The idea of a parallel universe is fairly extraordinary. If one exists, and West End has chartered an alternate course through history, it is likely that this course would have rendered our suburb with an iconic network of tramways. The whole city in fact would be serviced by tramcars, and although I cannot imagine Translink coping with another transport mode to coordinate, it would certainly have added to the quintessential charm of the suburb to have of had this history preserved.
Trams were first introduced to Brisbane in 1885, with the arrival of horse drawn buses and “wagonettes” (according to a paper by Graeme Turnbull for the Transport Research Centre in 2002). As the turn of the century beckoned, The Brisbane Tramways Co. looked towards modernisation and the system was entirely electrified by 1897. The electric tram service along Vulture and Hardgrave Road was particularly beneficial to the growth of this suburb, as it put most residents and workers within walking distance of a tram stop (according to the ‘Queensland Places’ website).
Brisbane originally lagged behind the other Australian capitals in terms of tramcar technology (Turnbull 2002). Our cars were built with hand-brakes, rather than air brakes until the end of the First World War.
By 1945 however, the addition of 50 new tramcars colloquially referred to as the ‘silver bullets’ by locals, due to their paintjob and tapered out ends, were in operation in Brisbane. Trendy upholstery was standard issue in the new cars and Brisbane was years ahead of the likes of Melbourne in fitting interior fluorescent lighting to their trams. Turnbull (2001) even reports that during this time “Brisbane led the way in the construction of the finest tramcars in the world”.
Although diesel buses were first introduced successfully in 1940 with a fleet of 12, the city was at the time highly committed to its tram system.
Turnbull (2002) attributes this to the very successful ‘tramwayman’ Sydney Quinn who was General Manager of the Transport Department at the Brisbane City Council from 1938- 1953. Until 1949 Quinn’s Assistant General Manager was Robert Risson, later to be Sir Robert Risson. Born in Ma Ma Creek, near Grantham, Risson graduated from the University of Queensland with a degree in Civil Engineering (Turnbull 2001). He enlisted in the army in 1939 and saw active duty in Tobruk and El Alamein. His background in military strategy may have been what provided him with his extraordinary foresight regarding Melbourne’s tramway system…
In 1949 Risson was offered the position of Chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board. He accepted and moved south. Four years later General Manager Sydney Quinn retired in Brisbane. His replacement, G. R. Preston did not appear to share his vision for the cities trams. At a time when Risson was expanding the tram system in Melbourne, Preston was reducing Brisbane’s. In 1955 the Cavendish Road tramline in Brisbane closed, while at precisely the same time new Burke St and East Brunswick routes opened in Victoria.
The addition of a further 131 trams to the Melbourne system between 1946- 1956 allowed Risson to argue that there was absolutely no point in abandoning a system worth so many millions of pounds, at a time when most other states were redirecting their focus to diesel buses.
This redirection was so complete that by 1961 Brisbane and Melbourne were the only two cities using tramways (apart from one Glenelg line in Adelaide that still runs today).
Meanwhile, the election of Lord Mayor Clem Jones in Brisbane the same year, posed the first real threat to Brisbane’s tramways.
Turnbull (2002) even reports the Mayor saying at the time “We are trying to get rid of public transport… I believe our job is to appreciate the age of the motorcar”.
This absurd wish was almost granted the next year, when 65 of Brisbane’s trams were destroyed in a fire in the Paddington depot. This equated to 20% of the fleet, and half a million pounds worth of destruction.
Rather than rebuild this depot, a new bus depot was built in Toowong in 1967. Only eight new tramcars were built to replace the 65 lost, the first of which was controversially driven out of the Milton Workshops in 1963 by Mayor Jones.
In 1968 came the first official announcement that Brisbane too, would be switching over to an all-bus system.
However the next year in Melbourne, largely due to the leadership of the Queenslander Robert Risson, the Metropolitan Transport Committee confirmed in a report of theirs, that trams would be continued to be used in Melbourne for the foreseeable future. The city now has the largest tram network in the world.
The last tram ran through Brisbane on Sunday the 13th of April 1969.
In review, it is unclear what exact decisions ultimately spelled the demise of our cities trams. Perhaps if another tram lover had taken over the post from Sydney Quinn? If the Paddington fire not occurred? Or if Melbourne’s great protector of trams, Sir Robert Risson had remained in his home state to leave us with his continuing legacy?
The conservation of these trams in Brisbane’s coexisting counterpart would probably be thanks to the perseverance of one, home grown, local boy. It would be his vision and advocacy of tramways that would see Brisbane as the city with the largest tram system in the world. Sadly, in our reality, it just wasn’t to be…
Turnbull (2002) speculates ‘if the system had managed to survive for a few more years, that given the concerns of the environment and the energy crisis that emerged in the 1970s, together with the worldwide development of light rail, the Brisbane tramway system like Melbourne’s could well have survived to the present day.”
Who knows? Maybe in a parallel universe, it did.
Centre for the Government of Queensland, 2013. West End (Brisbane). Queensland Places Retrieved from: http://queenslandplaces.com.au/node/894
Turnbull, G., 2001. The Sir Robert Risson Era: An Enduring Legacy. Friends of the Hawthorne Tram Depot Retreived from: http://www.hawthorntramdepot.org.au/papers/risson.htm
Turnbull, G., 2002. The decline and ultimate abandonment of the Brisbane tramway system – A contrast with the retention of the tramway system in Melbourne. Transport Research Centre Retrieved from: http://mams.rmit.edu.au/an7uc5idd9q41.pdf