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In the late 1950s Sydney ripped up its tram network, once one of the largest in the world. Nearly 1,000 trams – some only a few years old – were rolled to the workshops in the city’s eastern suburbs and stripped of anything that could be sold, before being unceremoniously tipped on their sides, doused with sump oil and set ablaze.
Now the trams are returning, as the city painfully rebuilds a tiny part of its old system. The construction of 12.8km of light rail from Circular Quay to Randwick and Kingsford will cost $2.7bn at the latest estimate, has caused untold misery to shops and other businesses in its path and will be almost a year overdue by the time even the first section is open.
The new line hardly represents a fundamental shift in Sydney’s transport thinking, coming as it does alongside the vast “congestion-busting” WestConnex freeway project, and further investment in metro rail (a separate light rail link is also under construction at Parramatta). But it is a reminder that the city might have looked very different today but for the decision taken in the 1950s – and ruthlessly carried out – to prioritise motor transport.
Barely a decade before its closure, Sydney’s tram system had carried 400 million passenger journeys a year on a network of more than 250km, primarily serving the eastern, southern and inner-west suburbs, and stretching as far north as Narrabeen at its peak. But the explosion of car traffic in the postwar years persuaded the New South Wales government that urban freeways were the way of the future (the first in Australia, the Cahill Expressway, opened in 1958), and trams were an impediment to that vision.
The destruction of the network from the mid-50s was swift and brutal. In 1958 the bizarre castellated Fort Macquarie depot at Circular Quay was demolished to make way for the Opera House, and the lines along George Street were torn up. The last Sydney tram ran on 25 February 1961 from Hunter Street to La Perouse (along much of the same route now being rebuilt), packed to the rafters and greeted by crowds of people, before it joined the dismal procession to “burning hill” at Randwick.
The photographer Peter Sage followed its journey to the workshops after the passengers were ordered off at Kensington on the way back from La Perouse. “The gates closed and the trams were locked away,” he wrote. “We gathered to say farewell and went home by car and bus.”
‘A convenient falsehood’
Mathew Hounsell, a senior research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, has called the destruction of the network “the largest organised vandalism in our nation’s history”.
He says the decisions made in the 50s had a disastrous long-term effect. “When the trams were removed from Sydney, mass transport patronage plummeted and private car usage soared. Our space-saving trams were replaced with ever-more space-hungry cars, causing ever-worsening traffic.”
That wasn’t how the planners saw it at the time. They were strongly swayed by powerful international influences, which chimed with the unstoppable rise of private car ownership in Australia.
As Graeme Davison relates in his book Car Wars, a succession of Australians studied traffic engineering in the US in the 50s, some under a scholarship sponsored by the Myer family, and brought back an evangelical commitment to urban freeways. And, as one engineer from Los Angeles invited to advise on Melbourne’s traffic future put it: “All large American cities that were beating traffic tangles were getting rid of trams.”
Sydney also listened attentively to British experts. In 1949 three representatives of the London Passenger Transport Board recommended to the NSW government that Sydney cancel an order for 250 new trams and replace the entire system with buses by 1960. Three years later Alec Valentine, the president of the British Institute of Transport, came to Sydney and repeated the message.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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