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Geelong tramways — a short history

This article is an edited version with some additional material of A Short History of the Geelong Tramways by K.S. Kings, originally published in the January 1966 Running Journal to mark the tenth anniversary of the closure of the Geelong tramway system.

Geelong is the second largest urban area in the State of Victoria, with a population of 91,666 at the 1961 census. It is situated 45 miles by rail south west of Melbourne, on the shores of Corio Bay (an arm of Port Phillip Bay). Geelong is Victoria’s second port, and hosts a wide variety of manufacturing and service industries.

Geelong No 3 at Eastern Park. Photograph TMSV collection.

Geelong No 3 at Eastern Park, early 1950s. Photograph TMSV collection.

Although tramways were considered quite seriously in September 1888, and an Order-in-Council was made in 1899 to enable routes to be constructed, the residents of Geelong had to wait until 14 March 1912 to ride a tramcar in their city. The Melbourne Electric Supply Company Limited (MESCo), which already provided the local domestic supply of electricity in Geelong, had obtained the franchise to construct electric tramways in the city and suburban area.

The population turned out in force on this memorable day to join in ceremonies and celebrations typical of the period, electric tramcar No 4 — suitably decorated — having the distinction of being the official first tram.

Two routes — to Newtown and West Geelong — opened the service, with two short branches to the railway station and wharf (which served a steamer service to Melbourne across Port Phillip Bay), and a short spur line off the latter to a four-track Depot adjacent to the power station and offices. Double track was laid in the central city area with single track and passing loops elsewhere, and provision at termini for shunting trailers and car detailing.

The Adelaide firm of Duncan and Fraser built (at the Depot) seven open combination type single truck tramcars (of distinctive body style, known as ‘Butterbox’) and four single truck open cross-bench type trailer cars for the service; these cars were numbered 1-7 and 1-4 respectively.

The motorised tramcars were originally fitted with small destination boxes at the front of their roofs, magnetic track brakes, tip-over seats in the saloons and link and pin couplers, had a simple style lining-out with double shadows and were embellished with a complex monogram.

Originally, there were 3.75 miles of track. The first extension was opened in November 1913, to South Geelong, at the Barwon River.

During 1913-14, trailers Nos. 1 and 4 were motorised and renumbered to 11 and 12 respectively, while in 1915 Duncan and Fraser delivered three new cars (8-10) from their Adelaide works, to the same design as 1-7.

MESCo placed three Milnes-Daimler buses (1-3) in service late in 1912 between the city and East Geelong. The bodies of these vehicles were of the same style as the saloon sections of tramcars Nos. 1 to 10. Their solid rubber tyres apparently had an injurious effect on the roads traversed, as it is reported that they had to be re-routed on occasions to better thoroughfares! However, their bodies in turn suffered heavily during the course of their operations, and were provided with suitable strong bracing. They were withdrawn to be sold after the East Geelong tramway was opened on 12 October 1922. When the bracing was removed to enable the bodies to be separated from the chassis the bodies collapsed!

Thus ended ten years of tramway bus operation in Geelong. What nicer way to plan a family picnic or even a corporate family days, than to take the tram to any number of idylic parks or reserves.

Due to increasing traffic requirements, it was decided to import two Birney type safety cars (14-15) from the USA. These cars were assembled at the Depot during the middle of 1924. Unusually, they were fitted with twin trolley poles and trolley retrievers. Number 13 was not allocated to a tramcar, due to the usual superstition regarding this number. The acquisition of the Birneys required the addition of the fifth (northern) depot road, together with a minor re-alignment to the depot fan.

The next few years saw considerable expansion of the Geelong tramways, with four route extensions and a number of tramcars being added to the roster. The first extension of trackage was opened on 13 September 1927, to Chilwell, followed by the line to Belmont on 16 October 1927 (subsequent to the completion of a new bridge across the Barwon River). The expanding industrial area of North Geelong received its tramway service on 6 July 1928, while the rails to Eastern Park were put into service on 1 September 1930 (to serve the large park and recreational area, including the football ground, as well as a residential area).

Large new tramcars were built by the Adelaide firm of Pengelley and Company on Brill ‘Radiax’ trucks. They were of distinctive appearance and massive construction, being fitted with twin trolley poles, because of their 35 feet length. They were the last tramcars to be built in Australia with clerestory roofs, entering service during 1925-26 numbered 16-23. The two remaining trailers were scrapped in 1925-26, followed by the two open crossbench motors (11-12) in 1928.

