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At a time when public funds are being spent laying new tramlines in Adelaide's CBD, many a frustrated commuter has no doubt wondered why our city's once extensive tram network was scrapped in the first place.
One Curious Adelaidean asked us to track down the answer (pun intended).
"Why was Adelaide's tram network ripped up in the 1950s?"
The answer? It's complicated.
But a run-down system, poor financial management, and a perhaps misguided view about the future of our city all played a role.
The good ol' daysAdelaide's first tram network was highly profitable and an engineering feat to be proud of.
In 1909, horse-drawn trams gave way to electric and a fortune was spent creating an impressive network across the greater metropolitan area.
But the enviable web of public transport options didn't last long.
The Municipal Tramways Trust (MTT) introduced a 10-year plan to phase out trams in favour of buses by the mid 50s.
The public's affection for the network and dismay at its loss is evident in letters to the editor from the time.
"The MTT is making a big mistake in scrapping the trams," wrote A.J. Lines of Hyde Park to The Advertiser in 1954.
"As a quick, efficient means of transport, there is nothing to equal the trams.
"It would be a thousand pities to have them taken from us."
C. Steele of Tusmore seemed to have a window to the future.
"A tram which carries 100 people has 50 times more right to be on the road than a car which carries only two people."
Ultimately, the campaign to save the trams was in vain and in 1958 the closure of the Cheltenham tram service left the Glenelg tramway as the sole remaining track.
MTT struggled with financial woesThe Department of Planning Transport and Infrastructure told Curious Adelaide that after its initial glory days, the tram network simply became unviable.
"The emergence of trolley buses combined with rapid growth in private car ownership led to a decline in tram usage," the department said.
"Postponed maintenance of track infrastructure because of the Second World War, and the following shortage of materials resulted in the tracks being worn."
But a scathing 1955 report by the Council of the South Australian Branch of Australian Electric Traction Association suggested some deeper issues.
The report referred to "staggering losses" by the MTT brought about by "mismanagement" and "indeterminate and constant indecision".
The council was clearly in opposition to the decision to scrap the network, declaring the abandonment of the electric tramcar system "not only uneconomical in the long run, but completely undesirable".
Archivist Colin Seymour, who works for the Tramway Museum in St Kilda in Adelaide's north, believed there were many factors at play.
"I guess they took the easy way out at the time because the system was run down after the Second World War," he said.
But Mr Seymour believed other approaches were preferable.
"They should've perhaps got rid of the less profitable lines and kept some of the main lines that were pretty busy," he said.
Further investigation of newspaper reports from the time reveal the MTT had racked up a deficit of £1.12 million, with yearly losses in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Such were the state of its finances, the state government provided an aid payment of £700,000.
Were the emerging car industry and oil companies to blame?As with most significant historical events, there's always room for a good conspiracy theory.
Our Curious Adelaide questioner alerted us to one such theory.
There were whisperings at the time that tram networks were dismantled globally because oil companies were manipulating the fuel price market to make buses more desirable and cost effective.
Tramway Museum manager Jack Pennack said an emerging local car industry and the increasing power of oil companies certainly played a part, but not as part of a broader conspiracy.
"GMH was wanting to set up car production in South Australia, the flow was towards the motor industry and the only place that really stood against it was Melbourne," Mr Pennack said.
"The oil companies were getting a stranglehold on things, so in the end [premier Tom] Playford went along with diesel railcars."
Fond memoriesThe old trams that used to service our sprawling city network, long since retired, can now be seen at the tramway museum.
Mr Pennack remembers the ceremonious final tram ride on the Cheltenham line in 1958.
"It was totally packed that night," he recalled.
"I was about 13 at the time and very much a junior recruit for the cause."
Mr Pennack said as a lad he knew the infrastructure wasn't up to scratch.
"They were badly rundown, at the time I thought it was great fun but I wasn't seeing it in the way those who ran Adelaide had to see it, the system needed massive rehabilitation," Mr Pennack said.
He now believes the decision to scrap the tram network was "understandable, but regrettable".
"I think today it should be exactly the same as it was in '56, same trams, same lines," he laughed.
"We know that's not possible, that's only a dream."
Back to the futureThe South Australian Government is spending more than $80 million on the first stage of its tram network extension project.
It will provide additional tram stops along North Terrace to East Terrace and up King William Road to the Adelaide Festival Plaza precinct.
There are also multi-billion-dollar plans for other tramlines, branching out through Adelaide's suburbs including Norwood, Henley Beach, Adelaide Airport, North Adelaide, Prospect and Mitcham.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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