Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

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ADDED : February, 2019



1940 : Replacing a Cable

The Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board plans to phase out cable trams commenced in 1935, more or less coinciding with end of the worst of Depression years.  

The routes in Elizabeth Street were the first to be removed - the Flemington and Sydney road routes were replaced with electric trams, the less patronized West Melbourne line with single deck buses. Over the next two years, the Rathdowne Street, Port Melbourne and Collingwood cable lines were also converted to single buses, while the more popular South Melbourne route was replaced with an electric tram service.

The Northcote and East Brunswick` (Nicholson Street) cable routes remained, both running from Bourke Street through major shopping strips and carrying a significant number of both regular commuters and casual travellers.

The original plan was for these two lines to be replaced by an electric service, but about this time, the Chairman of the M.M.T.B., Mr. H. H. Bell   visited Europe and North America to assess the current trends in urban transport and returned sufficiently impressed with the advances in diesel bus technology to convince his Board to convert the two Bourke Street routes to bus operations.

Given the experimental nature of the proposed system. the Board decided on a twelve-month trial, leaving the existing cable system in place in case the experiment prove unsuccessful and electric trams required after all.

The selected contractor for construction of the chassis for both the single and double-decker models was Leyland Motors Ltd., of Lancashire, England – the anticipated cost varied somewhat as the Board changed its mind a couple of times as to the number of each configuration required, but in October, 1938, it was suggested it had decreased from £122,000 to £103,000.

With the outbreak of the Second World War and the necessity to preserve as much fuel as possible, the operation of the buses was held over for six months to preserve supplies, the existing system effectively run down to the point where the cables became unusable and difficult in the extreme to replace given much of it was imported from England.  Prior to the commencement of the bus service it was revealed that the Board had 44 buses, most of them the new double-deckers lying in their yards because of the Federal Government's request that fuel be conserved.

The early buses were not universally popular with the general public, nor ultimately with the MMTB.  

Shortcomings of the new vehicles compared to trams - cable or electric - included congestion and delays while passengers boarded and disembarked at the single entrance.  This was considered the most serious deficiency as it help up general traffic and sometimes saw the buses themselves banking up – the State Government at one point considered introducing mandatory bus queues, bit it was considered impossible to police any legislation - other problems included a lack of accommodation for prams  and unreasonably high stairways to the upper-level.

The top decks of the deck buses also frequently collided with shop verandas and electric light poles, leading to significant repair bills and ongoing claims from property owners and electricity distributors.

There were also problems with the heavy and fast-moving vehicles - between six and ten tons - breaking up the road surfaces which were never designed for such weight .  A few months after the introduction of buses, Northcote Council believed it would have to replace two miles of its roadway at a cost conservatively estimated at £70,000, a sum which it believed it could only raise half of through the special bus-seat tax that the Tramways Board provided for such purposes.

The double-decker vehicles required the roadway at the Clifton Hill railway bridge to be lowered by several feet in places, but in line with earlier statements about cable trams possibly being revived in cases of emergency, the centre of the roadway carrying the tracks was allowed to remain.  .

Rather strangely, the Northcote Leader-Budget's comments on the replacement was restricted to a single paragraph suggesting that once trams had been removed from any particular street, it ceased to be classified as a "major street" and that the Council would need to have High Street re-gazetted as such, one side-product of which was that "Stop" signs would have to be placed on all side streets running into High Street.

(Although editorial content was nearly non-existent, the double-deckers was a bonanza for letter-writers to the paper, one suggesting in all seriousness that respectable women would never be seen on the top deck as "climbing the stairs will expose their nether limbs to unscrupulous males below", while another with tongue planted in cheek suggested that the upper level should be restricted to those who lived on the first floor of buildings in High-street, his suggestion being that the buses should be fitting with a gangplank swinging outwards to allow them to step in and out of the bus with descending or ascending from street level)!

