While Sydney was building its network of state-owned speedy steam trams, Melbourne was developing a private network of sedate cable tramways, regarding Adelaide’s horse trams as old fashioned and Sydney’s steam trams as too dirty. The Melbourne system blanketed the inner city and radiated out in every direction, growing to become the fourth largest network in the world. Sydney only had two cable tram routes on terrain too steep for steam trams at North Sydney and Edgecliff.
A cable tram consisted of two vehicles working together, a leading open tramcar with perimeter seats under a canopy style roof, known as the ‘dummy’ or ‘grip’ car, and an enclosed saloon tram or trailer. The system was powered by a large steam winding engine. The engine’s flywheel hauled an endless steel cable lying beneath the road between the rails in a shallow channel along the tram route.
The Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co, under the management of Francis B Clapp, developed a system of about 75 km of double track serving 17 radiating routes with 1200 grip cars and trailers which operated for 55 years from 1885. By 1920 it was carrying 150 million passengers a year. Cable trams were gradually replaced by faster electric trams from 1925.
As one writer with a fondness for cable trams recalls:
The swaying, bucking progress – rather like riding a low slung racing camel – always had something of the funfair about it. Despite the traditional warning cry – Mind the bend!! – little old ladies and frail or befuddled gentlemen were apt to fly off as it lurched around. If the driver (bandit king of the road, missed his grip on the ever-moving cable, or misjudged his speed, the tram baulked and customers piled off to push it round the corner to clamp on the cable again. It was in the dark year of 1940 that I watched the last living cable tram lollop up Bourke Street. I knew with certainty that the world would never be the same again. Melbourne blew it when it stupidly and wantonly did away with its cable trams.
This article is courtesy of the great book ‘On the Move, a history of transport in Australia’, by Margaret Simpson’ and is brought to you by Tram Scrolls Australia, specialists in premium quality replica tram and bus scroll art.