The city of Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia first had trams introduced in 1885 and is now home to the largest tram network in the world, consisting of 245 kilometres (152 miles) of track, 500 trams, 28 routes, and 1,813 tram stops . The trams are powered using 600V DC delivered via overhead wires and run on standard gauge track. Currently operated by a private company, Yarra Trams under contract from the Victorian Government, the owner of the network. Melbourne's trams contribute greatly to the city's distinctive character and are held in great affection by the people of Melbourne.
In 2007, a total of 156.4 million passenger trips were recorded on Melbourne’s trams.
Melbourne is the only city in Australia where motor vehicles may be required to perform a hook turn, a manoeuvre designed to give trams priority.
Melbourne is also the home of some of the world's busiest (most used) tram routes, 6 and 96.
In 1885 the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company was granted a 30-year monopoly franchise for the entire cable tram network in Melbourne. No competing lines were permitted. The franchise lasted until 1916, after which the system was handed over to the government. The system was so comprehensive within its area of operation, that there was no way for a competing electric tram service to get into the city centre. Electric trams, when they started in Melbourne, were for the most part acting as feeders to the cable system.
The Company began operating Melbourne's first cable tram line in 1885. The first service ran from Spencer St/Flinders St, to Hawthorn Bridge. Soon a Melbourne cable tramway system was running from the city to nearby suburbs, but as the city grew the technical limits of the cable tram system became apparent, and electric trams were developed for lines to more distant suburbs.
The Victorian Railways also operated their 'Electric Street Railway' from St Kilda to Brighton. The Victorian Railways line came about when Thomas Bent became Premier of the State. It was alleged that he used his position to enhance the value of his property interests in Brighton by forcing the VR to build and operate a tram service in 1906.
However, it was also said, the reluctant VR insisted that the tram be called a "Street Railway" and built it using the Victorian railway gauge instead of the proposed tramway gauge of , and connected it with the St Kilda railway station instead of the cable tram terminus. The line was opened in two stages, from St Kilda railway station to Middle Brighton on 7 May 1906 and to Brighton Beach terminus on 22 December 1906. The St Kilda to Middle Brighton section was the first successful electric tramway in Melbourne.
A fire at the Elwood tram depot on 7 March 1907 destroyed the depot and all the trams. Services resumed on 17 March using four C class trams and three D class trams from Sydney, which were altered to run on VR trucks salvaged from the fire. These trams apparently sufficed until Newport Railway Workshops built 14 new trams. (The St Kilda to Brighton Beach Electric Street Railway closed on 28 February 1959 and was replaced by buses.)
Electric trams have been running continuously in Melbourne since that time. The last cable trams were replaced by electric trams in 1940, after a 55-year history.
In the "golden era" of the 1920s and 1930s, loadings were heavy, a tram conductor earned more than a schoolteacher or a policeman, and the rolling stock was well maintained. The MMTB generated further patronage by establishing the enormous Wattle Park and the Vimy House private hospital for tramways staff.
After World War II other Australian cities began to replace their trams with buses, and by the 1970s Melbourne was the only Australian city with a major tram network (there is one tramline in Adelaide to Glenelg, another single line in inner Sydney, and also tourist tramlines in Ballarat, Bendigo and several other cities around Australia). Melbourne resisted the trend, partly because Melbourne's wide streets and geometric street pattern makes trams more practicable than in many other cities, partly because of resistance from the unions, and partly because the Chairman of the MMTB, Sir Robert Risson, successfully argued that the cost of ripping up the concrete-embedded tram tracks would be prohibitive. Also, the infrastructure and vehicles were relatively new, having only replaced Cable Tram equipment in the 1920s-1940s. This destroyed the argument used by many other cities, which was that renewal of the tram system would cost more than replacing it with buses.
By the mid 1970s, as other cities became increasingly choked in traffic and air pollution, Melbourne was convinced that its decision to retain its trams was the correct one, even though patronage had been declining since the 1940s in the face of increasing use of cars and the shift to the outer suburbs beyond the tram network's limits. The controversial Lonie Report of 1980 recommended closing about half of the network but protests prevented these closures from being carried out. The first tram line extension in over twenty years was finished in 1978 (along Burwood Highway).The W-class trams were gradually replaced by the new Z-class in the 70s, and by the A-class and the larger, articulated B-class trams in the 80s. A very slow increase in patronage, beginning in the late 1990s, is solely due to the revival of the inner urban population.
By the 1990s the tramways network was making huge losses and costing the Victorian state government many millions of dollars. In 1990 the Labor government of Premier John Cain tried to introduce economies in the running of the system, which provoked a long and crippling strike by the powerful tramways union in January 1990. In 1992 the Liberals came to power under Premier Jeff Kennett and pledged to corporatise Melbourne's public transport network, however policy shifted to supporting the privatisation of the tram system in the wake of a series of public transport strikes. The government abolished tram conductors and replaced them with ticketing machines, shortly before the system was privatised. This move was highly unpopular with the travelling public and led to the loss of millions of dollars in revenue through fare evasion.
On 1 July 1998, Melbourne's tram network was split into two businesses – Met Trams 1 Corporation (trading as Swanston Trams) and Met Trams 2 Corporation (Yarra Trams) – in preparation for privatisation of the Public Transport Corporation. After a tendering process with the businesses awarded as 12-year franchises, on 25 July 1999, Premier Kennett announced that the Swanston Trams business was won by National Express Group PLC, a European mass passenger transport company, and the Yarra Trams business by MetroLink Victoria Pty Ltd, a consortium with French company Transdev, Australian company Transfield Services, and French infrastructure project management company Egis Projects. Following a transitional period, the two tram businesses were officially transferred (sold) from the government to the private sector on 29 August 1999.
