Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The Government of New South Wales (NSW) has undertaken to reintroduce trams to Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. For many stuck in traffic and contemplating lost productivity in the East this has been a long time coming. But few know just how long.

The NSW Liberal Party originally proposed its policy of a new light rail “rapid transit” system for Sydney's Eastern Suburbs in 1959.

I’m going to briefly describe what that policy was, its origin, and key differences with today’s policy.


In 1958, Sydney was in the middle of the post-war boom. Sydney was infrastructure rich, with major City building projects (like the harbour bridge and city electric railway) largely complete in the 1930s, and Waragamba Dam well under way.

But Sydney, like all western cities, was changing rapidly. Now attainable automobiles, cheap fuel, free road access and parking, meant that living near a tram or train line didn’t matter anymore.  It was the start of the sprawl era, when there always seemed room for one more car on the road. Put simply, the total cost of driving became much less than that of using transit. Formerly efficient, nucleated cities became dispersed, tangled, and car dependent, and transit patronage collapsed.

Australian mode share: Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Information sheet 31

Trams had become the enemy of cars. They took up road space. (We now know that while trams moved 20,000 people per hour per lane, cars move only 1,200). They stopped to transact passengers. They looked and felt very, very old, with open sides in most, and no doors on the enclosed ones. They hadn’t reached trendy-old yet like San Francisco’s cable cars; they were more monorail-old. Yesterday’s solution blocking tomorrow’s progress.

The incumbent (Labor) Government had committed to shutting down the Sydney tram system, with significant closures in 1958.

However, there was far from political consensus. Even though Australia was amidst car-fervour, with a now 10-year old domestic auto industry,  some recognised that the tram system Sydney was getting rid of was in many respects different to the former systems of say Los Angeles and London.  There were street protests, then very unusual in Australia, to have the trams reintroduced, and these protests were successful to a very limited extent, such as in the case of re-introduction of trams to Watsons Bay after the first closure.

Unlike other cities' predominantly street-based systems, Sydney’s Eastern suburbs had a tram system that was substantially separated from road traffic. Dedicated corridors right out to extremities like La Parouse, Bronte and Coogee, meant that Sydney’s eastern trams enjoyed the kind of separation more familiar to rapid transit and metro systems.

Light rail trams on ANZAC Parade, Sydney in 1958 (source: J.R.Caldwell)

Light rail tram on dedicated corridor at Maroubra Junction, Sydney in 1958 (source: J.R. Caldwell)

This provided the opportunity to do something similar to what progressive North American cities like Toronto, Boston and San Francisco were doing. Take existing infrastructure, improve the city bottlenecks, and create a step change in passenger experience with new rolling-stock and faster services.

Of course this was in 1958, and most people had no idea what other cities were doing. Long before affordable international air travel (this was the year the first Boeing 707 was sold), only two years after the first broadcast TV in Australia, and 40 years before consumer internet.

One person I knew well did however have a very keen interest in international transport practice at this time. My late father, J.R.(Rob) Caldwell, at the age of 22, studying economics, and then Transport Officer of Sydney University’s Representative Council, devised a plan to re-invent light rail in Sydney’s East and South East.


What came to be billed in the media and by the Liberal Party as the “Caldwell Plan” (original here) was a plan to:

  • Retain all the physical tramlines and corridors to the eastern suburbs;
  • Bypass worsening CBD road congestion by going underground: extend Bradfield’s disused St James tunnel from under the War Memorial into Oxford Street, and then join a new cut-and-cover tunnel running beneath Oxford and Flinders streets to join the existing separated right-of-way; and
  • User experience technological step change: Replace all trams with PCC rapid transit trams, double the speed of existing trams, and double the speed of then existing buses (consistent with the Toronto experience).
There was also an (un-costed) but then plausible tunnel suggested as an option for analysis under Fitzroy and Foveaux Streets from Anzac Parade to Central Railway.

The currently disused St James tunnel under Sydney, proposed to be used to get "rapid transit" light rail out of city traffic

The "Caldwell Plan" map. Source: A Plan for Introduction of a Rapid Transit System for the Eastern and South Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, J.R.Caldwell, 1958

Though we take many of the then proposed innovations for granted it is worth contemplating what was proposed within the context of the time:

  • Wooden trams being replaced with aluminium and stainless steel (largely unseen in Australia at the time- the stuff planes and space rockets were made of), 
  • Air conditioning (the first car with air conditioning in Australia came about 15 years later, the first commuter bus almost 30 years later), 
  • Automatic doors (at that time none of Sydney's trains or trams had automatic doors, and buses had an open rear "platform" where passengers could- and did- fall straight out the back into traffic)
What might have been in St James disused platforms: PCC rapid transit trams in Newark Subway, NJ, USA (thanks Basil Hancock for the tip on this example. source:

The core functional aim of the plan was to reduce travel times to the East, make the journey more comfortable and appealing, and extend the life of assets that were otherwise unused, or proposed to be stranded or retired. The principle was that this would offer a far more attractive alternative to the private motor car than a motor bus.

