Whatever Happened to the Trams?

As I said last week, I began this journey because I wanted to talk about trams and a couple of thousand words later, I’ve mostly been talking about electricity. (This is what happens when you travel with me. I hope you packed a lunch.)

I’m going to bring the focus back to trams now, so we actually have to backtrack to 1931, when the Cape Breton Electric Company Ltd went belly-up. As I explained last week, the company was charging high prices for electricity (which led to very low household usage in industrial Cape Breton) to subsidize its tram and ferry operations, both of which were losing money due to increasing car ownership.

No. 22 Tram, Prague.

No. 22 Tram, Prague. (Photo by Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I want to focus on this for a moment, because I think it’s worth remembering how fast car ownership became the norm. The first truly affordable car — the Ford Model T — started production in 1908 and the Cape Breton Electric Company went into receivership in 1931, which means it took just 23 years for one form of transportation to drive another to the point of extinction — even in a place like Cape Breton during a difficult economic period.

Of course, it’s not like car ownership completely obviated the need for public transit — electric trams were eventually replaced by buses — but private car ownership was detrimental to public transit in all forms. And now that climate change is making us rethink public transportation, both buses and trams are getting a lot of attention and I want to explore their relative merits, but first  I need to acknowledge that the demise of the Cape Breton Electric Company wasn’t actually the demise of tram service in industrial Cape Breton.

Service to (and around) Glace Bay would continue for another 14 years, thanks to the employees themselves.


Cape Breton Tramway

This next section is based on a 1979 interview in Cape Breton’s Magazine with a retired motorman from River Ryan named Dougald Blue.

Blue was born in 1901, “the same year as the Cape Breton Electric Company” which he joined in 1923. He described the extent of the tram system, at its peak, this way:

[T]his Cape Breton Electric Company covered a big district. It covered Sydney and Glace Bay and North Sydney. They had a line from North Sydney to Sydney Mines. Then they had what we called the [Whitney] Pier line, a line right into the Pier from town and another one to Whitney Avenue, went around the outskirts of the city. When I started, the Cape Breton Electric Company also had ferry boats running from Sydney to North Sydney.

It also had a Glace Bay division, which is where Blue worked. It included a Sydney to Glace Bay line and what Cape Breton’s Magazine publisher Ron Caplan describes as a “half hour local tram” in Glace Bay.

Photos from Cape Breton's Magazine

Photos from Cape Breton’s Magazine

When Eastern Light and Power (the company formed by the “secret group of investors” we met at the end of last week’s article) took over from Cape Breton Electric, it terminated the tram and ferry services. In Glace Bay, this led to the formation of a worker-owned company. Said Blue:

We figured if we took it over and ran it…supposing we ran it for a year or two… if we could maintain the wages we were getting or even less, for even a year….that it would be worth our while to take it over.

Blue said the Glace Bay division workers were all willing to give it a try because the depression meant their chances of finding other work were basically “nil.” Tram employees in Sydney, on the other hand, where the City “was putting in a paving program” and wanted to “do away with the tram cars” and “the old tracks” were offered the option of forming a company to run buses, but “after much discussion and figuring the expense of buying buses, the employees on the Sydney division gave up the idea.” (“[B]iggest mistake they ever made,” said Blue.)

So just over 30 Glace Bay division employees contributed $200 each to establish the Cape Breton Tramway Company. Blue said he believed they all later put up roughly the same amount again — in addition to working long hours and “a lot of overtime for nothing” during the first two years of operation — but after this, the company became self-supporting.

[I]t was a success story all the way through. We took it over in the depression. But we bought it for junk price because that was all they could get fro the rolling equipment, the track and all that stuff. When we first took it over, we put in some new track, because the old company, the last years, they ran it right out as long as they could. So we had to do a lot of work when we took it over. We had to get carloads and carloads of ties to put in, lot of new rails too. It wasn’t all renewed, patched up…but we had it in pretty good shape after a few years. And then when the wart started and they started to build an airport out halfway between Glace Bay and Sydney, and we had, well, all the traffic we could handle then. Gas was rationed… so people traveled by tram or bus or any other way the could travel.

