain, which required more horsepower and therefore would have been better suited to electric trams. Still, construction on other lines continued apace for the next six years to give a reasonable network over the town of Ballarat and the nearby Borough of Sebastopol, with double track up Sturt Street providing the spine of the network.

Tramways of Ballarat, 1893
As I've pointed out in the past, Ballarat East was considered a separate township until the councils amalgamated in 1921, which lead to some interesting duplications of services such as railway stations, fire stations and town halls. It also meant that Ballarat East would require its own tram network, as the Ballarat one ended on its doorstep. The network they planned in 1890 was quite extensive, with lines to Black Hill, Mount Pleasant, Canadian and two lines to Brown Hill. It was also planned to be built to a very high standard, with double track throughout (whereas the Ballarat network was mostly single track with crossing loops). However, by the time things were ready to begin, the depression of the 1890s was in full swing and there was no money to build it. Ultimately only a shortened line up Victoria Street and the line to Mount Pleasant were built, as part of the Ballarat-wide network.

Tramways of Ballarat East, proposed in 1890 but never built
Electrification finally began in November 1904, with the first electric services commencing on 18 August 1905. It was nearly a decade later when the electrification process was completed, with the Sebastopol line being finished in August 1914. After this point, the network remained pretty much the same right up until 1971, with the only major change being the Lydiard Street line being extended from Macarthur Street up to Norman Street in 1937.

Tramways of Ballarat, 1971
Generally speaking, trams commenced about 7am on weekdays (give or take half an hour, depending on the route) and continued right through till 11pm, at a frequency of between 20 and 30 minutes. This frequency is comparable with today's buses, but the tram timetable would have offered a lot more freedom by ending 2-3 hours later than the buses currently do (although to be fair the buses do start earlier than the trams did). Saturday timetables were fairly similar to weekday ones, while on Sunday a reasonable frequency was observed, but only after about 2pm (before which no trams ran at all).

Tram entering Bridge St at the junction of the Mt Pleasant and Victoria St lines (Source)
The threat of motor buses began around the 1930s, as it did in most cities with trams around the world, however at the time Ballarat's roads were not really capable of handling them. Their massive weight would have meant expensive road improvements to begin with, and expensive maintenance to keep them there - so the trams earned a reprieve. However, as times went by and more and more people had private vehicles - and the general quality of the roads improved accordingly - there were numerous attempts to close the trams through the 50s and 60s. The Geelong tramways fell by the wayside in 1957, but the Ballarat and Bendigo tramways held on until the 70s.

Sebastopol tram turning right off Lydiard St onto Sturt St (Source)
In addition to being poorly maintained and therefore desperately in need of repairs, the network had stagnated, barely growing at all from its initial size even as the city expanded around it. By the end, only about 40% of the city's population was within 400m of a tramway, and therefore considered to be served by it.[1] Though tramways were being ripped up around the world through the middle decades of the 20th Century, there was a lot of public support for them in Ballarat and they may just have been spared had the network better kept pace with the growth of the city, as it did in Melbourne. Ultimately this was not to be, and the decision was made in 1970 to replace the trams with buses as soon as it could be arranged, with lines being closed gradually over the next 18 months. The final service to be withdrawn was the Lydiard Street to Sebastopol service on Sunday the 19th of September, 1971, when it was ceremoniously piloted by the mayors of Sebastopol and Ballarat on its final journey back to the depot.

Ballarat Tramway Museum (Source)
However, out of the fight to retain the trams in 1970-71 had come a desire to preserve the history of Ballarat's tramways, even if it would no longer function as a public transport network. A small section of track around Lake Wendouree and several of the trams themselves were retained, and they have since been restored, maintained and operated by a dedicated crew of local volunteers. Though not entirely without controversy, it is lucky that these people had the foresight and dedication to keep these pieces of history for later generations to enjoy, and remind us that Melbourne was not the only place in Victoria with trams.

[1] This 400m figure is based on a fairly standard planning tool, but is rather on the low end. Today, the rule of thumb is that people will walk about 1000m to a train, 400m to a bus, and somewhere in between for a tram (usually 600-800m). However, the general rule at play is nothing to do with the actual mode, it's that people are willing to walk further for a faster service - so 400m may have been a reasonable figure for the clunky, slow trams of the time.

Although bits and pieces have been accumulated from elsewhere over the years, much of the information in this post was found (or corroborated) in William F Scott's impressive book Last Tram at 11

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