Unusually for an unsolicited proposal from a 22 year old student, the then Labor Government undertook to review the plan in detail. You can read the (subsequently leaked) Departmental response to Cahill’s Cabinet here.

The bureaucracy, being the same one that had always advised that trams should be removed, was no different in opinion on this occasion, and sought to discredit the proposal by challenging rolling stock costs, and claiming that one-man operation was impossible (and thus operations costs were largely unable to be realised). In 1958 all trams and buses required both a driver and a conductor, the idea of a vehicle operated by a single person was a complete anathema to a political party aligned with the conductors' union.

It was perhaps for this reason that the "right", economically liberal, side of politics saw appeal in the plan. Increased productivity, lower operating costs.

Going from the unusual to the extraordinary, after the ruling Labor Cahill Government's rejection of the plan in December 1958, the Liberal opposition took up the plan as its policy centrepiece for the East.

The Liberal Party's 1959 campaign flyer for the seat of Bondi, showing the proposed light rail cars

Typical press coverage of the plan (Sun-Herald, 8th March 1959)

At this time, the Eastern Suburbs Railway had been indefinitely postponed. The Liberals successfully leveraged this to emphasise that the east was going to experience a transport downgrade with the removal of trams. However these electroal seats were ones that were dominated by the Labor party, and were always going to be a tough win.

The Liberals were defeated by Cahill, and the closure of the Sydney's trams and ripping-out of infrastructure continued as planned.

The former dedicated Bondi tram corridor,  with new blocks of flats built on it after its sale to developers (photo: J.R.Caldwell, 1972)

Subsequently, the Eastern Suburbs Railway, which the NSW Labor Party had contended in the 1959 election would serve the areas of the South East no longer served by trams, was never built to Randwick as proposed, and was only constructed part-way to Bondi Junction 20 years later.


Much has changed since 1959. Not the least of these changes were incremental Government sales of former transit corridors, including those to Bondi and Coogee, for property development.  Roads and parking have consumed most of the difference, with one small part left in the service of transit adjacent to Anzac Parade through the Showground and Moorepark precinct.

Similarly key depot and workshop space on the Eastern corridor, like Randwick Workshops, and South Dowling Street Depot (which housed 345 trams) were also sold for development.

These sales and redevelopments continued right up to the end of the previous NSW Government in 2010, with the redevelopment of the former Randwick Racecourse marshalling yards.

This presents significant additional costs and challenges. However several potential corridors remain, and the congestion cost and demand in the east today represents an insurmountable case that gridlocked buses have failed as a long-term solution. The policies of the 60s are now manifesting themselves in a less efficient and less liveable city.

It is interesting to compare Anzac Parade today with the scene previously. Gone are the trams transporting up to 20,000 people per hour. In their place, about 10 parked cars, transporting zero. meanwhile a bus stands stationary in traffic belching carbon emissions into the suburban air.

Anzac Parade today, parked cars stand where trams once ran (source: Google StreetView)


It is evident the geographic extent of today's proposal is less than the 1959 one (understandable given the loss of corridors),  but the key differences are less obvious.

The proposed routes enter the city at street level, and therefore are exposed to (and contribute to) intersection delays. The route is also some 2km longer than both existing bus routes and the 1959 proposal. The focus is presently travelling to Sydney Central Station, on the southern fringe of the down town area. The George Street (CBD) component of the line is presently envisaged as a "stage 2".

Sydney Light Rail Strategic plan options via Surry Hills (source: NSW Government
While this may provide an excellent rail connection service for students of UNSW and visitors to the Prince of Wales Hospital, it does very little to serve the full-fare and tax-paying, income generating workers commuting to and from the city.

It is interesting to contemplate how the focus has disolved over the course of 54 years. In 1959 the objectives were clear: shorter travel times, greater comfort, higher capacity. I'm not sure what the objectives of the present proposal are, but fundamental route configuration suggests it is none of these things. Longer CBD travel times, interchange inconvenience, and a capacity bottleneck in George Street are all likely impacts of the present proposal.

I'm looking forward to seeing the detailed evaluation. It's a blend of both the dispassionate operations engineer and sentimental curiosity in me, but I would have liked to have seen the 1959 policy at least considered as an option.