Glebe Point Rd has a special historical character still. Relatively straight and fairly flat, it was a good place to start the Inner West’s horse, steam and electric trams in the nineteenth century. Understanding the past is important, of course, but so is understanding future possibilities.

We would do well to remember that previous route conversions have been met with mixed feelings of nostalgia and joy – Sydneysiders do not all remember our history very well.

 The History
Steam trams ran from 1882 to Cook St, Glebe; with a small extension to Pendrill/Leichhardt Sts in 1896. Horse buses were more widespread, from Millers Point to Lyndhurst and to Forest Lodge. Electric trams ran from 1900, the Rozelle Depot from 1904. Minogue Cres. was a reserved tram track to the depot and there is a 500m double track tunnel from Pyrmont Bridge Rd to Jubilee Park, passing below Glebe Point Rd. A six-minute service was provided on weekdays, increasing to four minutes during peak hours and on Saturday evenings. Trams ran every 15 minutes on Sunday mornings, and at six-minute intervals for the rest of the day. Max Solling’s Grandeur & Grit history recounts that in 1900 Sydney was still two-thirds pedestrian. In Fall of the Giant*, I recount the fate of trams. Services in the Inner West ceased in 1958.

 The current tramline at the back of Glebe via Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill was a poor compromise through two planning phases. The first was in 1995 when the Transport Minister, Bruce Baird, proposed using the freight line rather than the old routes off Parramatta Rd; and the second was after a 1999 study showed an option down Norton St; Labor kept going down the freight line. The Norton St ‘opportunity’ will bring in ‘the future’ later in this article. All in all, the current trams do not service the town centres and are not as useful as those of the past were.

Shooting Through was an exhibition of tram history at the Museum of Sydney in 2009. Why did Sydney remove its tram networks? MOS gave the wrong reason – not slightly wrong, profoundly wrong, in blaming motoring lobbies: from the 1890s Sydney politicians wanted to underground them as they caused terrible congestion and accidents, in 1909 our Planning Royal Commission wanted to move the trams to ‘feed’ suburban train stations, and in the 1920s our forebears committed to a £27 million rail program (the Bridge accounting for just £9 million) – meaning we could move families to healthier suburbs and give them cheap, clean transport. If we had moved the trams out to the ’burbs, Sydney would have a better transit environment than Zurich.

Bus competition started in earnest in the 1930s, often as ‘feeders’ to the railways. Tram patronage plummeted in the same decade but trams were saved by petrol shortages during and after WWII. Then patronage collapsed again. There was a solid logic in their removal but less so in the failure to relocate them.

Tram shed at Bennelong Point, 1952 (Photo:
Tram shed at Bennelong Point, 1952 (Photo:

The Future
Glebe Point Rd has three bus services which are reminiscent of former tram routes. There is no prospect of moving the current tramway to make it more useful, and no new tram could be justified without turning Glebe into a Manhattan (heaven forbid). That does not mean that Glebe cannot benefit from sensible improvements; here are two ideas which I have put to Sydney University, the Broadway Centre, Central Park, and a prominent Chippendale corporate citizen, all without support.

The first is a submission to the Government to put in a junction at the Hawthorn tram stop so that a new line could run along Marion St to Norton St Leichhardt and then down Parramatta Rd to Central, to complete the loop. Norton St needs a lift and trams would do that. The time has to come to move people from cars to transit, while Parramatta Rd needs transit to allow redevelopment. The analogy is Sydney Rd through Brunswick in Melbourne. We do not have a Swanston St nor a St Kilda Rd.

The second idea is a Personal Rapid Transit ‘expressnet’, using state of the art technology, to link Broadway with Redfern but not in a simple linear manner. This is about thinking in new ways in contexts where personal needs are complex. The same logic applies to reducing congestion in Bondi Beach and other stressed visitor economies. The European Community conducted a design competition in Bath UK and such systems run in England, the USA, South Korea and UAE. Regrettably the Greater Sydney Commission is not allowed to consider outsiders’ ideas and is limited to the Government’s Metro train and WestConnex-type frameworks.

Glebe has a transit future but not what would normally be envisaged. We know nothing will happen unless grassroots pressures are converted into a Ted Mack type program. Is Glebe up for that?

Robert Gibbons, The ‘Fall of the Giant’: Trams vs. Trains and Buses in Sydney, 1900–61, in Garry Wotherspoon (ed.) Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983.