Early history of public transport
This page outlines the early history of public transport in Victoria.
Information on this page
Horse and cable trams
For the first four decades of tramway operation, seven horse tram routes operated in Melbourne. They were run by a number of different organisations. Horse trams had a smoother ride than horse-drawn omnibuses and were able to carry larger loads, but they left a trail or manure and urine in their wake.
On 11 November 1885, the Richmond line opened, the first of Melbourne's cable tram network. The councils of Melbourne and 10 surrounding municipalities built a system of cable-hauled tramways between 1885 and 1891.
The scale of Melbourne's cable tramway network was inspiring, even by international standards. With 46 miles of double track serving 17 radiating routes from the centre of the city to neighbouring suburbs, it probably surpassed many of the vast American networks, even that of Chicago, which laid claim to being the world's largest tram network.
The cable tram network stopped running in 1940. Apart from a few relics in the hands of private collectors, little evidence of the network's existence survives.
The first electric tram to run in Australia was demonstrated during the Centennial International Exhibition in 1888. From 1889 until 1896, this pioneer vehicle and a second car ran a regular tramway service between Box Hill Station and Doncaster.
Electric trams returned in 1906, with the opening of the Victorian Railways line from St Kilda to Brighton. The North Melbourne Electric Tramway and Lighting Company opened routes from Flemington Bridge to Essendon and the Maribyrnong River.
In the early 1900s, several municipalities formed trusts and built electric tramways in their areas. The Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust opened lines in 1910, followed by the Hawthorn Tramways Trust and the Melbourne Brunswick and Coburg Tramways Trust in 1916.
Construction of the Footscray Tramways Trust and the Fitzroy, Northcote and Preston Tramways Trust lines were well under way when, in 1920, the Victorian Government set up the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB) to consolidate the various tramway operations.
The Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board converted the old cable system between 1924 and 1940. Hundreds of new, large, electric trams were built to replace the fleets of small cars previously operated by the municipal tramway trusts.
Steam and diesel trains
The gold rush of the 1850s heralded the growth of Melbourne both as a port and as an economy. Transport became an important issue for the young colony and soon after, Australia's first locomotive-powered railway line was built in Melbourne.
Just three years Victoria was established, the first steam railway was officially opened on 12 September 1854. The service ran from Flinders Street to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne).
A series of other, primarily passenger, routes were also soon opened taking travellers to St Kilda (1857), North Brighton (1859), Hawthorn (1861) and Essendon (1860).
The gold rush was also responsible for creating major regional centres at Ballarat and Bendigo. The colonial government took over from the private companies to quickly build regional rail lines. The railway reached Sunbury in 1859, Bendigo in 1862 and Echuca in 1864. A line between Geelong and Ballarat was also completed in 1862. The privately built and operated line between Geelong and Newport, that had opened in 1857, was taken over by the colonial government in 1860.
Between 1854 and 1919, steam locomotives dominated. The shrill whistle of an approaching steam engine marked a new chapter in the evolution of a country town or city suburb.
Rail transport also saw the development of engineering and building expertise as the need to manufacture locomotives rather than depend on imports grew. These skills helped to strengthen Victoria's reputation as the manufacturing centre of Australia.
The electrification of the Melbourne train network began in 1913. The First World War delayed the project but at the start of 1916, electrical apparatus in suburban rolling stock was installed and it was announced drivers, guards and shunters would be trained to handle electric trains.
On 6 October 1916, electric trains made trial runs from Newmarket Station to Flemington Racecourse. Due to the First World War, little happened until another trial was conducted from Flinders Street to Essendon on 28 May 1919. Limited electric train services began after this trial.
By the end of 1919, electric trains were running on the St Kilda and Port Melbourne lines, followed by the Williamstown and Fawkner lines in 1920. Progressively, North Fitzroy, Reservoir, Heidelberg and other suburban lines were converted to electricity.
Today, our electrified suburban train network is an extensive system by world standards.
For 150 years, horse-drawn and automotive bus services have been an important feature of Victoria's transport. The flexibility of buses has allowed them to meet Victoria's changing transport needs and expanding population.
Small horse-drawn omnibuses and cabs, which were mostly individually owned, were the first form of public transport in Melbourne and operated until the late 1860s.
In 1869 the first fleet-type operation started. The Melbourne Omnibus Company operated 11 horse-drawn buses from the city via Bourke Street to Fitzroy's Birmingham Hotel, at the corner of Smith and Johnston Streets. The service and the price of tickets were popular with travellers. Soon the buses were running to Richmond, Carlton and North Melbourne.
Suburban development encouraged the company to expand its network and, by 1881, its fleet consisted of 158 horse buses, each carrying 12-14 seated passengers, operating within a three-mile radius of the city. Some services extending as far as Moonee Ponds, Prahran and Brunswick.
The railway-building spree of the 1880s had left Melbourne with a comprehensive railway network. The heart of this network was a functional station which developed ad hoc from 1854. This original station was gradually replaced or absorbed into the new station.
Melbourne's new central station, Flinders Street Station, was the result of decades of planning and years of building work. It was also a symbol of Melbourne's importance as a city.
In 1899, a worldwide public competition was held to design a new station facade. There were 17 entries. The first prize was awarded in 1900 to JW Fawcett and HPC Ashworth, two Victorian Railways officials.
Work on the foundations, using picks shovels and wheelbarrows, started in 1901. The design of the main building was altered in 1904 to include a basement and fourth floor.
In 1905, a Ballarat builder won the £93,478 contract to build the station building. The Weekly Times would report progress on a weekly basis publishing an updated photograph each edition.
By 1906, the Swanston Street dome was being built. In 1908, the Argus reported there were 150 men working on the building.
A dispute with the construction contractor saw the Victorian Railways take over construction in 1908. The station, including platform canopies, was essentially completed by January 1910.
Flinders Street Station is registered under the Victorian Heritage Act. It is also listed by the National Trust.
Southern Cross Station was originally called Batman's Hill Railway Station and then commonly known as Spencer Street Station until the last decade.
Passenger services from the station began in 1859. When the first train departed the station for Williamstown, a public holiday was declared so the public could watch.
Batman's Hill was part of boundary of the terminus developed in the 1850s for the railway companies. When the area was taken over by the government in 1856, it became the Melbourne terminus of the (new) Victorian Railways. The area adjacent to the new station was opened up to a range of industrial developments.
The years of expansion
The 1880s were an important decade in the development of railways in Australia.
The decade saw the colonies of Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia were linked by regular services. Spencer Street Station was the hub of Victoria's links to the other colonies.
In the 1890s, a viaduct was completed to link Spencer Street and Flinders Street stations. Only goods trains used it for the first three years but passengers began moving between the two stations at the end of 1894. The viaduct between Spencer Street and Flinders Street stations was duplicated in 1915.
The Department of Transport library has a unique and comprehensive historical railway collection. You can also visit the following websites:
- Culture Victoria
- Heritage Victoria
- Historic government gazettes (1836 to 1997)
- National Library of Australia Pictures Catalogue
- Public Record Office Victoria Public Transport Corporation photographic archive
- State Library of Victoria Pictures catalogue
- State Library of Victoria catalogue