The Company purchased the body of a former NMETL trailer from the M&MTB in 1925 for conversion to a track-cleaning car, and fitted it to the truck from the scrapped No 11 in 1928. The same year saw the purchase of seven second-hand J class single-truck open combination tramcars (24-30) from the M&MTB. The Meadowbank Manufacturing Company of Sydney originally built them in 1915 for the PMTT.

The Geelong tramways entered the 1930s with 27 single truck tramcars operating over 11.75 route miles of track, the maximum extent reached.

The State Electricity Commission of Victoria was created by Act of Parliament to be the sole electricity supply authority for Victoria. It was vested with the authority to purchase existing electricity supply companies, as well as constructing its own generation and distribution facilities. Long drawn out negotiations were carried out with MESCo during the late 1920s regarding the acquisition of the Geelong power supply business. The SECV was reluctant to become a tramway operator, but MESCo did not want to sell the best part of the business and be left with an unprofitable tramway system. It was finally agreed that the SECV would acquire both the supply business and the tramway from MESCo as from 31 August 1930.

The SECV quickly surveyed the state of the Geelong tramway system, and found that it was in very good condition (unlike the Ballarat and Bendigo tramways which were acquired at the same time). Most of Geelong’s track was less than ten years old, and all of its rolling stock less than twenty years old. However, the economic depression of the 1930s had caused a decline in passenger traffic, so it was decided to introduce one-man tramcars in 1932 to reduce operational costs, despite opposition from the union.

The two Birney cars (14-15) were an obvious choice for use as one-man cars. Cars 3-10 and 24-30 were converted for one-man use by alterations to their end compartments. This initiative proved successful, so additional cars were converted likewise: 1-2 in 1935, and 16-19 in 1939.

In 1936, the SECV purchased four Birney cars (27-30) from the Adelaide MTT for use in Geelong, after they became surplus upon the closure of the isolated Port Adelaide tramway system. The original cars numbered 27-30 were transferred to Ballarat as part of the SECV Ballarat tramway rehabilitation project.

The four ‘new’ Birney cars differed from 14-15 in that they had transverse tip-over seats and no bulkheads, whereas the original Birneys were fitted with longitudinal seats and bulkheads behind the motorman’s seats. Cars 14-15 were subsequently altered in 1937 to have their trolley receivers removed, as well as being converted from double to single trolley poles.

Geelong scrubber turned out of Moorabool Street and headed for the depot (1938)
Geelong scrubber just turned out of Moorabool Street and headed for the depot (1938). Track leading to the left of the picture is the line to the wharf which was closed and removed in 1940. Photograph Dr AK Sewell.

The final route alteration took place on 9 October 1940, when the short length of track leading to the Wharf was relocated from the Depot to what became known as Beach terminus. Over the years, some duplication of track had taken place, the middle passing loop had been added on the West route, the through connection from West to Newtown/Chilwell routes removed, the loop on Chilwell had been removed, and the loop on North had been relocated on the East route. Modifications to the track layout had taken place at the main city intersection (the corner of Moorabool and Ryrie Streets) to better suit network changes. An interesting relocation of track took place at the Newtown and Chilwell Town Hall. The date has not yet been ascertained, but it probably took place in conjunction with the opening of the Chilwell route.

The Depot has undergone a number of changes over the years. The 1924 alteration has been mentioned. Subsequently, the rear of the Shed was modified by the extension of the two southern roads. These tracks left the rear of the shed by large doors, crossed the narrow street and entered a two-track building on the other side. This was the Workshop and had a separate one-track Paint Shop situated beyond it. Entrance to the latter was gained by a small traverser, originally built only for single truck tramcar trucks. When bogie cars arrived after World War II, they were moved into the Paint Shop one truck at a time. Clearances at the doorway pillars were critical, so some bricks were removed to ease them.

Like all of Australia’s tramway systems, World War II resulted in the heaviest loadings, but the pressure of a wartime economy and shortage of materials led to deferral of maintenance. The Geelong system ended the war in a poor state, and in major need of further capital investment.

About the end of World War II, the SECV decided to purchase a number of surplus maximum traction bogie cars from the M&MTB. The first four arrived in 1947 (31-35), and were followed by two more in 1948 (35-36), and four more in 1951 (37-40). The first six cars were replacements for the six Birney cars, which were transferred to Bendigo during 1947-49, while the last four were additional units to cater for traffic growth. The Geelong rolling stock thus reached its maximum of 31 passenger tramcars. Interestingly Geelong was the last tramway system in Australia to operate with an all single-truck car fleet until the first bogie cars arrived in 1947.

