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July 26, 2020

Melbourne’s First Cable Tram Service, 1885

The Melbourne tram network began in 1884 with the construction of the Fairfield Horse Tramway. However, the purpose of the line was to increase land prices in the area, and it soon closed during the depression in 1890. The first genuine attempt to construct a tramway network was the construction of the Richmond cable tram line by the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company in 1885.

Melbourne’s first cable tram service; between Bridge Road, Richmond, and Spencer Street via Flinders Street, November 11, 1885.

Over the next few years, 16 more cable tram lines were constructed, as well as numerous other horse tramways. The depression of the early 1890s slowed further expansion of the cable network. The first electric tram line was the Box Hill and Doncaster tramway which opened in 1889. This was a pioneering line in what was then the countryside and thus didn't receive much patronage. It closed in 1896.

The next attempt at an electric tramway was Victorian Railways’ St Kilda to Brighton line, which opened in 1906. Later that year, the North Melbourne Electric Tramway and Lighting Company opened lines to Essendon and Maribyrnong. Many local councils formed their own tramway trusts and built tramways within their own constituency. The most successful of these was the Prahran and Malvern Tramway Trust.

Operating from 1885 until 1940, Melbourne’s cable tram system was the fourth biggest in the world, with about 75 km of double track, 17 inner-suburban routes, and 600 cable car and trailer sets. Cable trams depended for their motive power on a cable in a slot between the rails, kept moving by an engine house along the route. In the first car (the dummy), the driver (the gripman) worked the levers that gripped the cable to make the tram move. Passengers could ride in the dummy, but apart from the roof it was quite open. To warn passengers to hold on when the tram departed from a straight line, the gripman usually called “mind the curve!” The second car was more like a conventional small tram, but was only a trailer, pulled along by the dummy.


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