Lost the groove: tramway rail manufacture in Australia
When electric tramways were introduced to Australia late in the nineteenth century, the local steel industry was in its infancy, and rails had to be imported not just for tramways, but railways as well. It was not until the founding of the BHP Newcastle steelworks in 1915 that rails could be rolled in Australia in any quantity.
The Hawthorn Tramways Trust was keen on the local manufacture of goods and materials , so it approached BHP to manufacture its grooved rail needs for the new Burwood and Wattle Park lines. But BHP was not interested, as the cost of machining for this request would not provide a profitable return for the quantities required, so the HTT had to import the rail and sustain the high wartime freight and insurance costs.
In 1919 the M&MTB was created, a major objective being the conversion of the cable tramways to electric traction. The size of this programme would require large quantities of grooved rail, so in order to encourage local manufacture (and avoid payment of import duties) the M&MTB approached BHP for supply on the initiative of the engineer of the former MBCTT, but to no avail. BHP was not interested in the small quantities required, at least in terms of its total production capability.
About five years later, two of the Boards engineers conducted extensive investigation into rail design, and developed specifications for a standard 102 lb per yard grooved rail. These were shown to the General Manager and Chief Engineer of the Adelaide Municipal Tramways Trust (MTT), Mr (later Sir) William Goodman. He suggested some minor modifications to the design, which were made, and a final blueprint was issued and approved on 15 July 1926.
Despite the new rail profile being accepted by both the M&MTB and the MTT, BHP was still not interested in grooved tramway rail production, even though it was assured of orders from both organisations. There the matter would rest for many years.
In 1943, the Chairman of the M&MTB, H. H. Bell, was looking forward to the post-war recovery and expansion plans of the Board. He had been a proponent of the original HTT proposal for Australian tramway rail manufacture, as a member of the HTT Board of Management. Based on his experience of the aftermath of the First World War, Bell anticipated that steel would be in short supply when peace returned. Bell also expected that imported tramway rail would be expensive and difficult to source. He did not want this to restrict the Boards post-war programme, which included the Bourke Street conversion and the Latrobe Street line.
Bell resolved to revive the proposal for local manufacture of tramway rail, but he realised that BHP would be more likely to agree if a joint approach was made from as many Australian tramway authorities as possible. He therefore wrote a letter to Sir William Goodman on 3 September 1943, proposing this scheme. Goodman replied five days later that he would be pleased to make a joint effort in inducing BHP to roll the rails. Subsequently, the tramways from Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart, Christchurch (New Zealand) and Victorian Railways agreed to support this initiative.
After intensive discussion with BHP, and visits to its steel plants at both Newcastle and Port Kembla by the Boards engineers to settle matters, BHP agreed to produce the rails and matching fishplates provided that a minimum order of 10,000 tons was received. Between the various authorities an order of 11,000 tons of rail and 235 tons of fishplates was placed, and local production of rails was assured. By June 1945 sample templates had been produced for examination and approval. These were accepted, and the first production rolling of Australian standard profile 102 lb per yard tramway rail took place on 26 February 1946. M&MTB Chairman H.H. Bell and a number of guests representing the other tramways involved in the order witnessed this important occasion.
However, the decline of Australian tramways through the 1950s and 60s meant that the local market for grooved rail was shrinking. As a result, BHP decided that it would no longer produce grooved tramway rail. A final order was placed in 1970 by the M&MTB and SECV. On closure of the Bendigo and Ballarat systems, the M&MTB purchased the remaining unused grooved rail from the SECV.
The rolling templates for the 102 lb grooved rail were scrapped after completion of this order. This forced the M&MTB to move to standard T section rail in mass concrete for new construction, the cost of imported grooved rail being deemed too high. The necessity for grooved rail on sharp curves to prevent trams from de-railing was addressed by using bolt-on check fastened to the inside of standard T section rail.
The recent construction of the Box Hill extension for Yarra Trams has seen the reintroduction of grooved rail in Melbournes tramways but with the loss of the capability to roll it in Australia, grooved rail is now imported from Europe, the same situation as a century ago.
However, some tramway rail material is still manufactured in Australia. The existence of the Melbourne tramway system encouraged a small Melbourne-based foundry, Davies & Baird, to develop expertise in casting manganese steel tramway points and crossings, which it has been producing since 1940. Davies & Baird has developed a world-wide reputation for its products, and it enjoys healthy export orders to tramway systems across the globe.
Buckley, J.R. (1975) History of Tramways from Horse to Rapid Transit,
David & Charles
Personal recollection from G.J. Jordan (2004).
 The State of Victoria was the centre of the trade protection movement during the early years of the Commonwealth, as opposed to the free trade lobby based in Sydney. The management of the HTT were drawn from the Melbourne professional classes natural supporters of a protectionist trade policy.
Therefore the HTT was inclined to prefer Australian rail manufacture, but there were two other advantages to pursuing this direction. Firstly, it would reduce freight charges and negate the need to pay import duty, and secondly, it would avoid the possibility of loss of any shipments due to German U-boat action.
Content copyright © Russell Jones 2001-4. Reproduced with permission.