The tale of how one could have changed Newcastle's tram system forver

WHAT a difference one crucial vote might have made to try to keep trams running on Newcastle’s city and suburban network back in 1950.

We might have once kept trams running at least from Newcastle to Broadmeadow and hopefully out to Lambton/Waratah. Buses might also have been used to carry customers to more distant suburbs. The tram service, however, while reliable, was rarely profitable.

But of course, Newcastle didn’t keep its extensive tramway system, which once went out to Wallsend. Earlier, until 1930, it even went out to Speers Point and West Wallsend. Instead, people accepted state government provided double-decker bus replacements.

Officially, Newcastle’s last electric tram (from a fleet of 98) ran 68 years ago this month, on June 11, 1950.

It was a long weekend when our last electric tram, Car 147, left the city’s Telford St  filled to capacity with transport fans and followed by motorists blaring car horns.

It was 12.36am and the old ‘toast rack’ bound for Waratah was about to end our love affair with the Newcastle tramway system which had begun with steam trams (in 1887) and lasted 63 years.

But could the story have been vastly different? Could Newcastle have kept its network of electric trams by leasing existing tracks, overhead wiring, tramcars and substations owned by the state government?

My interest into what might have been came after recently receiving a call from an avid transport enthusiast who I’ll call Tom.

He’d discovered a forgotten story after Newcastle and suburban trams were removed back in June 1950.

“Newcastle City Council actually voted on the general idea of whether to restore the trams, but it was narrowly defeated by 10 votes to nine in July 1950,” Tom says.

“Newcastle council then sought a report about the possible reintroduction of district trams. At their request, the Australian Electric Traction Association later submitted a report (in November 1950).”

The report claimed points in favour of introducing modern trams (over double-decker buses) included lower operating and maintenance costs, a longer life, quicker acceleration, higher speed, all weather reliability, high degree of safety, a higher passenger capacity and greater comfort.

The AETA also claimed there was an enormous cost in abandoning the established rail service. The example quoted was of a recent (in 1950) conversion of Sydney’s Rockdale to Brighton-le-Sands route from trams to buses. Six tramcars with two spares were to be replaced by an estimated nine buses.

In reality, the converted service required 24 buses. It was also evident from the association’s observations that 70 per cent of the public wanted the trams retained.

The AETA report recommended if most old tramway routes were to be again used at least 40-45 new tram cars would be needed, plus the renewal of 25miles (42.5km) of line at a total cost of one million pounds (possibly about $65million today). But nothing happened.

NSW Transport Department officers were critical of the AETA report saying buses had lower operating costs. Newcastle council would also face a financial burden to reconstruct and maintain tram routes. The old trams also seated 70 passengers, while proposed new trams only had 52 seats. Besides, most tram tracks had last been rebuilt between 1922 and 1925. Parts of Wallsend tramline had not been touched since 1909.

So, the government’s program of tramway track removal continued into 1953. The last major piece of tramline track seems to have been removed on the corner of Darby and King streets in late 1958.

The issue of trams versus buses, however, is again in the news with Newcastle’s 2.7 kilometre light rail system (along Hunter Street) which is due to open in 2019 at an estimated cost of $290 million.

But back to the observations of rail veteran, Old Tom.

“I think Newcastle City Council could have got Newcastle’s old tramway network for virtually nothing. The government had the expensive job of pulling the tracks out and disposing of them for scrap only value. The wooden trams themselves were just burnt,” he says.

And he admits he’s a little biased towards Newcastle’s old tram network.

“I was on Newcastle’s last tram in 1950 which came back from Waratah to Newcastle,” he says. “To mark the moment, someone fired a giant sky rocket which then struck some overhead wires and blew up in a shower of sparks inside a convent.

“Trams, or light rail, is a very topical issue right now, but imagine the huge cost today of trying to re-introduce the old tramway network into Newcastle and Lake suburbs after we once had the chance to retain it.”

In his 1990 book, Tramways of NSW, author Ian MacCowan stated: “For some time after the 1950 closure, trams sat at Hamilton depot with Newcastle City Council hopeful of having the service re-opened and operating by them.”

Later, reading files at Newcastle Library’s local studies section gave a greater insight.

From the 1890s, Newcastle had the largest steam tramway network in Australia outside of Sydney. By 1922, the network covered 60 kilometres of routes.

Replacement of the electric tram system by double-deck public buses was foreshadowed by the closure of Carrington and Port Waratah tram lines in late 1938. 

Council’s key 10-9 defeated vote over the future of trams taken on July 18, 1950, was actually a motion for a December referendum seeking the public’s opinion.

Speaking against the motion was future Newcastle Lord Mayor Ald Frank Purdue. He said public transport was a state government matter and outside of council’s control.

“In view of the apparent lack of interest (at previous public meetings), a referendum isn’t justified,” Ald Purdue said.

Another alderman said it was unwise to incur such an expense when the NSW Transport department had removed the trams because it could not afford to maintain the tracks. But the pro-referendum voices on council were determined to save the trams.

Just before the last electric tram ran to Waratah, Newcastle Lord Mayor Ald Frank Quinlan told a public meeting that trams “must be returned eventually.”

What was needed was a local transport authority, “to overcome control from Sydney”. The council had done everything to convince the government that its policy to replace trams was wrong, he said.

The Herald reported this poorly attended meeting was held during heavy rain. A common theme among pro-referendum supporters was that “people were complaining about bus services everywhere.”

Ironically much later, in 1968, the then NSW Transport Minister Milton Morris said our electric trams had done a tremendous job “and I often wonder whether it was a good thing they were scrapped.”

Then in 1974, Morris said because of bus pollution, a cleaner light rail system appeared to be the only solution.

To learn more though about our defunct tram system visit the Newcastle Museum. That’s where L/P class 284 tram has been preserved for exhibition.

Rescued in 2004, this historic last Newcastle tram ran from 1925 to 1950. The service started with steam trams in 1887 running to Plattsburg (Wallsend), Glebe, Mayfield, Merewether and Waratah taking people home, or to the races, or the beach.

Modern electric trams then came in 1923. Customers sat facing each other in seven open ‘toast rack’ compartments. Overhead signs warned passengers that spitting on board incurred a 2 pound fine ($4).