Blue’s account of these years — from 1931 to 1947 — is really worth a read. It’s full of color, like this account of how the skeleton crew would deal with Saturday night drunks:

Usually, if you were inside and there was trouble…two fellows fighting…well, you couldn’t do it alone. You had a signal you’d give the motorman…the bellcord went through for a signal for the stops…they wouldn’t allow the passengers to pull it, you had to let the conductor know, and he’d pull the bell…So three raps on the bell meant there was something wrong inside. And the motorman would go in and help him out.

Big Dan [Ferguson] used to tell the story about the night him and old John MacLeod were on.  John MacLeod wasn’t that big a man, but he was quite capable of looking out for himself. They left Sydney this night and just after they left Victoria Road, from there to Reserve there was a stretch of about 6 miles…it was just through the woods, an odd house or something…a bunch got into a fight. Dan says, “I got the signals. I got the three raps, so I just put the control on the first notch”…well, on the first notch you’d just crawl along…”and I went in. Well, from there till the Chief’s Cut” he said in a whisper, “we put 8 of them off.” Car was going slowly…If you threw a man off a moving car today, you’d be shot for it.

Blue noted there was a dedicated freight car that ran between Sydney and Glace Bay twice a day carrying “what trucks are carrying today — meat and fish and flour and vegetables” to “supply all the stores.” The mail was transported in the passenger cars.

Asked why the employees decided — in 1944 — to sell the company Sydney businessmen C. Roy Mason, Gordon Elman, M.R. Chappell, Russel Urquhart and Angus J. MacDonald, Blue explained:

Well, everyone wasn’t agreeable to that either, and we had several meetings. The older fellows all felt that soon they’d be retiring, and they thought they should get some money out of it…and by selling it at the time, they thought they could get a pretty good price. Compared with what we bought it for. Others felt we should hang onto it, keep it. But the older fellows wanted it sold and that’s what they did.

The worker/owners received $216,000 but it was the beginning of the end for the tram service. In 1947, said Blue, the new owner took up “all the line in Glace Bay and they just ran from Sydney to Reserve” for about a year, then they switched to buses.

But you know, I loved the old street cars. I never liked the buses.

This, it turns out, is a widely shared feeling: people like trams more than buses. It’s one of the factors urban planners today say is worth considering when weighing the viability of introducing (or reactivating) a tram service.


State vandalism

Trams are undergoing something of a revival these days, as a form of public transit that, especially if powered by a “clean” source of electricity, can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One fascinating tram story is that of Sydney, Australia, where the first tram line was installed in 1861 and the last tram ran in 1961. Sydney’s was the second-largest tram network in the Commonwealth, after London. During its peak operational period, in the 1930s, there were about 1,600 cars (most of them built in Australia) in service at any given time traveling over 200km of track.

Trams on George Street, Sydney, NSW, 1920

Trams on George Street, Sydney, NSW, 1920 (State Library of New South Wales collection, via Wikimedia Commons)

The decision to abandon the city’s extensive tram network, beginning in the late 1950s, was hugely controversial and seems to be a matter of regret among Sydney residents to this day. As recently as 2018, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) asked:

Was ripping out Sydney’s extensive tram network in the 1960s one of the biggest mistakes the city ever made?

Having read the description of the network in that ABC article — and in a similar piece from the Guardian in 2019I would have to say, “Yes.”

There are a number of theories to explain the demise of Sydney’s tram system. At the time, according to Mike Ticher, author of the Guardian article, experts argued Sydney’s streets were too narrow to accommodate trams and cars. But Matthew Hounsell, a senior research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, told Ticher this was “a convenient falsehood.”

The streets of Porto, the streets of Istanbul, Prague, many of the cities that are still running trams now, they’re much narrower. Basically, most of the Sydney streets where the trams ran were quite wide – they were main roads.

And historian Robert Lee told ABC’s Laura Brierly:

If you look at photos of Sydney even in the early 60s the lack of traffic management is extraordinary.