National Express renamed Swanston Trams as M>Tram, similarly along with its M>Train suburban train business, on 28 March 2001. After several years of failing to make a profit, more than a year of negotiations over revised financing arrangements with the government, and grave concern over its future viability, National Express Group announced on 16 December 2002, its decision to walk away from all of their Victorian contracts and hand control back to the state government, with funding for its operations to stop on 23 December 2002. The government ran M>Tram until negotiations were completed with Yarra Trams for it to take-over responsibility of the whole tram network from 18 April 2004.
As a part of the privatisation process, franchise contracts between the state government and both private operators included obligations to extend and modernise the Melbourne tram network. This included the purchase of new tram rolling stock, as well as the refurbishment of the current fleet which, built in the 1980s, were ready for mid-life refurbishing. The Swanston Trams (M>Tram) business invested A$175million into 59 new low-floor Combino trams by Siemens AG, and A$7.2 million to refurbish their existing trams, while the Yarra Trams consortium invested A$150 million in 31 Citadis low-floor light rail vehicles from Alstom.
In 2003 the marketing and umbrella brand Metlink was introduced to co-ordinate the promotion of Melbourne's public transport and the communications from the separate privatised companies. This was to, in turn, better integrate the three modes of transport and provide passengers with more information about connecting services provided by several operators under just one name with a unified appearance.
W class trams were introduced to Melbourne in 1923 as a new standard design. They had a dual bogie layout and were characterised by a substantially timber frame supplanted by a steel under frame, a simple rugged design, and fine craftsmanship. The W Class was the mainstay of Melbourne's tramways system for 60 years. A total of 748 trams of all variants were built.
The W class is an icon to the city and recognised by the National Trust of Australia. It was not until the 1990s that the W Class was finally considered 'surplus' to rolling stock requirements. The remaining members of the class run regularly on the North Richmond to Prahran / St Kilda Beach route (Route:78/79). The zero-fare City Circle route also operates using the W class. The oldest W class trams remaining in service run this route, dating from 1936, others have been converted into mobile restaurants which cruise the suburbs in the evening.
Approximately 200 later model W class trams remain stored at various locations around Melbourne as part of a heritage fleet. The future use of these trams is unknown. A number of W-class trams have been sent overseas, including five that went to Seattle between 1978 and 1993, where they operated as Seattle's George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line, between 1982 and 2005.
Since 1990, public outrage over the sale of these popular trams to overseas interest has forced an embargo to be placed on the sale of these trams to any overseas interest.
The Z-class trams, built by Comeng, were introduced from the mid-late 1970s, starting with the Z1 class, built from 1975 to 1979. 100 trams were built, most of which are now being withdrawn. The withdrawn in question are usually sold at auction. Some have also been donated to tram museums in places such as Bendigo.
In 1978 and 1979, fifteen Z2 class trams—having little difference from the Z1 classes—were built. As with the Z1 class, Z2 class trams are now being withdrawn from service.
From 1979 to 1984, Z3 class trams were introduced, being a significant improvement on the Z1 and Z2 class trams. They had an additional door each side, and were less noisy. 115 were built, 114 of which are in service (Z3.149 was destroyed in a fire). All are re-liveried in either Yarra Trams or all-over advertising livery.
These trams, again built by Comeng, were introduced between 1984 and 1987. This model did away with the concept of a seated conductor, which was characteristic of the Z class trams. 70 were built and are still in service today.
The B-class trams (also known as light rail vehicles) were first introduced to Melbourne in 1984 with the prototype B1 class trams, which were a significant improvement over the Z1-classes. Only 2 were built and they remain in service today.
B2 class trams were built from 1988-1994, by Comeng, and later ABB Transportation. They were an improvement over the B1-classes. 130 were built (No 2003-2132), all of which remain in service today. B2-classes are often spotted in all-over advertising livery. The B2 class was notable for the long overdue introduction of air-conditioning.
The Citadis and Combino trams were introduced following privatisation of Melbourne's tram system. The private operators were obliged under their franchises to replace older Z class trams, although this has not fully taken place. Yarra Trams introduced the Citadis or C class, manufactured in France by Alstom. It is a three section articulated vehicle. Thirty-six are in service. The now defunct M>Tram purchased the German made Siemens Combino. The Combino is a three (D1 class) or five (D2 class) section articulated vehicle. Ownership of the D class trams has now passed to Yarra Trams. Currently 38 D1 and 21 D2 section vehicles are in service.
The five C2 class trams are another low floor tram, introduced in 2008 after hired from Mulhouse in France. They have been dubbed 'bumblebees' due to their distinctive yellow colour, and run on route 96.
Melbourne's tram system has been celebrated across several media. The city's system is the central theme of the movie Malcolm. A flying Melbourne tram was also a feature of the 2006 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony.
The Public Transport Users Association continues to lobby for extensions (most of which are in line with the Melbourne 2030 planning policy of providing links between different modes of transport) including:
The possibility of a new high-tech line, involving wire-free operation, has also been considered for the St Kilda / Port Melbourne area running along Beaconsfield Parade, servicing primarily tourists but also regular commuters.