If you know anything about Australia beyond the fact that we have weird animals, dangerous snakes, venomous spiders and an abundance of tanned, bleached surfer-dudes populating the ‘top-end’, then you might also be aware of the fact that the city of Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world (or at least the southern hemisphere!).
Melbourne’s tram network is world-famous. Anyone who’s ever been to Melbourne, heard about Melbourne, or seen photographs of Melbourne on the internet, will know that Melbourne has trams.
A Brief History of Melbourne’s Tram Network
Following hot on the heels of San Francisco, Melbourne installed its first tram-route, operating a grip-cable streetcar, in 1885. Built on the floodplain of a river, Melbourne is a relatively flat city, but there are places where hills are found in abundance, and to traverse them, something other than your stoutest pair of wingtips is probably ideal.
Cable-cars ran in Melbourne from 1885 until 1940, and featured a dummy car trailing behind a grip-car, with the grip-car being open to the elements, and the dummy-car being closed off with windows and doors.
Tales from the Grip
Cable-cars were operated by a two-man team — emphasis on MAN — very few women ever did this job — and you’ll find out why in a minute!…these two men were the gripman, and the conductor.
The conductor helped people on and off the tram, operated the brakes, collected fares, issued tickets, answered questions from commuters, and oversaw the general welfare of the passengers. To be a conductor required a fair bit of acrobatic expertise – swinging between the benches and in and out of the rails, jumping up and down between the carriages and helping people up and down was an exhausting job!
His counterpart was the gripman. The gripman got his name because he operated the two ‘grip-levers’ at the front of the cable-car. One lever was the brake – which does what a brake has always done – and the other lever was the grip-lever.
The grip-lever was what grasped the moving steel cable underneath the streetcar, which ran along in a groove between the two running-tracks. Once the claw at the end of the lever had grasped the cable, it would pull the car and it’s trailer along.
If this doesn’t sound hard – remember that you’d be doing this in freezing cold, pouring rain, boiling heat and raging storms. Remember that you’d be doing this going uphill, and downhill, going across intersections and around corners. Remember that these streetcars were entirely mechanical…and weigh about five tons each!
There were no engines or motors to operate them – only human muscle. They were pushed out of the stables by muscle, they were spun around on turntables by muscle, and they were started, stopped and operated by muscle. The upper-body strength to operate these things for HOURS EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK was why gripmen remained MEN – the sheer physical exertion meant that no woman wearing a full-length Victorian dress and corset could ever operate something like this.
The last cable tram in Melbourne ran in October, 1940 whereafter the system was ripped up and replaced entirely by electric trams.
Power from Above!
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Melbourne had both cable-driven and electrical trams, as well as older horse-drawn tram technology, and for quite a while, all three ran together. By the 1920s, most of the city’s main tram-routes had been laid out, extending to St Kilda, Hawthorn, Camberwell, across the Central Business District, north to suburbs like Macaulay, North Melbourne, Kew, and even Far Kew….which, for the sake of taste and decency, was later changed to the more polite-sounding “Kew East” (say it five times fast, and you’ll soon figure out why…).
Trams continue to be a major part of the Melbourne public transport network, and in the 50s and 60s, when a lot of cities around the world, from London to New York, Los Angeles to Shanghai, Singapore, Ballarat and countless others, were ripping up their streetcar networks, the Melbourne network remained, saved by public sentiment and probably, the cost of replacing it with something else. The result is that in the 21st century, the Melbourne tram network is the largest and most complete in the Southern hemisphere.
The Melbourne Tram Museum
Housed in the old Hawthorn Tram Depot, the tram museum is open two Saturdays a month. I’d been meaning to go for years and years and years, but I never got around to it. You know how it is – when you live there, you can see it anytime you want…which means you never bother to actually go!
Anyway, I found out from a friend’s Facebook post that the museum was having another open-day, so I hurried on over as fast as Routes 48 and 75 could take me there, and shuffled on in.
The museum featured twenty trams, ranging from 1886 to 1977. The trams were all lined up on their tracks, and open for inspection. You could jump on, jump off, and check out every single part of every single tram, hopping into the driver’s seat, or behind the grip-levers, turning cranks and pulling levers. Like many of the people there, I couldn’t resist ringing the bells on every single tram I came across!…Come on, we’ve all wanted to it! It’s like that kid in The Polar Express:
“I’ve wanted to do that my whole life!”
I went around taking photographs of all the information boards, all the trams and some of the pieces behind glass cases. In all honesty there wasn’t that much to see, and I was done in about 90 minutes, but what there was to look at, was certainly worthwhile. The majority of the trams dated to the 1920s and 30s, but I think most people agreed that the oldest tram was the one which held their interest the longest!
I bought a reprint of a 1908 tram network map while I was at the museum, as well as a book on the history of cable cars. As interesting as the place was, I felt it suffered badly from a lack of volunteers to run the museum – which is why it’s only opened a few times a year. That said, the trams in the museum do get occasional use! The last time one of them was rolled out of the stables was ten years ago, back in 2007…when they required period Melbourne streetcars to roll past Flinders Street Station during filming scenes in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific“!
All in all it was an enjoyable visit and a fun distraction for an hour or two. Anyone visiting Melbourne when the museum is open (2nd and 4th Saturday of every month except December) should certainly check it out. I just feel rather saddened that a museum dedicated to one of the city’s most famous moving landmarks is so inaccessible to the public.