The first meeting of the Northcote Council following the introduction predictably discussed the "pros and cons" of the new system, but came to no conclusion other than it would co-operate with the Tramways Board to ensure that stopping places be kept clear of parked vehicles to avoid buses banking up behind each other.

By the end of 1943, the experiment of converting the routes to bus operations had been deemed a failure and the MMTB declared the conversion to electric tramways its major priority and unsuccessfully submitted a plan for capital funding to the Commonwealth.  In 1947, it was belatedly decided that no new double-decker buses be built and the fleet would be retired after the Bourke street routes were converted, but a critical shortage of building materials and a chronic housing problem left the Board powerless to proceed with the conversion.

Further proposals by the Board to replaces buses on the Bourke Street routes with electric trams came in 1949, the passenger traffic believed sufficient to warrant the initial cost of installation. As a further offset, it was suggested that trams could be operated carrying the same level of patronage with 37 to 50 percent less staff.

One of the major proposals was the re-routing of the East Preston electric tram from its St. George's Road line to the southern end of High Street, and linking it via the existing Clifton Hill route to Bourke Street and then on to South Melbourne; the West Preston tram was to continue via St. George's Road, although there was an unfulfilled hope that it might be extended from its terminus at Regent street further north to Edwards Lake or thereabouts.

Trolley buses powered by overhead cables were also considered, but rejected because of slow loading and unloading of passengers (the same complaint as raised when double-decker buses were introduced), unsightly and cumbersome overhead installations, greater maintenance costs and a higher likelihood of defects, as well as a poor financial return based on experience of their introduction in Sydney - it was suggested running costs of electric trams in Melbourne were almost 9d. per mile less than Sydney and 4.5d. a mile less than Adelaide, both of those cities operating trolley buses.

With the ongoing shortage of materials post-war, it wasn’t until March, 1954, that work started on introducing an electric tramway from Collins Street through Collingwood, Clifton Hill and Northcote to East Preston.  The cables lines could not support the newer trams and had to be replaced, most of the track replacement in Bourke Street was performed at night under temporary lights to minimise traffic disruption.  

Fifty-five W-Class electric trams were to be used on the East Preston and East Brunswick lines through Bourke Street, all fitted out at the Preston Workshops with rubber-sleeved wheels, said to reduce noise by half and significantly reduce wear on the rails and the wheels themselves.

The laying down of the original cable tramway between Clifton Hill and the junction of High and Dundas Streets in the 1880s was delayed for some months due the problems of excavation south of Rucker's Hill, the same problem presenting a major obstruction when the tracks were re-laid in the relatively modern times of the mid-1950s.

Much of the area to the east, south and west of Rucker's Hill was (and still is) plagued by porous volcanic rock just under the surface; when "Plant's Paddock" as the area to the east of the Hill was known was subdivided around 1904-05, dynamite had to be used to break up the rock, reports on the installation of the electric line suggested the same.

The six-mile service was officially opened at the new East Preston depot on 26 June, 1955 by the Transport Minister Mr. A. G. Warner. Four of the new "quiet" trams carried 150 guests over the route; the first public service departing the depot at 8.01 a.m.  Total cost of the project including construction of the new depot was put at £1.75 to £ 2 million. The East Brunswick service via Nicholson-street opened on 6 April of the following year.

Left : The last cable tram in Northcote, 26 October, 1940 between Westgarth Street and Clifton Hill

Right : M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c line-up at the Central Bus Garage, North Fitzroy, 1940. (M&MTB official photograph courtesy Melbourne Tram Museum)

 Darebin’s Transport : Tall Tales and True

Left : M&MTB Leyland Titan TD5c number 245 outside Selwyn Chambers in Bourke Street, demonstrating the problem the double deck buses had with overhanging trees, verandas and light poles.

Above : 1940 Officials at closure of Clifton Hill cable line (Melbourne Tram Museum)

Right : An image from the MMTB's "Passing of the Cable Tram" poster of 1940 noting the closure of the last two lines – to Northcote and North Fitzroy, the latter a couple of months after Northcote closed