Trams, he agreed, were part of the problem but the congestion was really “down to a poor system of traffic management.”

Congestion in Double Bay in 1960.

Congestion in Double Bay in 1960. Tram opponents argued that Sydney’s streets were too narrow to accommodate them as well as booming car traffic. Photograph: Lindsay Bridge Collection via The Guardian)

Others — like Graeme Davison, the author of Car Wars — point to Australians studying traffic engineering in the United States in the ’50s and returning with “an evangelical commitment to urban freeways.”

British experts also wielded an influence, advising the city in 1949 to “cancel an order for 250 new trams and replace the entire system with buses by 1960.” Both the US and the Brits were claiming to have “resolved” their traffic problems by replacing trams with cars and buses. Writes Mike Ticher, author the Guardian article:

It seems obvious with hindsight that no city’s traffic problem could be “resolved” so easily, but the desire in the postwar years to open up streets to motor vehicles, and particularly the lure of the private car, was intense.

Reading this, I thought of what Brad King, whose thesis on electrification I cited repeatedly last week, said about the decision to embrace hydro-power in Nova Scotia — King argued hydro-power, even though it made little sense in this province, was seen as the height of modernity. It occurred to me the same could be said of the automobile during this period in Australia. No sooner had the thought registered than I read this:

In their history of Sydney trams, Shooting Through, Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Annie Campbell reinforce how that thinking about trams and cars became loaded with symbolism: trams as “an embarrassing and sentimental anachronism in the age of speed and streamlined proficiency” and cars as representatives of “modernity and progress.”


But if the experts were down with ditching the trams, ABC’s Brierly says the people were anything but — anger over the tramline closures in Sydney was “widespread.”  So negative was public opinion, many of the line closures happened “in the middle of the night or early in the morning to avoid the wrath of residents in the area.”

Most egregious, though, was the way in which the trams themselves were disposed of. As Ticher explains:

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.

Scrapping and burning of R 1859 tram on 29 December 1960.

Scrapping and burning of R 1859 tram on 29 December 1960. (Photo supplied by Howard R Clark, Chairman Sydney Tramway Museum via ABC News)

Hounsell called the destruction of the tram network “the largest organized vandalism in our nation’s history,” one with “disastrous” long-term effects:

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.

Today, writes Ticher, Sydney is “painfully” rebuilding “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.

Interestingly, another Australian city, Melbourne, resisted efforts to replace its tram network and today has the longest network in the world by route length (240 kilometers). In a paper entitled, “Why Melburne Kept Its Trams,” University of Queensland historian Peter Spearritt explains:

With the rise of the bus in the 1930s and the much anticipated coming of mass car ownership after World War Two, tramway systems throughout the world were under attack. Most had old rolling stock and all needed a new capital injection. Unlike railway systems, which were much chunkier, with guaranteed rights of way and control over vast swathes of inner city property, tramways could readily be challenged by buses, which were much more flexible. By the late 1940s most transport planners in the English-speaking world, not least in the United States, had decided that tramway systems were old hat, and that the bus and the private car would rule the post-war world.

Well over one hundred cities decided to abandon their tramway systems from the 1930s to the 1950s. The roads, which municipal or metropolitan authorities usually owned, could easily be reclaimed: tram lines could be simply covered over with bitumen. This happened throughout Canada, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and Australia, with the notable exception of Melbourne, with a substantial network, and Toronto, with a much smaller one.

Spearritt says Melbourne kept its trams for a number of reasons quite specific to Melbourne, including its flat geography, wide streets and “politically adept” system administrator.

Tram, Melbourne, 2008.

C class tram number 3017 at the St Vincent’s Plaza stop in East Melbourne. (Photo by Diliff, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The historian also name checks the largest tram systems to have survived in Europe: Amsterdam, Zurich, Berlin, Vienna, Bucharest, Budapest, Milan, Prague and St.
Petersburg, although there are lots of smaller ones.

But that effort, noted above, to rebuild Sydney’s tram system is part of a comeback trams have been staging since the 1980s.

This, however, is a topic for next week.

Please watch your step while disembarking…