The entry to service of the bogie cars spelt the end of an interesting feature of the local tramways — coloured route indicator lights. Although not introduced when the system opened in 1912, they were definitely in use by May 1915. The colours used for each route were as follows:

  • Newtown — green
  • West — red
  • East — blue
  • Chilwell — green and blue
  • Belmont — white
  • North — red and white
  • Eastern Park — blue and white.

At first, there was some concern that the bogie cars might not operate successfully with the public without route lights, but it was soon found that there was no cause for alarm. Consequently, the coloured lights were removed from all the single truck cars except cars 23-26.

In 1951, car 25 was renumbered to 28, whilst bogie car 39 was altered for one-man operation during 1953. However, the union refused to run the car with a one-man crew, and it continued to operate with a two-man crew.

The problem of head-on accidents with motorists on single track sections of the routes caused the SECV to fit red marker lights in the lower outside corners of the dashes during 1951, and to decide to paint the dashes in yellow and black stripes, illuminated by a canopy light, in 1955. The only cars to be done were 31-35, 37 and 4, while car 5 only had its dashes painted. The project was then cancelled as a result of the impending closure.

With regard to other safety procedures, most single track sections were protected by colour light signals operated by the trolley wheel passing through a contactor on the overhead trolley wire.

Through routing of cars had been practiced for many years. Prior to late 1952, cars ran as follows:

  • Newtown to City
  • West to City
  • Chilwell to East
  • Eastern Park to City
  • Belmont to North.

Additional services ran to Beach and the Railway from Newtown and West cars as required. After the end of 1952, routes were changed as follows:

  • Chilwell to Beach or Station
  • East to West
  • Newtown to Eastern Park
  • North to Belmont.

Short workings were timetabled as follows:

  • East — to Humble Street (the far end of the loop)
  • North — Victoria Street, and Mackay Street (one stop short of the terminus)
  • Belmont — the railway overbridge, and South Geelong.

Subsequent to an enquiry, the State Government announced plans to replace the Geelong trams with privately operated bus services in November 1955. The closure was undertaken in four phases: firstly, on 8 January 1956, the last car ran on the routes to East, West and Chilwell, together with the latter’s regular workings to Beach and Railway. The second abandonment was on 24 January, when Newtown and Eastern Park routes ceased. The third closure was the route to North on 4 March, while Belmont went out in a real blaze of glory on 25 March 1956.

Pengelley cars 17 and 18 ran the Sunday afternoon and early evening service, but were changed over for cars 38 and 31 before the last run. Car 33 was run out when the size of the crowd became known. It had been planned to use 31 and 38 because these two bogie cars were to be scrapped (many last cars of other tramways having been severely damaged by vandals), while the other eight were due to be (or had already been) sent to Ballarat and Bendigo.

The car that opened the system, No 4, was suitably decorated as the official last tram, and preceded bogie cars 38, 31 and 33 to Belmont terminus so that it would be the last tram to return. A huge crowd was present, and a number of ceremonies took place during the final return trip.

All the remaining single-truck cars and the track cleaner were scrapped and sold. Although ten years have rolled by since the Geelong Tramways were closed, quite a deal of track remains in the roadway [1], despite quite a lot having been lifted during 1965. In some thoroughfares it can be seen beneath the road surface, while elsewhere no attempt has been made to either cover or remove it. The façade of the depot may also still be seen, as it has been retained as part of a retail development.

Ex-Geelong tramcars that have been preserved are as follows (their Geelong numbers are given — many of the cars have been preserved in liveries and numbers of other operators):

  • TMSV — Butterbox 9, Pengelley 22, Bogie 40
  • Bendigo Tramways — Birneys 14-15 & 28-30, Bogies 32-34 & 36
  • BTPS — J class 28-30
  • AETM — Birney 27
  • Sydney Tramway Museum — Bogie 35 [2]
  • Privately preserved (Horsham, Vic) — Bogie 39
  • Privately preserved (Canberra, ACT) — Butterbox 2, J class 25 (now 28).

It can be seen that a surprising number of ex-Geelong trams have survived, given its relatively early closure. So a portion of the Geelong Tramways will be preserved for posterity, in addition to the many photographs, quantities of film and historical records that are already available.


[1] The TMSV acquired a substantial amount of tramway rail in 2002 after the City of Greater Geelong removed it during road works in Ryrie Street, forty-six years after closure.

[2] Maximum traction bogie car 35 is the only tramcar to have operated in regular service in all of the Victorian tramway cities: Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat.

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Last updated 16 January 2006.
Content copyright © Tramway Museum Society of Victoria, 1966, 2003.